Gender Lens: A Moment to Reveal and Wipe the Black Spots

By: Genereuse Iradukunda, MBBS/MGHD Class of 2025
This essay was awarded second place in UGHE’s student essay writing competition on “Gender Equity Issues during Pandemics.”

The whole world incurred chaos as the COVID’19 started spreading early this year and on January 30, 2020 COVID’19 was declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization. Questions that remain unanswered include; who should be held accountable for its control, and how are citizens affected by preventative measures such as lockdown put in place to control the spread of COVID’19. Both men and women suffer either directly or indirectly from the virus; however, are affected by this virus differently. We need to analyze the differences in lived experiences and the approach to responding to them. In light of current events, women happen to endure hardships more than men (Zakaria, 2020). This is not to say that COVID’19 is selective; instead, specific needs and cultural stereotypes influence gender, bringing challenges specific to females and males. Statistics show that men are dying more than women (Henriques, 2020). However, culture and social constructivism towards women put them at more risk of being negatively affected by this pandemic (UN, 2020). The level at which women are involved in decision making, the increase in domestic violence, having more women in the front lines of the health care, and the fact that more women have less stable jobs are alarming issues that demand a serious gender lens. 

Although women constitute 49.6% of the global population, they are not well represented when it comes to decision making (Ritchie & Roser, 2019). As of 2019, women formed only 24.3% of leadership positions across the world (UN Women, 2019). This led to situations where men decided for women even on issues very specific to women (Kinyanjui, 2020). Normally, effective decisions are made by those who are directly implied in the problem to enhance contextualized and empathetic decision-making. The lack of representation of either gender in decision-making increases the chances of making unilateral conclusions, which complicates the implementation of decisions made. In some countries like Uganda, the lack of representation caused the complete closure of reproductive services including access to contraceptives. This resulted in greater harm for women where, in Uganda, some pregnant women died before reaching the health facilities due to lack of transport available to them (Bagnetto, 2020). However, more tailored measures would have been put in place if there was a greater representation of women to intervene in decision making.

As shown by statistics about women’s participation in leadership positions in 2019, the lack of women’s contribution in decision making is a gap that existed even before the COVID’19 crisis. However, as many places across the globe extensively fight to cope with COVID’19, literature shows that countries whose women are well represented in higher leadership positions showed better success in controlling this virus than countries that had less female representation. These include Germany, Iceland, Finland, New Zealand, and Taiwan, all of which were characterized by early and vigorous decisive actions that constitute their success story in fighting COVID’19 (Fincher, 2020). In addition, it has been four months since Rwanda recorded its first COVID’19 case. However, COVID’19-related deaths were limited to only three deaths, partly due to its collective deciding power with 61.25% of Rwandan parliament members as women (Kazimbaya, 2020). Accordingly, this is a hallmark that shows how impactful women can be if given opportunities to express their ideas in leadership, or decision making positions. If women were represented in all corners of every country, would this virus have hit the world like this? Besides, the lack of women’s opinions in strategic decision-making limits the representation of different population groups. Giving women more room to participate in decision making should be among the lessons learned from COVID’19 while preparing to fight future pandemics.

Although it is assumed by some that lockdown and quarantine have unified families and strengthened relationships, this is not the case where domestic violence exists (Bettinger-Lopez, 2020). How do women who could only feel at ease during the day, as their abusing partners would come home at night, are living now? Now spending day and night together,  this abuse is likely to intensify (Zakaria, 2020). When COVID’19 started spreading to different countries, it was predicted that domestic violence and other Gender-Based Violence (GBV) would increase due to the increase in anxiety, financial, and unemployment issues (Iliza, 2020). In Rwanda, domestic violence increased in couples who were undergoing divorce procedures which went on hold due to the lockdown. An increase in phone calls to Transparency International -an advocacy and legal advice center in Rwanda- about GBV was also reported (Iliza, 2020)

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Moreover, multiple organizations and services closed and adopted online service delivery systems. GBV centers are among those services, which imply how little intervention is available to those who can not access the internet. This brings about an issue of inconsistent reporting structure where some, but certainly not all, women are able to report their abuse.  Rwanda has been making efforts to address this by making calls to such services free of charge, but this still does not apply to those without mobile phones. Even if women can call, will they report the cases when they spend each minute of the day with their abusing partners? (Iliza, 2020). This leads to the increase in the number of unreported domestic violence. There is a need to improve easily accessible mode of communication for women and girls, where they can report their problems, as well as receive support.

These disparities exist, and yet women occupy a larger proportion of basic health works which include nurses and community health workers than men with women constituting 70% globally (UNFPA, 2020). This puts women at a higher risk of being infected with COVID’19. What policies should be put in place to ensure their safety? While some women are working tirelessly to help in taking care of those affected by COVID’19, they find themselves in a situation where they are burdened by work. Some of those at the front line live in justifiable fear of going back to their homes to avoid spreading the virus to their family members. Instead, some decide to do self-quarantine for the safety of their loved ones and patients which, in turn, take them away from those they were supposed to get social support from (Ellis, 2020). In addition to that, now that multiple schools have closed, the burden of caring for their children, as is culturally constructed, also adds to the workload that women already have. Furthermore, women are also caring for their older family members. All that intensifies the portion of unpaid work that women are subjected to. These increase how women are stressed and frustrated as this pandemic hurts the globe more (Kinyanjui, 2020). There need to be ways in which women are given mental and psychological support to help them cope with the stress that the high workload due to COVID’19 puts them in (UN, 2020).

Furthermore, the economic status of women is further affected by the fact that a large number of women across the world -mainly in low and middle-income countries- have less stable jobs where they work with no contracts (UNFPA, 2020). As multiple businesses have closed due to measures that were taken by countries to mitigate COVID’19, a large number of women became unemployed. This negatively affects more women’s economic status, and they can hardly provide for their families (UN, 2020). Mainly in low and middle-income countries, women are likely to run small businesses in their local markets (UNFPA, 2020). However, among measures taken to reduce COVID’19 infections was to avoid crowded places which implies that markets were also closed. As we recover from COVID’19 there is a need to strengthen policies toward the stability of women’s jobs so as to improve the ability to withstand future pandemics. It is hard to build a strong health system if women are still prone to occupational segregation, pay gaps, and leadership gaps. The indispensable solution is to incorporate gender equity in devising multi-sectoral programs. 

This COVID’19 period is the hardest time across the globe, for instance, ignoring the value of diversity in responding to COVID’19 causes the pandemic to drastically impair our communities. A gender lens approach has to be recruited so as to ensure that both genders are equitably protected against the effects of this pandemic. Whenever leadership gaps are closed, it is still of great importance to ensure that diversity in leadership is not just an exercise but a progress in compliance. A team becomes effective when it is diverse and converged, responding governments and NGOs need to consider gender pluralism in responding to COVID’19. These are the times where working together is needed most. It is worth it to recognize the significance of women in mitigating COVID’19, so the gender lens approach should prevail. 



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