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Women Bear the Brunt of COVID-19 Crisis, New Analysis Finds

April 7, 2021
Contact: Holly Shulman holly.shulman@gmail.com +1-202-674-8757

Analysis Also Found Governments’ Pandemic Recovery Policies Not Focused Enough on Women

WASHINGTON—Women have faced disproportionate costs to their livelihoods and health from the COVID-19 crisis, a large-scale analysis of hundreds of studies from around the world found. 

Conducting original data analysis, as well as drawing on findings from more than 400 studies released since the pandemic began, researchers with the Center for Global Development's COVID-19 Gender and Development Initiative aimed to determine the overall picture of how the COVID-19 crisis has impacted women in low- and middle-income countries. 

“What was anecdotal is now increasingly backed up by rigorous data and evidence: women have been disproportionately hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic - whether it’s the operation of their businesses, their earnings, or their own safety and security,” said Megan O’Donnell, who leads the Center for Global Development’s COVID-19 Gender and Development Initiative, a research hub that aims to promote gender equality and long-term prosperity in low- and middle-income countries by informing global and national decision makers' policy responses to the current pandemic and future crises. “The evidence and data to date suggest that the pandemic and resulting global recession have exacerbated pre-existing gender inequalities - including in low- and middle-income countries.” 

In their review, the researchers found that COVID-19 has disproportionately hurt women’s economic standing, and that unlike in past crises where typically men’s employment has suffered more, early evidence on COVID-19 reflects disproportionate impacts on women’s employment, working hours, and wages relative to those of men.

  • Many economic sectors that women dominate have been harder hit than those that men dominate. Women-owned firms are concentrated in consumer-facing sectors where the demand shock has hit hard, and women are often overrepresented in industries such as tourism, transport, entertainment, cleaning and domestic services whose activities were limited by COVID shutdowns (ILO 2020g; UNDP 2020a).

  • Women have lost their jobs at greater rates than men. The employment to population ratio fell 2.6 percent for women compared to 1.8 percent for men in low-income countries. The employment loss measured in working hours for women worldwide was 5.0 percent in 2020, versus 3.9 percent for men (ILO 2021).

  • Women-owned businesses shuttered at greater rates than men’s. In sub-Saharan Africa, 41 percent of women-owned businesses closed versus 34 percent for men-owned; in Latin America and the Caribbean, these figures are 40 percent versus 29 percent, and in South Asia, 51 and 45 percent, respectively (Goldstein et al. 2020).

  • Women are disproportionately vulnerable to increased poverty from the pandemic. An estimated 47 million additional women and girls will fall into extreme poverty as a result of COVID-19, and poverty rates for women will not return to pre-pandemic levels until 2030 (UN Women et al. 2020).

  • Care burdens continue to pile up for women. Studies in diverse settings such as Colombia, Lebanon, Nigeria, and India indicate women are shouldering up to several hours of additional care work per day. In a survey across Asia and the Pacific, 63 percent of women reported an increase in domestic work, compared to 59 percent of men (UN Women 2020).

In their review, the researchers found that women’s health was directly and indirectly harmed due to the COVID-19 crisis more than their male counterparts:

  • Violence against women increased. Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of studies documenting the impact of the pandemic on violence against women and children point to an increase in at least one measure of violence (Peterman et al., 2020; Peterman and O’Donnell, 2020a; Peterman and O’Donnell, 2020b).

  • Mental health issues impacted women more than men. In a review of 98 studies across diverse geographic settings that compared mental health status and outcomes between men and women during the COVID-19 pandemic, over 80 percent indicated that women were experiencing greater adverse mental health effects—including higher levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and fear of COVID-19 than men (EMERGE, 2020).

  • Women experienced restricted access to sexual and reproductive health services. While the magnitude of this problem varied across countries, the research finds that in many countries access to contraception, antenatal care, and attended births declined more than 10% during the pandemic (Krubiner et al., 2021).

“COVID-19 wasn’t the only threat this pandemic posed to women’s health,” said Carleigh Krubiner, a policy fellow at the Center for Global Development who conducted the health analysis. “We must also think about the indirect health impacts of the pandemic on women and girls, including more limited access to a range of essential health services like contraception and exacerbated harms related to gender-based violence and mental health issues. It will be years before we truly know all the ways this pandemic has set women’s health back.”

The researchers also reviewed national policies announced by governments around the world to date in response to the pandemic and found that very few (less than 20 percent) of economic relief and recovery policies were designed to address women’s needs and constraints. 

“Gender gaps will not disappear with the distribution of vaccines,” said O’Donnell. “COVID-19 has exacerbated long-standing gender inequalities, and - if governments don’t act - could have far-reaching negative impacts on women’s health and economic standing for decades.”

Fortunately, when donor institutions like the World Bank and other regional development banks support governments in COVID response, CGD research finds more attention given to gender inequities. But more research is needed to understand the impact that both national policies and donor investments are having on women and girls.

The researchers recommend that in order to close gender gaps exacerbated by the pandemic, global decision-makers should prioritize:

  • Cash: Because the economic effects of the crisis will long outlast COVID-19’s direct health effects, governments and donors should continue to provide cash transfers to vulnerable populations, placing a priority on targeting women. 

  • Care: Governments and donors should strengthen labor market policies and programs to ensure they benefit women, including by prioritizing investments that reduce and redistribute women’s unpaid care work. 

  • Data: Governments and donors should monitor and evaluate the benefits of COVID-19 mitigation and recovery measures on women and girls, as well as strengthen broader data systems to ensure they reflect women’s and girls’ lived realities.

  • Leadership: Women must be elevated into more leadership roles and have a greater voice in policy decision-making to strengthen response and recovery strategies.

To read the four new studies from the Center for Global Development – The Impacts of Health Crises on Women & Girls: How Historical Evidence Can Inform Assessment and Recovery through a Gender Lens, Promoting Women’s Economic Empowerment in the COVID-19 Context, Addressing the COVID-19 Crisis's Indirect Health Impacts for Women and Girls, and The Gendered Dimensions of Social Protection in the COVID-19 Context – visit www.cgdev.org/covidandgender.

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Photo of Megan O'Donnell (2019 version)
Assistant Director, Gender Program and Policy Fellow