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As COVID-19 Intensifies in the Global South, so has Gender Inequality

A look into why gender-sensitive responses matter.

Sahana1 applies a thick coat of foundation over her blackened eye – a scarring reminder of her intoxicated husband’s – expected -- outburst last night. A continent away, Rafiya2 holds on to the last few morsels of tinned fish for the week. Being a sex worker in her locality, food aid can be hard to come by. And with signs of infection on the cards, Valentin3 grapples with the decision to loosen his chest binding; the odds did not work in his favour. A few borders away, a single mother, Geetha, begs to have her job back.

The truth that COVID-19 impacts all genders is a seed that states and decision-makers find difficult to digest. Therein, it goes without saying that the need for gender-sensitive response mechanisms to fight a deadly pandemic has become palpably clear.  
Gender inequality is both universal and multi-dimensional. But the political, social and economic workings of gender between the global North and the global South have obvious demarcations.
A study by the McKinsey Global Institute found that countries with higher gender parity scores positively correlate with higher levels of development. In other words, social indicators often go hand in hand with economic ones.

According to the Institute, the five impact zones that pervade the global South, in particular, are low labour-force participation in quality jobs, low maternal and reproductive health, unequal education levels, financial and digital exclusion, and girl-child vulnerability.4

Are economic indicators the only obstacle in the way of closing the gender gap in the global South? Certainly not. Culture has a significant role to play in perpetuating patriarchal norms and institutions. Despite progress in the developed world, the global South has not trodden far in terms of reforming the laws they inherited by their colonizers. Unsurprisingly, these age-old legal systems inevitably influence the societies they govern. Thereby, the systemic oppression of women, violent notions of masculinity, male control over resources and gender-based violence become the norm.

A study by Northwestern University indicates that a woman is much less likely to influence household decisions, enroll in college, enjoy the freedom of choice and join the workforce if she hails from a developing country. The same woman, on the contrary, is more likely to face impunity for being a victim of gender-based violence.5

These patterns of inequality are part of a bigger picture. In the face of COVID -19, the collateral damage that comes with it has not only become palpably clear but marks a clarion call for leaders of developing states to adopt a gender-inclusive lens in addressing the pandemic.

Spikes in domestic abuse and intimate-partner violence

The number of calls reporting domestic abuse to support centers during the Covid-19 outbreak has doubled in most countries, according to the UN. As much of the world goes into lockdown, abusive households can make women feel trapped and helpless. Regrettably, attitudes towards domestic violence in the developing world are beyond the pale.

36% of people from mid to low-income countries think that domestic violence is justified, according to a survey conducted by the University of Bristol.6

To break down the findings of this survey even further, 47% of people from South Asia and 38% percent from Sub-Saharan Africa said that domestic abuse is excusable. These are mind-boggling numbers.
The feasibility of long-term response mechanisms varies across regions. For example, the same interventions designed for a country in a Nordic state may not necessarily adapt well in a low-income country that just witnessed the end of civil conflict. The pandemic is one of several crises in which states witness an increase in domestic violence cases. In the past, cases spiked during and after a natural disaster, the end of civil conflict or during economic recessions. Psychologists point to the common thread that runs through all these incidents; men project their need for power and authority over their wives or partners to feel more in control. To this end, domestic abuse and intimate partner violence is very much about securing power and gaining control.
As leaders grapple to address the spike in domestic abuse cases with code words and helplines, the urgent need to push for legislation and long-term interventions are clear. However, policy-makers and those at the top must keep the following in mind.
In the age of women-only carriages in public transport, crisis communications apps and anti-rape devices,7 the need to shift our intervention methods from victim-centered to that of normative change and holding perpetrators to account, are paramount. Policy-makers and activists at the forefront of creating change deserve applause for the short-term mechanisms that have been successfully adopted but are often caught up with the want to see an immediate change that efforts to challenge traditional notions of masculinity and rehabilitate perpetrators are often ignored or ‘set aside’ for later.  Such measures can positively translate into boys and men becoming allies to the feminist cause, community mobilization, adopting gender-conscious syllabi in all levels of education and other forms of long-term strategies.

Impact on LGBT+ communities

The point previously made on low economic indicators and a culture built on patriarchal values and its positive correlation with gender inequality deserves reminding. Law enforcement in the Philippines, for instance, uses humiliation as a punitive measure against the LGBT community to enforce public health measures. Human Rights Watch reports of dehumanizing acts that force them to dance or kiss on video; a disturbing image that reveals the need for better oversight and accountability.8 Miles away, in Uganda, police arrest those at a shelter serving for LGBT people in Kampala. Their justification? Being guilty of “negligent acts likely to spread infection of disease.” 9

 “Minorities of any category, much less the LGBT community, have always been subject to discrimination. Social stigma prevents LGBT people to secure employment and therefore, they often become daily-wage earners and sometimes join the sex worker industry,” remarked Rosanna Flamer-Caldera, an LGBT+ activist and Executive Director of Equal Ground Sri Lanka. “During crises situation such as the present Covid-19 pandemic, the challenges that an LGBT person faces is magnified a thousand-fold.” She also pointed out that in the recent past, thirteen of fifteen calls made to the support line set up by Equal Ground were inquiries of a perverse nature and not ones that conveyed a genuine need for emotional help. Additionally, to be constrained in a house during curfew with a family that does not accept you can be a huge burden on one’s mental health.
Civil society organizations need to work in solidarity with the LGBT+ community to not only ensure that emotional support is provided to those who need it, but that they also have equal access to healthcare services as well as other necessities as anybody else. 

