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COVID-19: How Your Support Helps Women and Girls During the Pandemic
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The Facts: Women and Pandemics

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact in Canada and around the world. Beyond the epidemiological effects, the outbreak of the disease impacts people and groups very differently.

“Across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection, the impacts of COVID-19 are exacerbated for women and girls simply by virtue of their sex,” says a United Nations policy brief. “With the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says the UN, “even the limited gains made in the past decades are at risk of being rolled back.” The Canadian Human Rights Commission has echoed this statement with its own, saying: “These disproportionate impacts could have long-term and far reaching consequences. If we are to restore momentum in our efforts to bring about gender equality in Canada, social and economic recovery efforts must take a feminist approach.”

The pandemic circumstances intensify inequalities related to gender, and other factors, such as economic status, race, culture, language, and other intersecting elements of our identities. It is important to understand the intersectional gendered implications of the pandemic, especially in the areas of gender-based violence, economic security, girls’ empowerment, and inclusive leadership.

Frequently asked questions about women and the COVID-19 pandemic

  • How do pandemics impact diverse women differently than men?

    Peoples’ experiences of pandemics are grounded in longstanding social inequalities that impact all of us, every single day. Epidemiological analysis on gender and COVID-19 infection, recovery, and death rates is an ongoing process.  According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, more women have been diagnosed with COVID-19 than men and more women have died as a result. This could be due to the high number of women living in a nursing homes and seniors’ residences. A high number of COVID-19 deaths have been in nursing homes. This could also be due to factors such as the high ratio of women who work on the front lines of health services, caregiving, cleaning, and other essential roles where workers are at high risk of contracting the virus.

    When it comes to the isolation measures imposed to prevent the spread of the virus, four key gendered impacts for women are:

    • Increased risk of gender-based violence (See “Why is the pandemic linked to increased gender-based violence?”)
    • More economic stress (See “How will the COVID-19 pandemic impact women economically in Canada?”)
    • Increased burden of caregiving and housework
    • Reduced access to support services

    Women and girls who face intersecting barriers and discrimination may experience additional challenges related to the pandemic. These communities include:

    First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities
    Indigenous communities in Canada were disproportionately impacted by the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, and that may indicate higher risks in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Canada’s history of colonialism has meant that many Indigenous communities experience a number of barriers to health and safety, including overcrowding, isolation, declining infrastructure, limited Internet access. Indigenous women and girls also face a higher risk of gender-based violence, which may be exacerbated by isolation measures. Many Indigenous communities have closed their borders to prevent the spread of COVID-19, given the disproportionate risks they face.

    East Asian communities
    With the spread of the COVID-19 virus, people in Canada’s East Asian communities began experiencing more acts of racism. Some business owners have reported fewer customers due to stigma around the illness. Various incidents have prompted a coalition of anti-racism groups to call on the federal government to take action to prevent anti-Asian discrimination and hate crimes.

    Black communities
    Canada doesn’t yet track race or ethnicity as part of its data collection around COVID-19. This means we are not equipped to understand how Black communities and other racialized communities are being impacted differently, and it represents a serious gap in our capacity to respond to the virus and save lives with tailored solutions.

    In some areas of the U.S., the COVID-19 death rate has been disproportionately high in African-American communities, which is linked to systemic barriers to health care and economic opportunities.

    In Canada, there are ongoing calls on government and health authorities for improved collection of race-based health data.

    Women living with disabilities
    Women with disabilities may be at increased risk of contracting COVID-19 due to, for example, an inability to practice social distancing because of dependence on caregivers. There may also be more barriers to practicing hygiene recommended prevention measures.

    Senior and elderly women
    Multiple outbreaks of COVID-19 at long-term care homes in Canada have highlighted systemic gaps that senior and elderly women may face in such facilities, particularly related to adequate staffing and oversight.

    The digital divide and other barriers to online services and information
    Increased reliance on digital resources during the pandemic may leave some women and girls behind. Access to technology and digital resources is important not only for updates about the virus, isolation measures, and how to access government aid, but it’s also become a necessity for employment and education while in isolation.

