Content warning: this blog discusses how COVID-19 is impacting women, girls and gender equality in the Asia Pacific, including gender-based violence. If you need support, please contact 1800RESPECT.

Coronavirus doesn’t discriminate against gender, race or international borders. Wherever we are in the world, we are all impacted by this pandemic. 

But existing gender inequalities, norms and vulnerabilities means the impacts of COVID-19 on girls and women will leave them further behind if we don’t address these issues now. 

We have made great progress in achieving gender equality over the past 25 years, but we’ve found that these gains are not uniform across regions and countries, particularly for adolescent girls. We can’t risk these being undone.

There is no time more important than this to understand how women and girls face different impacts to COVID-19.
 
Globally, women make up 70 per cent of the frontline healthcare workforce. Not only does this increase their risk of infection, but it also leaves women more vulnerable to abuse, intimidation and harassment at times of uncertainty and stress - like the current pandemic. © UNICEF/UNI218090/Oo
 
“In most cultures, the bulk of home
responsibilities falls on the woman -
even if both partners are working.”

1. Healthcare and domestic workers


Globally, women make up 70 per cent of the frontline healthcare workforce. Not only does this increase their risk of infection, but it also leaves women more vulnerable to abuse, intimidation and harassment at times of uncertainty and stress - like the current pandemic. 

In Timor-Leste, nurses and midwives are predominantly women. With schools closed across the country, many mothers are reorganising their schedules and covering one another’s shifts in order to care for their children. 

“Women are definitely affected,” says Gaurav Sharma, UNICEF Timor-Leste Health Manager.
“In most cultures, the bulk of home responsibilities falls on the woman - even if both partners are working.”

Globally, women and girls also make up the vast majority of other frontline workers including cleaners, laundry and catering workers as well as domestic migrant workers. These roles tend to be short-term, part-time or casual contracts without access to protective measures such as health benefits or superannuation. These are significant power imbalances that put many women and girls at particular physical, emotional and financial risk. 

On top of this, women around the world are also dealing with the challenges of menstruation while working long hours with infrequent bathroom breaks and shortages in menstrual hygiene products. This points to a lack of understanding and consideration of what female workers need, despite making up the majority of the workforce.
During and after emergencies, many girls often leave school and become burdened with social responsibilities to help their families. © UNICEF/UN0268464/Brown


2. Education versus social responsibilities 


Women and girls are commonly overburdened with unpaid and invisible care work - leaving many girls out of school and without an education.

While some gains have been made, (in the Asia Pacific 14 million more girls are now in primary school since 1998) access to quality education is not equal across the world, with millions of girls struggling to gain the skills they need for a productive and fulfilling life.

Adolescent girls are also more likely to not be in employment, education or training compared to boys - a gap which shows how girls and women are often allocated unpaid domestic and care work while both boys and men receive paid work.

In Timor-Leste, girls and women are four to five times more likely to collect water and take on caregiving responsibilities for sick family members than boys and men.

In previous health emergencies, school closures have led to millions of adolescent girls dropping out of school before they complete their education to take on household caring responsibilities - especially those living in poverty, with disabilities or living in rural and isolated areas. Many will never return to school. 

For girls, being out of school isolates them from their support systems - their peers, teachers and help networks. During crises or disasters, girls also tend to be exposed to higher rates of gender-based violence, without normal community protection.  
 
Countries around the world have reported an increase in gender-based violence since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak. © UNICEF/UN0207509/Sokol


3. Gender-based violence


Coronavirus has also put women and girls at greater risk of gender-based violence. With movement and social restrictions in place, many are confined and spending increased time with their abuser. 

They also have limited access to safe spaces to seek out help services. Emerging data shows that since the outbreak of COVID-19, violence has intensified for women and adolescent girls in intimate partner relationships, with surges being reported of upwards of 25 per cent in countries with reporting systems in place. Embarrassment, fear of retaliation, economic dependency and societal norms are all factors which can be barriers to women and girls feeling safe in reporting incidents.

On top of this, COVID-19 has closed many support services which are often already under-resourced. In some countries, mobile phone and internet access is not always accessible to women and girls - especially in more rural and remote areas. Globally, boys are 1.5 times more likely to own a mobile phone than girls.

Not only does this hinder girls from accessing accurate information, but it prevents them from staying connected to their support systems and limits where they can go to for help. This is especially concerning for places with already high rates of violence - like Papua New Guinea (PNG).  
Sister Edith Namba, supervisor of the family support service clinic in Port Moresby. © UNICEF Australia/2019/Ziaziaris

PNG has been reported as one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman, with over two-thirds of women estimated to have suffered some form of physical or sexual violence in their lifetime.

