The pandemic and its gendered impact took centre stage at a virtual discussion organised by the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation on Saturday, as experts deconstructed the effect COVID-19 has had on women’s work, nutrition security, reproductive health and education, and gender-based violence.
“Pandemics, outbreaks and emergencies, in general, have differential impacts on women and men, and experiences depend on biological and gender characteristics as well as their interaction with other social determinants. Both global and national plans for COVID-19 preparedness and response need to be grounded on a strong gender analysis,” said Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist, World Health Organisation (WHO).
Since there was only a limited availability of disaggregated data based on sex and age, she urged the States affected by COVID-19 to collect, report and analyse data based on these and other factors.
“A gender analysis of the data can be undertaken and States should invest in quality gender-responsive research on the differential impacts of COVID-19 on men and women,” she added.
Highlighting the impact of COVID-19 on women’s work, food and nutrition security, Nitya Rao, professor, University of East Anglia, U.K., spoke about how a large number of women in the informal sector were among the first to be affected when the pandemic struck.
“It is necessary to address the devaluation of women’s work as well as all forms of structural violence, that is central to their dignity, equality and justice,” she said.
Poonam Muttreja, executive director, Population Foundation of India, stressed the need to provide uninterrupted reproductive and maternal healthcare services. “Studies from across the globe indicate how a lack of investment in family planning is impacting public health measures. Capacity building of women front-line workers, who are large in numbers and are often the only points of contact for women in remote places, should be done, and counselling services should be strengthened,” she said. Stating that gender-based violence would get exacerbated as the pandemic goes on, she said that it was imperative to have a response to this factored into the public health system in the country.
Highlighting the increase in the care burden for women, Dr. Kezevino Aram, president, Shanti Ashram, Coimbatore, said that women have had to take up multiple roles that they were previously sharing with other individuals or support services. She stressed on the need for protective measures in the informal sector so that women were not exploited. “From a community point of view, I feel that never before has it been so important for public health interventions to look at decentralised governance as an important medium of building composite responses to the pandemic,” she added. Avni Amin, scientist, Gender Team, Department of Reproductive Health and Research, WHO, spoke about the global gender impact of COVID-19.
Among the critical interventions necessary to address the concerns surrounding children affected by the closure of schools and anganwadi centres, is a cluster-mapping exercise, said Anjana Mangalagiri, senior fellow, Institute of Social Sciences. This must be undertaken in each block to update data on children below the age of six, she said.
“The rights and needs of children have been largely ignored through the crisis and if there is no focus on their growth and development, this will be a humanitarian crisis in the making,” she added.