How the Covid-19 Pandemic Exacerbates Existing Gender Inequalities


Everyone has been made to believe that the coronavirus pandemic is a public health issue. Now, a few months into life with coronavirus, and the threat of the associated coronavirus disease (Covid-19), it is now abundantly clear that this is not merely about health.

Reality strikes. The entire world’s economic, political and social structures are in a state of heightened anxiety and emergency. Now, while it is true that the coronavirus does not discriminate, the impact is most felt by society’s vulnerable, marginalised groups.

This article focuses on the strong and specific impact such a global pandemic has on gender inequalities, specifically women.

Before the pandemic, any attempt at discourse around gender is met with the same tired excuse: “It’s not the right time to talk about gender inequalities as our social structure is still the same”. Sadly, in times of pandemic, it is all too easy to push away attempts at scrutinising gender. “Gender isn’t our priority now”, we are told.

This article begs to differ. It is imperative to address gender inequalities if we ever want to find a more effective way to fight the Covid-19 pandemic or any other public health emergency. During times of strife, including this pandemic, it becomes all the more crucial to make sure that no one is left behind in all our emergency responses.

In Malaysia and around the world, women and girls experience the pandemic outbreak differently from men and boys. Why is that? Well, it is because women and girls have always lived with inequalities, vulnerabilities and deep-rooted traditional gender roles. A crisis only serves to exacerbate these lived experiences.

To be sure, the pandemic has changed a lot of rules, but certainly not these structures that reinforce gender inequalities. In the time of Covid-19, women and girls have been impacted from multiple angles of health, economy, social protection, safety and security.

*Women in Health workforce*

Globally, 70% of health and social care workers are women, according to a study done by the Health Workforce Department of World Health Organization (WHO)1.

It is the similar in Malaysia. According Penang Institute2 women dominates all the categories of healthcare professionals except for clinical specialists. In 2015, the Human Resources for Health Country report on Malaysia reported that:

Females predominate in most categories of healthcare providers, with specialist Doctors being the exception. Nurses are almost entirely female, while more than 75% of Pharmacists and Dental practitioners and about 60% of all Doctors are female. Primary care Doctors and hospital-based Doctors have 50% female, while among specialist Doctors, only 39% are female. Among all other categories females dominate in almost all categories, with the exception of Assistant Medical Officers (AMO) and Geneticists”.

Although women make up the majority of the healthcare workers, the sad reality is that there remain income disparities with their male counterparts. Additionally, women facing discrimination, threats and violence.3 As the public health system battles the pandemic, what is clear is that the welfare and well-being of healthcare workers is a key determinant of how resilient a country is.

For the last one month we have seen the importance of the health workforce led by women. It is time for us to dismantle the pay gap and discriminatory and prejudicial system that excludes women from decision-making processes.

This pandemic must be the impetus for Malaysia to constantly provide safe and decent working environment to prevent any disruptions in their work delivery as they work around the clock to fight Covid-19.

*Economic impacts*

The current crisis has caused disproportionate economic impact for women who generally have lower income, less or no savings, work in informal and service sectors with no job security or living in poverty. In short, marginalised and lower income women were hit hard by the Covid-19. It does not just end there. Women also overwhelmed with the unpaid care work of their children and elderly people at home because of the social distancing.

The COVID-19 has shown us the need for childcare specially to support the frontliners and key workers. After this crisis is over, quality childcare and elder care must recognised as a crucial part of the infrastructure for society. There is an urgent need to work on childcare policies in a more concerted and serious manner.

Policymakers have tended to overlook women. Take the recent example of the Prihatin Economic Stimulus Package. For a stimulus to alleviate the people’s burden, it has failed to be inclusive and address the needs of those who need it the most, especially women from the informal sectors and single mothers that been struggling with no job security or who have lost their livelihoods and yet, still have to shoulder unpaid care work.

Single mothers make up to 80% of single parents-families in Malaysia. Since the Movement Control Order (MCO) was enforced, it has had a profound impact on single mothers as they are the most economically vulnerable. They are particularly feeling more isolated and overwhelmed with juggling between job, family and children and making sure that everyone in the house is fed without any assistance from anyone.

On 21st March, PSM launched nationwide hotline for workers to complain on any mistreatment or discrimination imposed by their employers. Quite a number of single mothers called to complain that their pay has been cut; others have had threats of from employers that their salaries may not be paid while some even have lost their job.

The government must extend their wage subsidies program to women in vulnerable employment to ensure that the poor and struggling single mothers to get enough support and protection from employers and general government’s programmes.

For working single mothers, employers must make flexible working arrangements include teleworking, compressing the working hours or week and protected long-term leave, paid leave so that the single mothers can care for their families without any pressure.

Although it is important that the single mothers to be assisted for short term solutions during the COVID-19 period, but it is also crucial that we need a long-term protection for single mothers that must aims to uplift the livelihood of single mothers.

Women must be included in any plans and policies related to Covid-19 and decision-making process as well in all the future economic policies. The Government also must ensure in longer term to drive a transformative change in addressing the care work, paid and unpaid. Furthermore, the Government must target women and girls in all efforts to address the socio-economic impact with gender lens so that women can achieve greater equality and social protection.