Sister Edith Namba, supervisor of the family support service clinic in Port Moresby, says the facility sees around 30 women a day come to the centre. During festive seasons like Christmas and Easter or during elections - that number increases.

“When the facility was first established, most of the cases were to do with physical violence, but now it is turning out to be sexual violence as the number one reason why women, children and families come to the centre,” Edith says.

In PNG, many regions do not have support centres and for those that do, women often do not feel safe attending services in their communities. Instead, they will often travel to other provinces (some almost 300km away) to seek help, an option which is much less viable in today’s coronavirus context, leaving women and girls with limited access to crucial services.
UNICEF Australia continues to work on the ground in our region to respond to COVID-19’s impacts as well as other challenges in Child Survival, Early Childhood Development, Child Protection and Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH). © UNICEF/UNI317733/Hing


4. Overwhelmed health services and dwindling supplies


In the current health emergency, funding and resources are likely to be diverted from routine healthcare and prioritised to end the pandemic. This can have devastating impacts for women and girls especially in already underfunded areas such as services for gender-based violence, sexual health such as HIV/AIDs treatment, and reproductive health - like attended childbirth. 

Even without a global pandemic, pregnant adolescent girls face higher health risks including anaemia and big barriers to reproductive healthcare, including financial, mobility restrictions, poor quality of services due to inadequate investment and cultural norms.

These barriers are linked to a high rate of maternal mortality in the Pacific, Papua New Guinea, Laos and Timor-Leste. During a pandemic, there are even bigger barriers in accessing these health services.

This has created further challenges especially for women and girls in lower socio-economic areas who aren’t necessarily able to afford to buy multiple months’ worth of supplies.
Every girl has the right to a quality education. © UNICEF/UN0292672/Holt

These challenges may affect and disadvantage women and girls for years to come, and undo the progress we are continuing to make with achieving gender equality.

This is as important in Australia, as it is in our neighbouring countries in the Asia Pacific like Timor-Leste, Laos, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands. That’s why UNICEF Australia continues to work on the ground in our region to respond to COVID-19’s impacts as well as other challenges in Child Survival, Early Childhood Development, Child Protection and Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH). 

Now more than ever we must work to leave no child behind.


Five actions for gender equality in the COVID-19 response:

  1. Care for caregivers
  2. Prepare for increases in gender-based violence. Recognise the social welfare workforce as essential workers to enable protection services for vulnerable women and girls
  3. Maintain core health and education services and systems
  4. Engage existing women’s and youth rights networks to support connectivity and vital information flow
  5. Ensure gender data is available, analysed and actionable

Quick FAQs about COVID-19

What is a 'novel' coronavirus?
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A novel coronavirus (CoV) is a new strain of coronavirus. The disease caused by the novel coronavirus first identified in Wuhan, China, has been named coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) – ‘CO’ stands for corona, ‘VI’ for virus, and ‘D’ for disease.

Formerly, this disease was referred to as ‘2019 novel coronavirus’ or ‘2019-nCoV.’ The COVID-19 virus is a new virus linked to the same family of viruses as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and some types of common cold.
How does the COVID-19 virus spread?
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The virus is transmitted through direct contact with respiratory droplets of an infected person (generated through coughing and sneezing), and touching surfaces contaminated with the virus. The COVID-19 virus may survive on surfaces for several hours, but simple disinfectants can kill it.
What are the symptoms of novel coronavirus?
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Symptoms can include fever, cough and shortness of breath. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia or breathing difficulties. More rarely, the disease can be fatal. 

These symptoms are similar to the flu (influenza) or the common cold, which are a lot more common than COVID-19. This is why testing is required to confirm if someone has COVID-19.

It’s important to remember that key prevention measures are the same – frequent hand washing, and respiratory hygiene (cover your cough or sneeze with a flexed elbow or tissue, then throw away the tissue into a closed bin). Also, there is a vaccine for the flu – so remember to keep yourself and your child up to date with vaccinations. 
 
​How can I avoid the risk of infection?
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Here are four precautions you and your family can take to avoid infection:

1. Wash your hands frequently using soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub 
2. Cover your mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue, when coughing or sneezing, and throw away the tissue into a closed bin
3. Avoid close contact with anyone who has cold or flu-like symptoms
4. Go to the doctor if you have a fever, cough or feel that it is difficult to breathe

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