Care work, which is predominantly provided by women and girls, is a central yet typically undervalued contributor to economies. It includes supporting daily activities of individuals (such as cooking, cleaning, and providing daily essentials), as well as the health and well-being of others, including children and the elderly.
Emerging data indicates that among confirmed cases of COVID-19 men are consistently dying in higher numbers than women. But when it comes to the economic and social fallout of the pandemic, women and girls face much greater risks. The UN recently published a policy brief recognising these risks, including impacts to sexual and reproductive health, and increases in gender-based violence.
COVID-19 impact on women and girls’ unpaid care work
The rapid spread of COVID-19 has highlighted the critical role of care work, particularly in times of crisis. Coronavirus containment measures have resulted in the closure of many services—including schools, basic health care, and day care centres—shifting responsibility for their provision on to households. While this could offer an opportunity for gender roles to shift within the home, emerging evidence suggests that care roles continue to be assumed disproportionately by women during this pandemic.
Even before the pandemic, globally women and girls carried out on average three times times the amount of unpaid care and domestic work of men and boys. These responsibilities will only increase with new health and hygiene requirements, such as hand-washing and taking care of sick family members. Curfews and self-quarantine measures are likely to make these tasks even more challenging.
191 countries have implemented nationwide school closures in an attempt to prevent further contagion, impacting over 91 per cent of world’s student population. On average, women will spend more time providing care and educational support to children. Temporary school closures also risk turning into school drop-out. Worryingly, the economic instability caused by COVID-19 could increase early and forced marriage, particularly for adolescent girls in low- and middle-income countries.
Care burdens will manifest differently based on women and girls’ ages and stages in life. People over the age of 60 have the highest risk of infection. They are also often sources of childcare support within families, enabling younger women to work and study. The inter-generational impacts of the virus on long-term care arrangements, when children need to be separated from older family members, will need to be better understood.
The double caregiving burden of women in paid care work
More than 70 per cent of workers in the health and social sector are women. Women frontline care workers may face a double caregiving burden; additional demands placed on health services may require longer working hours, combined with increased care work at home. Paid care workers are also at higher risk of infection, particularly those in jobs that lack protective gear and protocols to keep them safe.
Women disproportionately work in care-related jobs with poor protection and few benefits, including paid sick leave, making them particularly vulnerable. They are also more likely to be unable to take time off work or stay at home to care for themselves or others. Many who provide care in others’ homes do not have employment contracts so may not get paid if they are unable to work or they may be made work without the necessary protection or information.
Social protection is key to mitigating gendered risks
The anticipated rise in unpaid care work provided by women and girls has numerous consequences for gender equality, including increased risk of infection and psychosocial effects from providing care to an infected relative. What’s more, the heightened exposure to and risk of gender-based violence, combined with reduced access to health services, all point to potentially long-lasting impacts for women and girls’ health.
Over 130 countries (as of 17 April 2020) have used social protection measures to mitigate some of the socio-economic costs of both the pandemic and the containment measures, particularly on vulnerable groups. These measures include social assistance (e.g. family or child grants) and social insurance (e.g. unemployment insurance). Social protection measures to support low-income or vulnerable workers are also being introduced, including paid sick leave and waivers on rent and utilities payments.
As their roles as unpaid carers becomes further entrenched, as schools stay closed, and as a global economic crisis looms, there is a real risk that efforts to invest in and promote gender parity and overall gender equality will be undermined or even jeopardised. Immediate attention across every sector is needed to safeguard rights and investments in women and girls.
Given the longer-term impacts of COVID-19 on gendered and multi-dimensional poverty, social protection responses that do not address the fundamental drivers of gender inequality, including unpaid care and responsibilities, will entrench already existing gender inequalities. As COVID—19 amplifies these inequalities, now is a critical window of opportunity to build more effective social protection to endure through future pandemics.
How social protection can address gender inequalities
- Gender-responsive age-sensitive social protection could recognise, reduce, and redistribute women’s care work. For example, providing childcare support to women with more care responsibilities and to frontline workers will balance paid work with unpaid care work. Italy’s “Cura Italia” stimulus package provides a childcare voucher of up to €600 for private-sector workers with children below the age of 12 who decide not to take parental leave.
- Cash transfers should include a care component by expanding the scope of existing cash transfers or creating new programmes targeted at paid and unpaid care workers. The El Salvador government has pledged $300 for up to 1.5 million households who work in the informal economy without financial safety.
- Increased and gender-responsive services to reduce care burdens. Providing hygiene kits and information about prevention measures or ensuring adequate access to water and sanitation are two ways of reducing care burdens. In Colombia, water services are provided free of charge for low-income families, while in Burkina Faso several utilities are being subsidised.
- Changing social norms around care provision is a long-term goal that needs consistent attention. Increasing men’s contribution to unpaid care and domestic work, for example through paid paternity leave and equal parental leave, can contribute to this. Austria’s COVID-19 response allows employees with childcare responsibilities to take up to 3 weeks of care leave on full pay.
Short-term measures alone will be insufficient to address the long-term impacts of the pandemic. Collectively financed and comprehensive social protection is needed. The crucial issue of care work must continue to be made visible to policy makers to ensure that effective and sustainable gender-responsive social protection approaches to the pandemic are adopted. This is especially critical for the most vulnerable groups, such as adolescent girls or migrant women.
COVID-19 is an opportunity to bring about long-term changes to gender equality if social protection measures are introduced in a gender-responsive and age-sensitive way. The opportunity this pandemic has presented to improve the lives of those most vulnerable should not be squandered.
Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed is Gender & Development Manager at UNICEF Innocenti. Ramya Subrahmanian is Chief of Child Rights & Child Protection at UNICEF Innocenti. Discover our work on gender-responsive and age-sensitive social protection (GRASSP), funded by with UK aid by the UK government.