*Domestic violence increased*

One of the news that shocked everyone just in few weeks after the movement control order (MCO) was enforced was the increase in the domestic violence in Malaysia and around the world4. Everyone is tasked with staying home to help flatten the curve. This is all well and good, but not so much for women and children at risk who are forced to be locked down at home with their abusers and perpetrators of domestic violence.

In Malaysia, data gathered from the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development’s Talian Kasih’s hotline shows an increased to 57% from women calls. Although not all are in related to domestic violence but there is significant increase in domestic violence.5 Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) reported that there was 44% increase in WAO hotline calls and Whatsapp from February to March 2020.6

Granted, Covid-19 is certainly not the cause of the domestic violence but gender stereotypes and inequalities as well as social acceptance and inaction of men’s violence against women are the real causes of domestic violence. Yes, the MCO has triggered the domestic violence but it is not the excuse.

The current situation has limited women’s access and ability to escape. At the same time, the support services like police, health services, shelter homes are their first responders are overwhelmed with the Pandemic and their priorities are shifted. NGOs are affected by the MCO and they can only do limited service and assistance.

The government must take preventive efforts and services to respond effectively and faster to the violence against women into the Covid-19 plans and must make domestic violence shelters as essential services and increase fund and resources to them and NGOs groups that been on frontline.

Besides that, government must make sure that the survivors of the domestic violence that financially depending on the abusers or those who have left their abusers must be provided financial support. The police must have clear SOP when dealing with the domestic violence cases and police must receive and investigate any cases that being reported after MCO ended as some maybe experiencing abuse right now but unable to call the police as it wouldn’t be safe for them.

*Traditional gender stereotypes and roles*

In this time, we have also seen traditional gender stereotypes come to the fore. Inadvertently, the government of Malaysia has been perpetuating such stereotypes. One key example is the rule that only the head of the family is allowed to go out to buy groceries. Accompanying this was the unchallenged notion that the head of a family must be a man. Clearly, the Prime Minister or the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development gave no thought on how this rule impacts single mothers who must go out to buy things and leave their children alone without any other adults to took care of them.

Then, there was the statement from the Prime Minister on the 18 of March7, he started off with the words “Saudara-saudari “ which he addressed both genders but quickly repeated stereotypes again, asking men to take care of their wife, children and families. The tone of the speech was though the Prime Minister was only addressing the men and reiterating the role of men as head of family.

This was repeated, on 25th March8, when the PM once again showed his gender insensitivity and stereotypical remarks. He asked mothers at home to try new cooking recipes and asked the husbands to spend time to lead wife and children in prayers. This is a classic example of men in power repeatedly imposing their gender stereotypes that the women’s role is to cook, and the men’s job is to lead.

Then, of course, who will forget the controversial infographic released by the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development asking women not to nag their husbands and speak in cute voice like Doraemon as well as urging women dress up and put make up while working from home.

We are already living in a sexist, patriarchal, misogyny, inequal and insensitive society. Working outside home in unequal environment is already challenging for women and during MCO women still expected to carry the burden of work, family, children and care work.

The backlash from that tone-deaf infographic should serve as a warning to the entire government to be mindful of the gender stereotypes and its role in not perpetuating them.

*Crisis can be an opportunity for gendered change*

All is not lost. The pandemic may be an impetus for change. The Covid-19 pandemic is like a mirror to all that has gone wrong in the economic, social and political system that we live in. The health crisis has showed us other critical issues like poverty, discriminating work policies and an unequal and patriarchal society. It feels like whatever that we gained in the past for gender equality are at risk and we are being rolled back to the past. But even in the crisis we see a hope and opportunity for gendered change.

We must fight for the traditional gender roles to be erased from the eye of the state to the society. This is not 18th century for men to enjoy their patriarchal “privileges” anymore and time for them to share same and shared parental and domestic responsibilities. Women must be in leadership and decision-making roles. We hope this pandemic has triggered people’s realisation that we can build a movement towards a greater gender equality and to end gender stereotypes, sexism and patriarchal system.

The world has seen how important the role of women through the health workforce and essential services. For too long women have been ignored and those in power mostly that controlled by men refused to use gender lens to see the issues. The world needed women to fight the COVID-19 Pandemic and we are confident that this time no one will ignore women.

Nalini E

Women and Gender Desk,

Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM)

1 Delivered By Women, Led By Men: A Gender And Equity Analysis Of The Global Health And Social Workforce, Link

2Dr Khor Swee Kheng, Future-proofing Malaysia’s Health Workforce ,26 April 2019 (Penang Institute), Link

3 Delivered By Women, Led By Men: A Gender And Equity Analysis Of The Global Health And Social Workforce, Link

4Emma Graham-HarrisonAngela Giuffrida  Helena Smith & Liz Ford, Lockdowns around the world bring rise in domestic violence, 28 March 2020, Link

5 Tharanya Arumugam, MCO-linked domestic violence rises, 4 April 2020, Link

6 Women’s Aid Organisation, Link

7 Perutusan Perdana Menteri, 18 March 2020, Link

8 Perutusan Perdana Menteri, 25 March 2020, Link

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