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The gendered frontlines: perpetuated inequalities or a reimagined future

Sheherazade Jafari

Historical research suggests that periods of social crisis and postcrisis recovery can have profound effects on gender relationships in diverse communities and workplaces, as well as in relation to family roles and structures. The current crisis is already known to have placed women working outside the home in a particularly vulnerable position, and analysts are beginning to assess its impact on gender relations in communities of unmarried people as well as in the family. This essay describes the longer-term effects relevant to gender relations and conflict and discusses the implications of these trends for conflict resolution.

In China's Henan province, a mother and her two children wandered the streets after her husband beat her and kicked them out of the house. Since they were hungry and with no access to food or transportation during the country’s COVID-19 lockdown, a distant relative finally managed to convince police officers to help the mother and children leave their city toward safety (Wanging 2020).1

In the United States, Keshia Williams describes how staff at the nursing home where she works (the great majority of whom are women) balanced their long hours and sudden lack of childcare when schools shut down: one helped to watch the child of another who worked the night shift, who then watched the other mother’s child during the day shift. A shortage of supplies meant that Keshia received one N95 mask a week, even though she spent each morning screening residents for the virus (Robertson and Gebe-loff2020).2

When her labor started at 5 am, Neelam Kumari Gautam and her husband traveled to eight different hospitals across New Delhi but were turned away at each one because of overcrowding or because doctors were afraid the couple might be infected. She began to have trouble breathing, but still could not get help. Neelam died just after 8 pm, as did her unborn son (Get-tleman and Raj 2020).3

Gender analysts have long argued that paying attention to the gendered impacts of crises brings critical insight on how to best respond, while not doing so further exacerbates inequities. The global COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. Existing gender inequalities play a profound role on how different people are impacted in specific ways during the crisis, as well as their chances for survival or ability to "bounce back” in a post-corona world. Indeed, gender equality itself is an important predictor of a country's security, stability, and resilience. This chapter brings an intersectional gender lens to examine the effects of the COVID-19 crisis and to consider what this forecasts for the future. What we see is that the frontlines of the pandemic are highly gendered, and unless our response takes this seriously, the postcorona world will be one of particularly heightened gender inequities, and therefore, greater instability and conflict for many.

Despite overwhelming evidence that inequalities get worse during crisis situations, and that already marginalized groups are disproportionately impacted, a gender lens continues to be left out of the analysis and design of responses. Gender analysis entails asking how socially constructed roles and identities impact people’s experiences and opportunities, with a particular focus on how gender intersects with other social identities such as race, class, ethnicity, age, sexuality, and disability (Smith 2020).4 Applying an intersectional gender lens helps to make visible the social conditions and power relations - including norms, divisions of labor, and access to resources - that give rise to inequalities, and is therefore fundamental to understanding the impacts of conflicts and crises and how proposed interventions might help or ultimately exacerbate the situation.

A gendered crisis

Current data show that slightly more men than women are being infected with and dying from the virus worldwide (Haneef and Kalyanpur 2020, 2).5 Yet women are disproportionately carrying the weight of the impact - especially if they are women of color, poor, or part of an at-risk community. Globally, women make up 70% of the health and social sector workforce (Ibid, 4) and 85% of nurses in hospitals (Mlambo-Ngcuka and Ramos 2020). Yet. they earn 28% less than men (Haneef and Kalyanpur 2020, 5). Of U.S. healthcare workers who have become infected, 73% are women (Robertson and Gebeloff 2020). The food provision sector also continued after economies shutdown, and in the United States women make up two-thirds of grocery store and fast food workers (Robertson and Gebeloff 2020). Women of color are more likely to be doing these essential, frontline jobs - whether in health care, elderly or child care, or food and other service industries - than anyone else (Schnall 2020).6

The pandemic’s toll on the economy also has a disproportionate impact on women. In the United States, more than one-third of women experienced a significant disruption to their income, including through being furloughed, laid off, or receiving a pay cut or reduction of hours. Black women experienced these setbacks twice as much as white men (Miliband and Sandberg 2020). Globally, the far majority of the informal sector is made up of women, who often work for low wages, in unsafe conditions, and without the protection of labor laws. When Bangladesh closed its garment manufacturing sector due to canceled orders from mainly Western-based companies, its workforce - 85% of whom are women (Mlambo-Ngcuka and Ramos) - were forced to return to overcrowded slums and villages, with no savings or even access to basic sanitation (Suhrawardi 2020).7