The plight of sex workers

Those in the sex worker industry constantly grapple with the burden of either being invisible in the eyes of the public or completely marginalized with regard to rapid response measures of COVID -19. Much of the global South adopts restrictive laws that criminalize sex work. Sex workers, whether male or female, are often forced to take to the streets due to homelessness and societal prejudice.
“The government’s response, in the face of this outbreak, to our plight as sex workers have been disappointing. They promise many things, but once they find out our profession, we are cornered and discriminated,” says Maheswari, a 48-year-old mother who works as a sex worker in   Sri Lanka and advocates for their basic rights.
Speaking to her, it became increasingly clear that wider coverage by the media and stronger support by community organizations can do much to pressure governments to reform laws that criminalize sex work. For her and many others, aid and relief efforts are cut off due to the heavy stigma associated with their profession. “I don’t want anyone’s sympathy right now,” she said “only legal reform that stops equating us with criminals,” she concluded. Additionally, as relief efforts focus on various vulnerable communities, sex workers are often seen as undeserving of food aid and other necessities. From having no access to a fair trial to being unable to admit her children in a school, the stigma facing both males and females like Maheswari is harrowing.

Working mothers and the division of labour

Despite efforts by employers to create flexible work environments, the burden that falls on a working mother as she ‘works from home’ while juggling child care and household chores deserve serious attention. Most societies imbued in patriarchal norms dictate that responsibilities like child care, cooking and cleaning are a woman’s ‘job.’ For mothers that have to take care of elderly parents in addition to their children, the burden is ten-fold. A report by the Asia Pacific wing of the Gender in Humanitarian Action Working Group points to the fact that women are at an even greater risk as food insecurity looms in the backdrop of most developing states.10 As the onus falls on women to provide food on the table and care for the children, self-isolation and lockdowns can increase their exposure to gender-based violence when these (gendered) expectations are not met. 
Similarly, single mothers are at an increased risk of struggling to make ends meet especially at a time where most employees face job insecurity and unexpected lay-offs. School closures and the inability to send their kids to daycare can cause severe burnout and mental health problems.
Psycho-social support and concessionary loans can be incredibly helpful during and in the immediate aftermath of the COVID -19 outbreak.

Parting thoughts                                                                         
Not too long ago, the Covid-19 epidemic was understood as a temporary stumbling block in outlying Wuhan. As long as the rest of the world was concerned, it was an invisible virus that was rather mistakenly understood as “not that big a deal.” Come March 2020, the pandemic spread like wildfire. States with colossal defense budgets are suddenly lacking in hospital beds and life support equipment. Capitalism has reached a standstill and the so-called ‘Third World’ struggles to fund the fight against an invisible enemy.

 If there is one lesson to be learned, it is that Covid-19 certainly does discriminate. It discriminates against norms and institutions that favour the archetypal patriarchy. Public health measures have become increasingly militarized and gendered politics are still the norm. A better understanding of the intersectional nature of the gendered impacts discussed thus far and better, context-specific and long term strategies built on normative change will certainly lead the global South to the kind of change they seek to witness in this lifetime.


1          Meaning: Patience
2          Meaning: Dignified
3          Meaning: Strong healthy
4          Mekala Krishnan, “Miles to Go: Stepping up Progress toward Gender Equality,” McKinsey & Company, accessed April 8, 2020,
5           Seema Jayachandran, “The Roots of Gender Inequality in Developing Countries,” Annual Reviews, February 20, 2015,
6          “Domestic Violence Is Widely Accepted in Most Developing Countries, New Study Reveals,” ScienceDaily (ScienceDaily, October 31, 2018),
8          Ryan Thoreson, “Philippines Uses Humiliation as COVID Curfew Punishment,” Human Rights Watch, April 8, 2020,
9           Neela Ghoshal, “Uganda LGBT Shelter Residents Arrested on COVID-19 Pretext,” Human Rights Watch, April 3, 2020,
10       “The COVID-19 Outbreak and Gender: Key Advocacy Points from Asia and the Pacific,” Asia-Pacific Gender in Humanitarian Action Working Group, accessed April 7, 2020, office eseasia/docs/publications/2020/03/ap-giha-wg-advocacy.pdf?la=en&vs=2145

             About the Author

Renushi Ubeyratne is a gender justice advocate majoring in International Relations at the University of Colombo.


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