COVID-19, gender and access to human rights

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The COVID-19 crisis affects people differently due to already existing structural inequalities, power asymmetries, and cultural and social norms within our societies. ‘We are all in this together’ is not accurate. Even if we are all in this, we are not in it in the same ways. Gender is one of the key dynamics shaping how people are influenced by the ongoing pandemic.

The right to work, to an adequate standard of living, and to social security

Early reports point out that the COVID-19 crisis has substantial gender implications on economic and social rights including the right to work, the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to food, and the right to social security (among others). Unlike the 2008 economic recession in which men faced higher unemployment rates due to steep downturns in male-dominated sectors such as construction and manufacturing, the Covid-19 recession is likely to be more damaging to women’s employment given its drastic adverse impact on female-dominated sectors such as restaurants, leisure and hospitality, and retail. In the US, for instance, 60% of the jobs lost in March were female-held jobs.

The situation is even worse in the informal sector, where 94% of domestic workers in the US (nannies, cleaners, etc.) had clients cancel due to COVID-19 . About 90% of domestic workers are women. Many are excluded from government social protection schemes (health and unemployment benefits, wage and benefits subsidies, direct cash transfers, and food assistance) implemented as response to COVID-19, resulting in hundreds of millions of informal workers worldwide at high risk for poverty, housing insecurity, evictions, food insecurity, and hunger. The situation also could result in the adoption of negative coping strategies that may take, in some countries, gendered forms such as child marriage or forced marriage.

Another gendered dimension of work to consider is the tremendous increase in women’s unpaid care work due to the closure of schools and daycare centres. Even in  ‘normal’ times, women on average carry out 76% of the total hours of unpaid care work. During COVID-19 crisis, care burdens on women and adolescent girls have dramatically risen to include caring for the sick, vulnerable elderly family members, and children. This reduces time women can spend on paid work, job seeking, or on rest and leisure.

State policies and practices must recognize, reduce, and redistribute unpaid care work. As was called for by the UN several years ago,  ‘this requires redistribution in three forms: redistribution between women and men; redistribution from households to the State; and redistribution of time and resources towards poorer families and households’. Increasing men’s participation in care and domestic work, for example through offering equal paid parental leave or caring time measures to both parents, regardless of gender, could transform gender norms around care provision in the long run.

The right to live free from violence

The lockdowns have given rise to a shadow pandemic:  domestic violence against women, LGBTIs, and children. From France to Argentina, from Cyprus to Singapore, reports of domestic violence have increased by 25-33% since the lockdowns. In the UK, the number of domestic killings has doubled, and frontline services report record-breaking cries for help. In Turkey, twenty-one women were murdered by their husbands, partners, or other family members during a twenty day period in March. LGBTI+ youth and adults, especially those who are forced to isolate in hostile family environments, are at risk too. The shuttering of campuses and dorms sent many students home to deal with homophobic violence. Situations are worse in countries where homosexuality is criminalized and victims have limited opportunities to seek justice or support.

Governments must take urgent actions to ensure those facing domestic or family violence have access to shelter, support services, and justice. They need to include financial support to the organizations providing such services.

Sexual and reproductive rights

Access to sexual and reproductive health and rights including maternal and newborn care, contraception, abortion, and treatment has been widely disrupted during the pandemic, in many contexts. Access to clinics and medical centers has been drastically restricted because of reduced mobility and public transportation under ongoing lockdowns, quarantines, and curfews. Overloaded health systems have reallocated resources and staff to the COVID-19 response. Some governments, despite being obliged to ensure safe, legal and effective access to abortion under international human rights law, are taking advantage of COVID-19 to suspend or ban abortion, misleadingly classifying it as a non-essential service placed on hold during the pandemic.

According to one estimation, ‘Covid-19 disruptions could lead to an additional 1.3 – 3 million unintended pregnancies, 1.2 – 2.7 million unsafe abortions, and 5,000 – 11,000 pregnancy-related deaths in 2020’.

To prevent such risks, it is vital that States define contraception and abortion services as essential during the crisis, allow self-managed abortion when appropriate in line with WHO Guidance, and ensure uninterrupted and effective access to sexual and reproductive health and rights in compliance with their international human rights obligations.

The right to education

Past experiences indicate that temporary school closures during times of conflict, war, or natural disasters might mean a permanent end to education, particularly for girls. Girls are 2.5 times more likely to drop out of school than boys. In 2015 alone, around 39 million girls were out-of-school because of war and disasters. The lifelong consequences of these interruptions in education include fewer employment opportunities, increased chance of life-long poverty, and premature marriage and pregnancy.

States should take the necessary measures to make sure that girls have equal access to remote teaching where it has moved online, and guarantee their return to school once they are reopened.

The right to equality and non-discrimination

Cases of discrimination, hate speech and attacks on the LGBTI+ people are being reported in several countries. A number of Latin American countries introduced gender-based lockdown schedules. In Panama, women are allowed to leave the house to buy essential goods on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, while men are allowed on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Transgender and gender non-conforming individuals are being stopped, questioned, harassed, body-searched, fined, and/or arrested by law enforcement as their assigned genders on official ID cards do not conform to the quarantine schedule. These gender-based schedules should urgently be lifted as they contradict principles of equality and non-discrimination protected under the international human rights law.

Another gendered consequence of the pandemic is an increase in homophobic and transphobic rhetoric blaming the LGBTI+ community for the virus, as reported in Iraq, Israel, Turkey and elsewhere. It is especially worrisome that this rhetoric is voiced by well-known clerics, legislators, and officials whose power and influence may incite hate crimes and attacks against LGBTIs. There are also reports of police or local officials using COVID-19 directives to attack and humiliate LGBTI+ individuals and organizations, for instance, in the Philippines and Uganda. These dangerous incidents demonstrate the need for oversight and accountability of law enforcement to prevent abuse of state power and ensure respect and protection of people’s human rights and dignity during the COVID-19 crisis.


The COVID-19 pandemic deepens already existing gender inequalities and further impedes women’s and LGBTI’s access to human rights.

On the other hand, it provides the opportunity to rethink and reshape the structures, norms, assumptions that our current societies are built on. We can turn this crisis into an opportunity to drive a transformative change for more equal, inclusive and sustainable societies. This can only be achieved by putting women and other discriminated people at the center and addressing multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and vulnerabilities while designing and implementing the response and recovery efforts.

Planning and investments should prioritize improving our public health, caring and social security systems, eradicating poverty, providing shelter, and ensuring food security and access to safe and clean water for all including the most vulnerable. By doing so, we can achieve rapid recovery from this crisis and also increase the resilience of our societies for similar risks in the future.

Sebnem Kenis is Senior Policy Advisor (Gender and Human Rights) at the  Raoul Wallenberg Institute, and is a Policy Leader Fellow at the EUI’s  School of Transnational Governance.  A longer version of this article has been published here.