Further, as schools and childcare facilities closed in many places, the impact has been largely felt by women, who perform about 76% of the total hours of unpaid care work, nearly three times as much as men (Haneef and Kalyanpur 2020, 8). For single mothers (80% of single-parent households in the United States are women), the double burden is magnified (Time's Up Foundation 2020). Further, while governments have urged people to stay home to stop the spread of the virus, for victims of domestic violence home is not a safe option. Spain saw a 47% increase to its national domestic violence hotline, whereas the UN-supported hotlines in Ukraine saw a 113% increase (Heath and Rayasam 2020).8 We know this is likely a fraction of total cases, however, as generally less than 40% of women seek help or report a crime (Mlambo-Ngcuka and Ramos 2020). In China, one nonprofit found that 90% of the causes of reported domestic violence were pandemic related (Wanging, 2020).

As health systems become overwhelmed, resources and persoimel are being diverted from other care, including maternal health. Unfortunately, we already know that maternal health risks rise during crises; during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the maternal mortality rate (already one of the highest in the world) increased by 75% as maternal health clinics closed in affected areas and other clinics diverted resources or refused care until after Ebola results were obtained, often when it was too late for the woman needing urgent care (Smith 2019, 362). The tragic story of Neelam at the start of this chapter suggests a similar situation with the CO VID pandemic. Fragile, conflict- or crisis-affected states are particularly vulnerable, where the majority of maternal deaths occur (Haneef and Kalyanpur 2020, 5). Yet the United States also has one of the worst rates among developed countries, with Black women three to four times more likely to have a pregnancy-related death than white women, a statistic that has not changed in over six decades (Maternal Health Task Force 2020).

Suggestions to socially distance, wash hands frequently, and wear a mask are unrealistic for many poorer communities, but perhaps nowhere more than among refugee and migrant populations. Already overcrowded camps with weak water and sanitation systems are now facing dire conditions (Haneef and Kalyanpur 2020, 3). Women refugees and migrants are particularly vulnerable, often forced to travel long distances for water and food for their families, and who experience high rates of gender-based violence (GBV) even without the pressure of a global pandemic. Bosnia’s Vucjuk camp deliberately cut off water supplies to force inhabitants to relocate, France’s lockdowns prevented adequate deliveries of food and water to the Calais settlements, and in many other places, thousands are being turned away at the borders under the guise of preventing the spread of infection. Iain Byrne, Head of Amnesty's Refugees and Migrants Rights team, notes that “in many camps death by starvation is now reported to be a bigger threat than the virus itself’ (Amnesty International 2020).9

Much of the same, or worse

The corona crisis is undoubtedly a gendered crisis. If our approach remains as is - without adequate attention to the gendered impacts and without deliberate interventions and resource allocation based on an intersectional gender analysis - we can expect that circumstances for women and other vulnerable communities will grow increasingly worse. Sadly, it does not take a stretch of the imagination to consider where we might be in 5-10 years, as we have enough examples from past conflict and crises situations to know what to expect. In fact, we are already seeing the signs.

The economic downturn triggered by the pandemic will have a widespread impact, but its impact on women will likely be long-term and difficult to recover. During the 2008 financial crisis, women lost significantly more jobs than men, and gained just 36% of the jobs that were recovered (Time's Up Foundation 2020). Women are in lower paying jobs on average. and make up the majority of the informal sector with no job security, making it particularly difficult to have savings. The COVID pandemic will likely increase poverty levels as it reaches more vulnerable populations, which directly impacts child marriage rates; a reduction of 10% GPA per capital will result in an estimated 5.6 million more child marriages within the next ten years (UNFPA 2020).10 The burden of unpaid care work will also continue, taking a toll on women's physical and psychological health and increasing their exposure to the virus.

