Hundreds of studies confirm: Women hit hardest by COVID-19

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A cash transfer recipient from Khulna, Bangladesh, uses the funds to purchase raw materials for her bamboo crab trap business affected by COVID-19. Photo by: Fahad Kaizer / UN Women / CC BY-NC-ND

What was already assumed can now be confirmed: Women in low- and middle-income countries paid a disproportionately high price for the pandemic over the past year, according to an analysis of over 400 studies conducted since the pandemic began.

The analysis, which was conducted by researchers at the Center for Global Development’s COVID-19 Gender and Development Initiative, also examined whether donor projects have supported women and girls impacted by the pandemic. To do this, they looked at 195 projects from the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and African Development Bank initiated from March through December 2020.

Their analysis found that development banks are doing more than national governments, including those of LMICs, to address gender gaps exacerbated by the pandemic, but that these banks could still do more to ensure the COVID-19 recovery includes women and girls, Megan O’Donnell, one of the studies main authors, told Devex.

“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,” O’Donnell said in a press release.

Decreased employment, working hours, and wages

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Over the past year, women saw decreased employment, working hours, and wages at higher rates than men. While the reasons for this vary, one of these is that women-owned firms tend to be in “consumer-facing” sectors, such as retail, hospitality, and tourism, which were hit hard by movement restrictions. This has meant increased unpaid care labor at home for women, among other impacts.

Some of the research highlights included:

 • In low-income countries, the employment-to-population ratio fell 2.6% for women, and 1.8% for men.
• In sub-Saharan Africa, 41% of women-owned businesses closed, compared with 34% of those owned by men.
• Last year, it was estimated there are 119 women living in extreme poverty for every 100 men aged 25 to 34. This is expected to increase to 121 women for every 100 men by 2030, with women from South Asia particularly affected.
• A survey in Asia and the Pacific found 63% of women reported increases in domestic work, as opposed to 59% of men.

Of the 48 projects examined on economic recovery, 39 targeted women’s inclusion or included discussions around women benefitting from the investments. Only 25 called for women to account for at least half the participants. The analysis also found that of the multilateral bank projects in the agriculture sector examined, few had a focus on gender, even though women make up a large part of the agriculture sector in lower-income countries. There was also a lack of focus on reducing female unpaid care work.

Researchers also found that less than 20% of economic relief and recovery policies at the national level were designed to meet challenges facing women.

Increased gender-based violence and mental distress, decreased access to health services

The pandemic also had a disproportionate impact on women’s health in areas such as increased gender-based violence and mental distress, as well as decreased access to health services.

School closures and restricted access to sexual and reproductive health services meant an increase in the likelihood of adolescent girls becoming pregnant or seeking unsafe abortions, researchers said.

“It will be years before we truly know all the ways this pandemic has set women’s health back,” said Carleigh Krubiner, one of the report’s authors.

Some of the research highlighted:

 • 74% of studies on violence against women and children saw increases.
• Over 80% of studies on mental health found that women had greater adverse mental health, such as heightened stress, depression, and anxiety.
• Many countries saw that access to contraception, antenatal care, and attended births declined more than 10% during the pandemic.

The analysis found that donor investments focused more on the direct health impacts of COVID-19, rather than barriers to accessing other essential health services. Only 39 out of 135 health projects reviewed had components focused on these indirect health impacts, with just over half focused on gender-specific indicators.

To improve these inequities, researchers recommended cash-transfers prioritizing women, policies that prioritize investment that reduces and redistribute women’s unpaid care work, the collection of data to better understand the impact of the pandemic on women and girls, and the elevation of women to more leadership roles.

About the author

  • Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is a Global Health Reporter based in Nairobi. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, and Bloomberg News, among others. Sara holds a master's degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in 2018, part of a Vice News Tonight on HBO team that received an Emmy nomination in 2018 and received the Philip Greer Memorial Award from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2014. She has reported from over a dozen countries.