    • There’s a digital divide for those living in rural and remote areas of Canada, where communities have less reliable Internet and cellular service.
    • People living on a low income may not have personal access to computers or mobile devices, particularly when multiple family members all need access at the same time for work and school. Those who previously relied on public resources like libraries for digital access can no longer do so.
    • Senior and elderly women may be less familiar and comfortable with using digital resources to access information and resources related to the pandemic. In Calgary, a phone hotline was set up specifically to serve seniors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
    • Those living with disabilities, such as vision or hearing limitations, may not be provided with COVID-19 updates in an accessible format, such as closed captioning.
  • Why is the COVID-19 pandemic linked to increased gender-based violence?

    The COVID-19 pandemic has been linked to spikes in domestic violence reports and crisis calls in China, France, and the U.K. This echoes what has happened in past disease outbreaks.

    In Canada, women’s shelters and organizations have also sounded alarms about the risk of increased violence. The Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses, for example, says 20 per cent of the 70 shelters it represents have had increased crisis calls during the pandemic. Some police services are also noticing more domestic violence reports. One in 10 women is very or extremely concerned about the possibility of violence in the home, suggests a Statistics Canada survey about COVID-19.

    Rates of gender-based violence were high in Canada, even before the pandemic: on average, every six days, a woman is killed by her intimate partner. Thousands of women, girls, and trans and non-binary people now face a heightened risk of violence at home with COVID-19 isolation measures, whether it takes the form of emotional, physical or sexual abuse.

    Where risk factors of gender-based violence at home already exist, like a sense of control, possessive jealousy, and misogynistic attitudes, various pandemic-related stressors can become triggers, including:

    • job losses and reduced income
    • food insecurity
    • fears about contracting the virus
    • exacerbated mental health issues
    • disrupted family routines, services, and resources

    Quarantines and social isolation mean that abusers and those they harm are in close proximity around the clock and other people aren’t around to see the signs of violence and intervene.

    Social isolation also creates new barriers for those experiencing abuse or violence to access services from shelters, sexual assault centres, and other community supports, which have continued to operate while facing many new challenges. Under normal circumstances, it’s difficult for women in abusive relationships to confidentially reach out for help, but the pandemic-related circumstances have made it even harder.

    In light of this, it’s important to know about Signal for Help, a simple one-handed sign someone can use on a video call. It can help a person silently show they need help and want someone to check in with them in a safe way. Learn more about the signal and how to respond should you receive it.

    While the federal government and Ontario provincial government have announced emergency funding for women’s shelters and other services for those who experience gender-based violence, we know more funding is urgently needed. Services for violence prevention and intervention were already struggling to meet needs before the arrival of COVID-19, particularly in the wake of the #MeToo Movement and the Globe and Mail’s Unfounded investigation.

  • How do women’s roles in the workforce put them on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada?

    Women remain highly concentrated in professional roles that put them on the front lines of both health care and jobs considered essential services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    The three industries with the highest ratio of women versus men in Canada are health care and social assistance (82.4 per cent), educational services (69.3 per cent), and accommodation and food services (58.5 per cent), reports Statistics Canada. In 2015, “around 56 per cent of women were employed in occupations involving the ‘5 Cs’: caring, clerical, catering, cashiering and cleaning.”

    Women health-care workers — including doctors, nurses, and paid caregivers — don’t have the privilege of isolating at home because we’re depending on them to deliver care. The vast majority of those in the following health-care roles are women: nurses, medical lab technicians, respiratory therapists, and personal support workers.

    It has also been reported that gender bias in the design of personal protective equipment may make it less effective for them, and hamper their work. Given that the equipment may be designed with men’s bodies and proportions in mind, women may find that the equipment doesn’t fit or work well.

    Women who work as cleaners, cashiers, and food-service workers also continue to play key roles in serving the public at grocery stores, drug stores, pharmacies, and other essential businesses and services that remain open during the pandemic.

  • How will the COVID-19 pandemic impact women economically in Canada?

