Are girls and women safe during Covid-19 pandemic?

The Covid-19 crisis has produced staggering effects on people, communities, and economies everywhere. But, there are some who are at the worst end of extremities. Women, who account for a big share of frontline workers, informal workers, and informal caregivers are suffering a lot in this pandemic.

As the health sector struggles to cope with, many women lack sexual and reproductive health rights and services, thus are exposed to unsafe pregnancy and childbirth. Above all, with the increasing cases of domestic violence against girls and women, the question comes whether our daughters and mothers are safe in their own homes.

Recently, we celebrated World Population Day, but the highlights still show the prevalent power and patriarchal rule in every community, across the globe. Women now are more under scrutiny regarding mental, emotional, financial securities.

Violence against women and girls (VAWG) remains a serious human rights violation and an important health concern during this pandemic. Globally, 243 million women and girls aged 15-49, or one in three of them, have been subjected to different forms of violence, perpetrated by an intimate partner or person of a close space in the last 12 months (UN Women, 2020). The number is likely to increase during and after the pandemic because of socio-economic strains caused by confined living conditions and restrained health facilities.

At the same time, with the exacerbating situation of VAWG during the pandemic, violence against women can result in injuries, serious physical, mental, sexual, and reproductive health problems, including sexually transmitted infections, HIV, and unplanned pregnancies. Thus, addressing it must be a priority to avoid dire consequences.

The recent pandemic has introduced different needs and measures in life such as 24-hour care for children and aged family members, increment in need of food supplies, and utilising disinfectants and water resources, which are not equally available in every household. Moreover, women disproportionately work in insecure labour markets and are harder hit by the economic impacts of Covid-19. Nearly, 60 per cent of women worldwide work in the informal economy, at a greater risk of falling into poverty. Women’s unpaid care work has increased because of school closures and the increased needs of older people (UNFPA, 2020).

Similarly, restricted access to basic sexual and reproductive health services lead to unplanned pregnancy, increased risk during childbirth, and, in many cases, the death of pregnant women. A recent UNFPA study has highlighted if the lockdown continues for six months with major disruptions in health services, 47 million women in low- and middle-income countries may not be able to access modern contraceptives resulting in seven million unintended pregnancies.

To solve these problems, the subtle mindset that discriminates against women needs to be changed. The simple general notions, like, “Being a woman, she works late? She has not married yet?” needs to be re-thought. Only when we educate our sons on an equal share of household activities and our daughters on gaining financial independence, we can expect the change.

To support the victimised girls and women, psychosocial support should be provided; it helps potential victims stand back and gain independence. Also, proactively changing the gender stereotype (such as assigning household chores to women and financial responsibility to men), and making men responsible for equality encourage healthy ways of coping with stressful situations.

Here, healthcare workers and social workers can help women by offering first-line support and relevant medical treatment. The first-line support includes listening to them empathetically and without judgment, inquiring about needs and concerns, validating survivors’ experiences and feelings, enhancing safety, and connecting survivors to support systems.

In the same way, the gender-sensitive and effective case reporting should be initiated at all local level bodies. The need-based approach should be rationalised to give effective solutions ranging from shelter, skills-building training, employment opportunities, education, and confidence-building initiatives. In a crisis context, other important tasks are risk assessments, safety planning, and case management. Meanwhile, media, social workers, and caseworkers can play important roles by advocating and bringing the news of exacerbating cases of women on the frontline.

Along with this, new protocols to provide support through phone or online platforms rather than in-person needs to be expanded for immediate response services in order to save lives. Correspondingly, such systems can be regulated in Nepal with proper training to social mobilisers who can patron the community and respond to them in an immediate emergency.

Thus, with the need-based approach, access to health care, food, income-generating jobs, water, and sanitation would help women come out of their harsh situations.

Change is not about big headlines but about the ways we think, talk, act, and express in everyday life that creates the ripple effects benefitting everyone.

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Devkota is a psychology and social work graduate. She currently works as a gerontologist.

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