Even if you aren’t a healthcare worker, caring for the sick — whether it’s in your own family or at a community level — is a job that generally falls to women. Again, this increases the risk of exposure and makes social distancing an impossibility. It also reduces a woman’s ability to earn an income and often means that women and their daughters are left to pick up the slack and take on additional housework.
Many schools are shut down, and even if remote learning is available, girls may be forced to skip out on their studies in order to support their mother with caring for other family members, collecting water, or handling other household chores. We’ll look more at education in a bit, but what’s especially important to note here is that social distancing and isolation aren’t applicable to every situation, and we need to adapt with specific advice and solutions for those who can’t avoid close contact with others.
The financial, social, and health stressors of a pandemic, combined with close confinement during lockdowns, mean that women and girls are at a higher risk of violence from their family members, domestic partners, or within a community. We saw this happen during the 2014-16 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, with increased incidences of gender-based violence, and fewer resources for women and girls who were experiencing abuse (given the increased demand for healthcare workers in helping to halt the spread of the virus).
Already, we are seeing a similar pattern play out with COVID-19 and cases of gender-based and domestic violence. Emerging data from the UN show increases between 25 and 33% of reports of domestic violence and emergency calls in a handful of countries including France, Cyprus, and Singapore. In more vulnerable communities, such as the informal refugee settlements in Iraq and Lebanon, where women and girls are already more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, these risks are even higher. It’s critical at this time that we include resources on stress and anger management for families and engages men and couples in sessions on the impact of lockdowns and ways to mitigate violence as a negative coping mechanism.
In many of the countries where Concern works, being a girl is already a barrier to education. When the barrier is amplified by a health crisis and a potential lockdown, this makes maintaining an education difficult for all children, but especially so for girls. If the effects of COVID-19 continue to impact poverty and hunger, it could even result in a young girl being married off in order to lessen her family’s financial burden.
For girls making the switch to learning at home, it’s important to consider the needs and risks among the most vulnerable families, especially around stress management and helping parents create a supportive learning environment. What’s more, when the crisis has passed and schools can reopen, it’s also critical to ensure that girls go back to school and that those who are directly affected by COVID-19 (survivors, orphans, unaccompanied minors, and pregnant girls) are given extra psychosocial support to be emotionally ready for the classroom once again.
Countries with limited healthcare systems may need to pool all of their resources into simply surviving an outbreak like COVID-19. Even in countries like the United States, we’ve seen this happen with hospitals that lack the staff and resources to both respond to an outbreak and the other day-to-day health needs of a community.
Maternal and child health services must be protected, to ensure gains already made are not lost. Women who are pregnant or nursing need ongoing support to ensure a safe birth and a healthy baby. Another critical area is sexual and reproductive health, ensuring that girls don’t become pregnant early on. That’s a real risk with lockdowns and extended school closures.