Impacts of COVID-19 on Women in the Pacific: Why gender inclusion is key to recovery

By Agnieszka Zuchora, PPP Development and Partnerships Coordinator

As the world adjusts to the new normal of isolating, social distancing, and virus awareness to keep people safe, underlying issues of inequality have been brought to the surface. Gender disparity has been made glaringly evident during the current COVID-19 landscape as measures put in place to protect communities have disproportionately affected women during this time, especially in the South Pacific. Women and girls are at a higher risk of violence, they provide more unpaid labor, and are more likely to experience economic hardship.

Market vendors at the Wewak Market. Observing the new pandemic normal is a challenge by market management. Credit: HELP-Resource PNG

Typically, women are highly depended upon for their contributions to society and their families. Generally, they provide 80 per cent of unpaid work in the Asia Pacific region. This includes cooking, cleaning, washing, childcare, supporting children with homework, and tending to the sick. With COVID lockdowns, pressure on women has increased exponentially given that everyone is home: it is just expected that women will carry on with their daily tasks and do whatever is necessary to fill in the gaps during this time – both financially and domestically.

As tensions rise amidst stress, uncertainty, food security, and enforced restrictions, there has been a significant increase in calls related to gender-based violence across the Pacific. Women who were living with violent partners were forced into isolation with these partners, thereby putting them at greater risk of increased violence caused by stress and constant contact. Crisis centres have noted a rise in calls from existing clients as well as an increase in new clients who have said there is a correlation between the lockdown and increased violence.

Women’s and Children’s Crisis Centre in Tonga

PPP is proud to have partnered with Women’s and Children’s Crisis Centre (WCCC), in Tonga, which is offering mobile counselling for women to receive in-person support within their area. WCCC was founded in 2009 by the incredible ʻOfa Guttenbeil-Likiliki with the intention of advocating for women, human rights, and eliminating domestic violence through education, counselling, safe houses, and political advocacy. WCCC is the leading women’s human rights organisation in Tonga, providing response, support, and prevention initiatives.

Information session on Informal Economy with vendors at Kreer market is offered by a HELP Resources Community Advocator. Credit: HELP-Resource PNG

The most recent project addresses the need for support in remote island communities. It fills the gap by sending counsellors to the communities, making the extremely valuable centre services mobile and increasing their reach. This comes at an especially significant time given the constant need to adapt around the global pandemic.

Not only are women facing disproportionate workloads, and an increase in domestic violence, they are doing it without the proper resources to maintain their own health. Women have seen a decrease in access to essential products and services such as feminine hygiene products. Seeing as the Pacific imports feminine hygiene products, there has been a disruption in supply resulting in decreased access as well as a spike in prices making them unavailable to some. Some women and girls are “resorting to socks and old newspapers when getting their periods as menstrual products become more expensive or harder to obtain.”(1)  Along with inaccessible sanitation products, “Dr Gupte said underprivileged families were struggling to use common sanitation facilities, where physical distancing and hygienic conditions cannot be assured.” (1)

Some organisations are teaching sewing skills to encourage the making of reusable menstrual products to support women in their health, and also in developing a business through a sustainable product they can sell in the markets; however, local markets have been significantly reduced during the pandemic.

Local Government officials attend a Safe Market Management Practices Workshop. Credit: HELP-Resource PNG

HELP Resources (HELP-R) Supports PNG Women

In Papua New Guinea, our partner HELP Resources (HELP-R) has been supporting women through their Vendors Collective Voices project. After months of restrictions causing market closures and preventing travel, PNG has eased restrictions by allowing travel and reopening markets. In an update, project lead Penial Kabilo said, “Women from Kaminambit and Keram are bringing in their bilums (local string bags made from traditional fibre) to sell at the market, fish traders from the Sepik River have resumed their trading by travelling down to Wewak or further inland to Maprik and Yangoru to trade.”

HELP Resources has supported Water PNG in putting up sanitation stations with washing basins and handwashing gels and sanitizers donated by UN Women, allowing for safe trading. Although trading had considerably slowed during lockdown months, Penial Kabilo has noted a steady increase with consistent buyers. He stated that even “roadside markets along the town fringes and along the highways have all reopened now, however, street vending within the town vicinity is still banned by the Town Authority to promote social distancing. Generally, market trading activities have increased, this indicates a better understanding of COVID-19 and the vender’s resilience to trade.”

The work done by HELP Resources has proven effective and supportive during COVID-19 as information sessions by Community Advocators trained through the Vendors Voice Shaping Informal Economy Development project continued to run. Penial also stated, “Information supplied by the vendors’ association helped HELP Resources to liaise with other partners such as UN Women, Wewak Urban Local Government and the Town Market Supervisor to try and provide a safe and conducive working environment for vendors to conduct business under. We are very excited the Vendors Collective Voices has received a 6-month extension with PPP and Commonwealth Foundation as well as a UN Women partnership.”

Youths from a roadside market reading one of the translated COVID19 factsheet from Hesperian Health Guides, translated by HELP Resources. Credit: HELP-Resource PNG

Economically, the world has been greatly impacted by COVID-19, slowing some production lines temporarily, limiting shipments, and halting tourism globally. Women have been proven to be more vulnerable in this situation, as is often the case. In an article published by The Jakarta Post on September 22, 2020 (2), Oliver Tonby and Phillia Wibowo stated, “Globally women account for 54 percent of overall job losses despite comprising 39 percent of the global workforce. Put another way, a woman in work is nearly twice as likely to lose a job than a man.” This is predominantly because not only are women the main providers of unpaid care work, but are also in the industries most affected by the pandemic, such as retail, hospitality, and food services. Any gaps in financial security in the home are often filled by female vendors trading food, textiles, weaving, or other homemade goods.

Further research done by Tonby and Wibowo found that “if no action is taken to counter the gender-regressive effects of COVID-19, global gross domestic product (GDP) growth could be US$1 trillion lower in 2030. That would represent a significant hit to economies already struggling to recover from the pandemic.

“Conversely, (they) found that if policymakers make decisions now, in 2020 and beyond, that boost gender equality by 2030, it could add $13 trillion to global GDP. ….. A middle path — taking action on gender equality only after the crisis has subsided rather than now — reduces the potential opportunity by more than $5 trillion. The cost of that delay amounts to three-quarters of the total GDP we could potentially lose to COVID-19 this year.” (2)

Based on these findings, it is evident that including gender equality in the economic recovery response plans is crucial, not only for the support of women but also for success in economic recovery and progress in general.

Footnotes:

(1) Xiao Bang, and Darmadi Gemala. (2020, October 2). ‘Coronavirus is exacerbating menstruation health risks for those living in ‘period poverty’. ABC News Australia

(2) Tonby, Oliver and Wibowo, Phillia. (2020, September 22). “Maintaining progress on gender equality is key to Indonesia’s pandemic recovery”. The Jakarta Post

Agnieszka (Aggie) Zuchora holds a Master of Environment with a focus on Development and has experience in community engagement across the Pacific and in humanitarian aid.

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