On March 11, 2020, the WHO declared that the COVID-19 outbreak is a pandemic and on April 10, 2020, the UN Secretary-General in a statement urged countries to, “Put women and girls at centre of COVID-19 recovery. Gender equality and women’s rights are essential to getting through this pandemic together, to recovering faster, and to building a better future for everyone.” This statement is extremely significant because emergencies such as the COVID-19 outbreak affects women and men differently. Gender norms and pre-existing inequalities, such as in a country like ours, disproportionately impact girls and young women in emergencies, including health emergencies. Gender, together with other factors including age, sexual orientation and gender identity, ethnicity, disability, education, employment, and geographical location may intersect to further compound individual experiences in emergencies. Some of these challenges for girls and young women are:
- Girls and young women may have limited access to accurate, official information and public service announcements, due to limited access to public spaces, and group gatherings (e.g. through safe spaces) and outreach activities. This can contribute to increased risk of infection, as well as increased stress and protection risks.
- In most locations, norms dictate that women and girls are the main caretakers of the household. This can mean giving up work to care for children out of school and/or sick household members, impacting their levels of income and heightening exposure to the virus.
- During the COVID-19 outbreak, strategies such as ‘shelter-in-place’ and other movement restrictions, combined with fear, tension and stress, may place women and girls at heightened risk as they are confined with their abusers.
- School closures, social distancing and containment strategies will impact girls and boys differently, especially adolescent girls, who due to gender roles may be expected to take on care duties, limiting their access to remote learning programmes. As such, the provision of remote learning must be designed to meet the needs of all children and youth and consider and overcome the digital gender divide.
- Measures to limit the spread of COVID-19, including movement restrictions and border closures limit access to healthcare, nutrition and sanitation facilities. For instance, low rationing of household resources means that girls will get to eat last or least. Even access to supplementary nutrition at anganwadi centres and mid-day meals in schools is stalled. This is particularly concerning, especially for girls, who depend on these as their primary meal. Moreover, emergencies tend to impact access to sanitation and hygiene related products such as sanitary napkins and soaps as well as services such as health checkups and counselling.