    Given that women are concentrated in sectors and industries hardest hit by isolation measures, a higher proportion of women have lost their jobs in the early stages of the pandemic. During the week of March 15-21, employment dropped by 298,500 or five per cent among women aged 25 to 54, which was more than twice that of men.

    With travel shut down, layoffs have hit women working as flight attendants, cooks, servers, and cleaners in travel and hospitality. As stores have closed or reduced hours, there have been cutbacks for retail workers, many of whom are also women. Aside from industries shut down by COVID-19, women also make up the majority of Canada’s minimum-wage workers and part-time workers. These positions are precarious at the best of times.

    The pandemic is intensifying economic barriers women already face throughout Canada, and research suggests that, long term, pandemics can take a higher toll on women’s incomes than men’s.

    Poverty in Canada is already gendered. Women make up 60 per cent of those in Canada who are economically “struggling”, meaning that they report difficulty covering basic expenses and may need pay day loans or food banks to get by.

    The COVID-19 pandemic means new challenges to delivering support services for those who are struggling, such as food banks that can’t meet demand, and closures of public services including schools, community centres, and libraries.

    Although federal and provincial aid and relief announcements are encouraging, many women are still at risk of falling through the cracks.

  • How are women leaders playing a role in Canada’s response to COVID-19?

    Women in leadership positions have taken powerful and visible roles in the response to COVID-19 in Canada and internationally. Some of them, such as Canada’s 10 chief medical officers, have quickly become household names.

    At the same time, it’s important to remember that there are many women leaders who aren’t making headlines, but they are also on the front lines of the COVID-19 response, making difficult decisions and taking action, including nurses, community-service providers, elder-care workers, and store clerks. These essential roles are often carried out by diverse women, and they are in practical leadership roles in our neighbourhoods, at risk to themselves and their families.

    Although women remain under-represented in formal leadership roles in Canada, it’s not surprising that women’s leadership in Canada’s response to COVID-19 has been applauded. There is significant research to suggest that inclusive leadership leads to greater success; both gender and racial diversity are correlated with stronger business performance.

    There are many reasons why women’s leadership through the pandemic has the potential to blaze new trails:

    • The emergence of diverse role models, particularly in the STEM arena, can motivate other women and girls to pursue these roles.
    • More diversity in leadership helps to break down stereotypes about who and what makes a good leader.
    • When more diverse women are involved decision-making processes, they’re in a position to bring a stronger gender lens to the process.
  • How is the COVID-19 pandemic impacting women’s mental health?

    Surveys conducted at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic suggested that women in Canada were carrying a bigger burden of worry about the situation than men.

    Forty-nine per cent of women reported feeling “very worried” about the outbreak, compared to 33 per cent of men, indicated a poll by Abacus Data. The data also showed that men were less likely to follow the advice of public health officials around staying home and social distancing.

    Seventy-five per cent of female respondents were afraid of a family member contracting the virus, compared to 64 per cent of men, suggested an opinion survey by Leger.

    An April 2020 survey by Vanier Institute of the Family suggested that more women than men reported feeling anxious or nervous very often or often due to the pandemic, and that more women than men reported difficulty sleeping very often or often since the beginning of the pandemic.

  • How is the Canadian Women’s Foundation responding to the COVID-19 pandemic?

    The Foundation has launched the Tireless Together Fund: a national emergency fund to provide critical support to women and girls through the COVID-19 crisis. It will help vital services to reach women and girls now and continue to support them in the coming months.

    The Foundation is also working with the Government of Canada to deliver emergency funding to some services, and advocating for a gender lens on policies implemented during and in the aftermath of the pandemic.

    When you donate to the Tireless Together Fund, you’ll help service providers with: 

    • staffing and volunteer shortfalls
    • wraparound support (e.g. childcare, food, transit)
    • safety supplies (gloves, masks, cleaning supplies)
    • operational costs (rent, utilities)
    • digitization of services for physical distancing

Related Reading:
Women Leaders in COVID-19: Seen and Unseen
Women’s “Worry Work” in the COVID-19 Pandemic
The Difficult Economic Side-Effects of COVID-19 for Women
The Gendered Impacts of Coronavirus

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