If other conflict and crisis situations are any indication, there is a huge risk that GBV rates will continue to rise as stress levels and economic hardship increase. In fact, intimate partner violence may be the most

The gendered frontlines 93 prevalent form of violence to women during emergencies (CARE 2020). UNFPA estimates that for every three months of COVID lockdown, we can expect an additional 15 million cases of GBV globally (UNFPA 2020). Yet support sendees -already limited and struggling for funds in many places - will be further weakened as resources are diverted to containing the outbreak, and as people fear being infected at the remaining overcrowded shelters.

Finally, refugee and displaced women are acutely vulnerable as travel is limited, humanitarian services such as the provision of sanitary supplies are interrupted, and GBV rates increase with little to no options for support (CARE 2020). According to Amnesty International, refugee and migrant camps will be the "epicenter of the pandemic” unless urgent action is taken (2020).

An opportunity for transformative change

As the COVID crisis magnifies the harmfill defects in our economic and social systems, the current moment presents an opportunity to not just stop the spread of the virus and bring back the economy for the benefit of some, but to challenge the inequitable structures that continue to perpetuate injustice and instability for so many. What would need to happen for a truly just and equitable world to exist? How can we apply the lessons learned from decades of research on and experience in conflicts and crises, which consistently point to the need to take an intersectional gender approach -and which demonstrate that the CO VID crisis is a gendered crisis? How might conflict resolution researchers and practitioners help to reimagine and rebuild a new reality? Indeed, peacebuilders are often called to consider how to transcend the worst cycles of violence and to imagine the possibility of change (Lederach 2005).

Put simply, such a future could be possible if we make supporting and protecting women, girls, and other at-risk and vulnerable populations a priority. For conflict resolvers and crisis mitigators, this requires centering the voices of women and other vulnerable groups in all our efforts. As the ones most impacted, women are in a prime position to identify the trends within their communities and must be involved in all aspects of the design of responses - including the allocation of resources. Women's formal and informal community groups and networks have been working as first responders and carry critical knowledge on the situation, and play an important role in reimagining a better future for their communities. Women also need to be involved at all levels of leadership - from community decision-making bodies to national and international agencies. As it is, the UN’s S2 billion humanitarian appeal to stop COVID-19's spread to vulnerable communities hardly mentioned women and girls (Miliband and Sandberg 2020). Although women make up the majority of health and social care workers, few hold decision-making positions (Haneef and Kaly-anpur 2020, 4). Indeed, the United States’ original Coronavirus Task Force included zero women.

Yet women often bring different qualities of leadership, which appear to be particularly needed in this crisis. A series of articles circulated a few months into the pandemic featured leaders whose countries are doing better than most at managing the crisis. What do they all have in common, the articles asked? All are women. Among them. New Zealand's Jacinda Arden was called "one of the most effective leaders on the planet” for her swift, effective, yet sympathetic handling of the crisis (Friedman 2020). Taiwan's president Tsai Ing-wen was similarly praised for her quick response and open communication. Putting aside their shared gender, the praise of their leadership has focused on their willingness to talk with and collaborate across health, social, and other sectors; their empathy in the face of deep tragedy among their people; their flexibility and their decisiveness; and their ability to bring a "whole life perspective” that acknowledges people’s various needs and struggles at work and at home (Schnall 2020). Their examples of leadership stand in stark contrast to, for example, U.S. President Donald Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who rejected guidance from the scientific community and sought to "win” the war against the virus with their own might. What the COVID pandemic is revealing, however, is that such forms of "super masculine” leadership (or what is called toxic masculinity) leads to chaos and ultimately defeat, and the way to truly "win” against the pandemic is to collaborate, acknowledge people’s lived experiences with the crisis, and indeed, demonstrate a sense of empathy. While women are often conditioned to take on such roles, these traits need not be gender specific, but provide critical insight for conflict resolvers on what is needed for an effective and transformative response to the crisis.

The COVID pandemic and other crises also show that structural supports such as access to safe schools and health facilities, health insurance, affordable child care, and paid sick and family leave are far from luxuries but essential for building resilient and successful economies and equitable communities. Services that particularly support women and vulnerable communities, such as domestic violence shelters and maternal health facilities, must also be acknowledged as essential, with adequate resources and personal protective equipment for their frontline workers.

