Addressing gendered and other inequalities will be central to COVID-19 recovery

In the latest in our series on lessons from the coronavirus pandemic, we look at how COVID-19 has increased gender inequality and the need to tackle multiple forms of disadvantage in the global South.

Article, 11 September 2020
A woman wearing a mask pours chemicals into a bottle.

A woman makes hand sanitising gel in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe (Photo: KB Mpofu, ILO via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Beyond COVID-19: grassroots visions of change

This article is part of an IIED series that brings together forward-looking responses on specific themes in reaction to the coronavirus pandemic, drawing on our partners’ insights and providing a platform for voices from the global South.

Here, IIED researcher Alice Sverdlik looks at the impacts of the virus on women and girls.

Lamented as a ‘disaster for feminism’, COVID-19 has magnified and exacerbated several inequalities including gender inequality. Men often have higher rates of mortality and COVID-19 hospitalisations than women. At the same time, the pandemic’s social and economic impacts have been particularly dire for women and girls.

Due to COVID-19, 47m more women globally will live in poverty in 2021. The pandemic led to a profoundly gender-inequitable combination of declining paid work – women are overrepresented in informal jobs and hard-hit sectors like tourism – with increased caring burdens and limited childcare

COVID-19’s burdens for women and girls can differ based on local contexts, policy interventions, and intersectional disadvantages. Particularly vulnerable groups may include migrant female workers, women with disabilities, displaced people, and younger men and women (who are at greater risk of lost livelihoods).

The pandemic’s multiple threats to women’s livelihoods and wellbeing, as outlined below, will urgently require locally-grounded research and inclusive interventions co-designed with women, men, girls, and boys. 

Short and long-term impacts on women and girls

Lockdowns were associated with alarming evidence of heightened violence against women and girls, which remains under-reported. Many still struggle to access women’s refuges and maternal healthcare services that were already underfunded before the pandemic. This could have major long-term consequences, such as an increase in unsafe births and rising numbers of girls leaving school early. 

There is much that we still do not know on COVID-19’s impacts due to the lack of disaggregated data on age, sex, race/ethnicity, disability, and socioeconomic factors. Policymakers urgently require more detailed information to support a gender-equitable recovery.

COVID-19, women’s employment, and unpaid care burdens  

Women’s employment has fallen more sharply than men’s and may recover more slowly. Many women and men in the global South work in the informal economy, where adequate healthcare, sick leave, and other social protections are rare.

Both male and female informal workers faced stark choices between staying at home with a risk of going hungry, or violating coronavirus restrictions if they go to work. But it is women who are typically concentrated in highly precarious informal jobs; many women work in sectors that were especially affected such as retail, hospitality and the food trade

Women also comprise more than 70% of the healthcare sector globally, including community health workers and other frontline providers at elevated risk of COVID-19 infection.

Furthermore, women have typically shouldered the rising care burdens (cleaning and tending to the sick, for example) linked to lockdowns, school closures, and COVID-19’s health impacts. Although there is evidence that men are increasingly helping with childcare (such as from Nairobi and the Philippines), women and girls still provide the vast majority of care. 

Women and girls often rely on unclean energy sources (for cooking, pumping water and so on), which may contribute to respiratory illness and heighten the difficulties of tending to the sick during the pandemic.

Care duties are also far more challenging in the absence of adequate water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH). Not only do WASH deficits result in gendered time poverty and stymie vital efforts to maintain hygiene during the pandemic, it is also difficult to socially distance when queuing for water (particularly in dense settlements). Women and girls may even risk gender-based violence as they walk to access water or fuels, including in refugee camps and other insecure settings.

Creating farsighted, equitable opportunities for women and girls

Amid such overlapping challenges, it is important to recognise women’s agency and to address multiple forms of disadvantage. Women’s grassroots organisations are already helping to promote COVID-19 recovery and create new narratives for a ‘new normal.’ Gender-responsive, age-sensitive social protection can help cushion the pandemic’s impacts.

Other priorities for a feminist recovery (PDF) include promoting food security, WASH, and universal healthcare; combating violence against women; and measures to tackle deep-seated social and economic inequalities.


Below is a selection of online resources about gender equality and COVID-19. We will update this list during the coming months:

Web platforms: Gender and COVID-19 and feminist response to COVID-19

What do we know about women and COVID-19 in low- and middle-income countries from the peer-reviewed literature? University of California San Diego blog on gender and COVID research in global South 

COVID-19: the gendered impacts of the outbreak: article in The Lancet

UN-Women’s data on COVID-19

Bringing gender equality to the core of employment recovery: International Labour Organisation podcast 

Gender and power in COVID-19: recording of WIEGO and IIHS webinar

Huairou Commission: grassroots women's network identifying strategies to address the pandemic 

Mama Kwa Mama (woman-to-woman): a Kenyan fund that raises money via professional women's networks to help people living in informal settlements

Read more:

Our collection about coronavirus examines some of the emerging impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the people and places where we work.