A few months into the pandemic, the situation is challenging and the fimire - if we follow the current trajectory - looks dire. But the crisis

The gendered frontlines 95 provides us with a critical opportunity to shift course and repair the broken systems that leave so many women and other at-risk groups vulnerable to inequalities, and their communities to ongoing crises and conflicts. By applying an intersectional gender lens to their work, conflict resolution researchers and practitioners can help us reimagine and build a future that is equitable for all.


  • 1 Zhang Wanging, “Domestic Violence Cases Surge During COVID-19 Epidemic,” Sixth Tone, March 2, 2020, domestic-violence-cases-surge-during-covid-19-epidemic.
  • 2 Campbell Robertson and Robert Gebeloff, “How Millions of Women Became the Most Essential Workers in America,” New York Times, April 18,2020, www.
  • 3 Jeffrey Gettleman and SuhasiniRaj, “8 Hospitals in 15 Hours: A Pregnant Woman’s Crisis in the Pandemic,” New York Tinies, June 21, 2020, www.nytimes. com/2020/06/21/world/asia/coronavirus-india-hospitals-pregnant.html.
  • 4 Julie Smith, “Overcoming the ‘Tyranny of the Urgent’: Integrating Gender into Disease Outbreak Preparedness and Response,” Gender & Development 27 (2019): 355-69.
  • 5 Christina Haneef and Anuslika Kalyanpur, “Global Rapid Gender Analysis for COVID-19,” CARE and International Rescue Committee, 2020, www.rescue. org''sites/default/files/document/4676/globalrgacovidrdm33120final.pdf.
  • 6 Marianne Schnall, “ ‘These Extraordinary Times Call for Extraordinary Giving’: 12 Leaders in Women’s Philanthropy Speak Out,” Forbes, June 23,2020, www. forbes.eom/sites/marianneschnall/2020/06/23/12-leaders-in-womens-philan thropy-speak-out/#59f29e235a70; Marianne Schnall, “Ten Prominent Women Spotlight the Need for Women’s Leadership During the Pandemic and Beyond,” Forbes, May 18, 2020.
  • 7 Rebecca Suhrawardi, “Collapse of Bangladesh’s Garment Industry During Coronavirus Leaves Its Workers More Vulnerable Than Ever,” Forbes, March 30,2020, shs-garment-industry-leaves-its-workers-more-vulnerable-than-ever-during-coronavirus/#le453d74f27e.
  • 8 Ryan Heath and Renuka Rayasam, “Covid’s War on Women,”, April 29, 2020, www.politico.coni newsletters/politico-nightly-coronavirus-spe cial-edition/2020/04/29/covids-war-on-women-489076; marianneschnall/2020/05/18/ten-prominent-women-spotlight-need-forwomens-leadershipduring-pandemic/#30d4c6712498.
  • 9 Amnesty International, “Ignored by COVID-19 Responses, Refugees Face Starvation,” May 13, 2020, latest/news/2020/05/ refugees-and-migrants-being-forgotten-in-covidl9-crisis-response/.
  • 10 UNFPA, “Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Family Planning and Ending Gender-Based Violence, Female Genital Mutilation and Child Marriage,” April 27, 2020,


All web-based sources accessed on July 15, 2020.

Cockburn, Cynthia. “The Continuum of Violence: A Gender Perspective on War and Peace.” In Sites of Violence: Gender and Conflict Zones, edited by Wenona Giles and Jennifer Hyndman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Long, Heather. “The Big Factor Holding Back the U.S. Economic Recovery: Child Care.” Washington Post, July 3, 2020. business/2020/07/03/big-factor-holding-back-us-economic-recovery-child-care'.

Tickner, J. Ann. Gendering World Politics: Issues and Approaches in the Post-Cold War Era. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Ventura Alfaro, Maria José. “Feminist Solidarity Networks Have Multiplied Since the COVID-19 Outbreak in Mexico.” Interface: A Journal for and About Social Movements (May 2020).'uploads/2020/05/ Ventura-Alfaro-1 .pdf.

11 Internal and eternal insecurity

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