COVID-19 to change women’s lives in Bangladesh

Women carry relief supplies amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Dhaka, BangladeshReuters

This year marks 25 years since the most progressive blueprint ever was created for advancing women’s rights: the Beijing Platform for Action. It outlines a visionary agenda for empowerment and achieving gender equality.

While progress has been made over the last 25 years, 2020 has brought a pandemic that has deepened pre-existing gender inequalities and exposed vulnerabilities for women in social, political, and economic systems.

The role and work of women in every sphere has intensified in the wake of the pandemic. Globally, 70% of health and social service workers are women - think nurses, community health workers, caregivers, and on average globally they are still paid 28% less for the same work.

Women are working more on every frontline, including at home. With lockdowns meaning more of us at home more of the time, women are often looking after three demographics; children, who do not have access to childcare or schools; parents and elderly relatives, who do not have access to aged care or their normal services; as well as keeping themselves, partners, extended family and friends safe. And around the world, it is women and girls facing the most violence.

BRAC’s gender justice and diversity programme designed a rapid assessment to understand the vulnerabilities and potential risks of women in Bangladesh due to COVID-19. A total of 557 respondents (79% women and 21% men) from communities of BRAC’s interventions participated.The assessment was carried out between 28 March - 9 April 2020, using both qualitative and quantitative data collection methods. The findings were stark:

Women bear the brunt of increased care work

A total of 91% of women's domestic and care work has increased compared to pre-pandemic levels. And 89% of women said they do not have any leisure time.

The bulk of unpaid household work has risen. Closure of schools, jobs, and a rise in working from home means that all members of the family are in the house. Women have to spend more time taking care of the needs of all of the family members, including care for everyone who is ill and implementing new hygiene and safety precautions, leaving many women with no time to look after themselves.

Lack of access to sexual and reproductive health, rights

Young people in Bangladesh, particularly if they are not married, struggle to access sexual and reproductive health information and services. Two out of five mothers under age 25 in Bangladesh report that their last pregnancy was unintended. Government facilities are only required to provide sexual and reproductive health information and services to married couples.

A total of 56% of women faced obstacles in accessing contraceptives. And 63% of respondents reported a shortage in the market and 53% said that the price of contraceptives had increased. Combined with less access to safe abortion services, it would not be surprising if COVID-19 heralded a rise in unintended pregnancies.

For women who are already pregnant, the reduced access to food because of the pandemic is a particular concern. And 68% of pregnant and lactating women surveyed are not receiving sufficient nutritious food.

Increased violence, decreased access to support services

Violence against women has increased globally during the pandemic, in parallel with a marked decrease in services available for survivors. In Bangladesh, there is less access to legal support with physical courts being closed, and fewer places for women to go with the services of One-Stop Crisis Centres and women’s shelters being limited. People are also less willing to seek medical support in cases of rape because health facilities are overburdened, transport is limited and people are scared about catching the virus. Chillingly, these facts are not unknown to perpetrators.

Any disease outbreak affects women and men differently, but one trend is consistent - pandemics exacerbate the existing gender inequalities that women and girls face in their lives.

Shila had been managing her small family fairly well after her husband migrated to Saudi Arabia. He sent money to her and she took care of all of the expenses. Things changed after he lost his job because of COVID-19. When Shila told him they were running low on their savings, he began to accuse her of having ‘bad habits’. Shila had never used the money without her husband’s consent, but he would not believe her and abused her. With nowhere to go, Shila was ready to commit suicide when she was found and pulled to safety. She is now under the care of one of BRAC’s psychosocial counsellors.

Impact on the younger generation may last forever

Educational institutions have been closed since the outbreak began in March. Respondents explained during focus groups that, because of economic stress, parents of girl children may not send their daughters back to studies.

A total of 73 separate incidents of child marriage occurred just during the two weeks in which this study was undertaken. In focus groups, parents said that they opted for the marriages out of fear that they would not be able to afford to feed their daughters if the pandemic continues for a long time. And 71% of the marriages happened because educational institutions were closed while 62% happened because potential grooms had lost their jobs overseas and returned to their home villages.

Any disease outbreak affects women and men differently, but one trend is consistent - pandemics exacerbate the existing gender inequalities that women and girls face in their lives. A pandemic of the scale that we are witnessing today points towards nothing short of a disaster for women and girls everywhere, especially those who were already living in vulnerable situations.

12 recommendations for immediate action:

  1. Ensure equal participation of women and other diverse groups (youth, people with disabilities, ethnic, etc) in emergency response.

  2. Strengthen mechanisms to collect and report gender and other disaggregated data.

  3. Ensure women everywhere, especially those working in the informal sector, have access to information and services.

  4. Initiate advocacy initiatives immediately to activate the national trauma counseling centres and shelter homes to ensure continued services to survivors of violence.

  5. Strengthen support services (medical, legal, psychosocial, counselling, rehabilitation, shelter, etc.) for survivors of violence.

  6. Launch campaigns to prevent gender-based violence and promote the sharing of household responsibilities.

  7. Activate and strengthen community-based watchdogs/protection committees/monitoring committees to raise awareness and ensure access to services. Digitised mechanisms should be established for reporting and referral linkages.

  8. Put in place special care and protection measures to protect physical and mental health among frontline workers.

  9. Place special attention on antenatal and postnatal care services, especially for pregnant and lactating mothers, and access to family planning services for women and adolescent girls.

  10. Conduct further large-scale research on different areas for an in-depth understanding of the different gender dimensions during the pandemic.

  11. Develop and introduce SoP/protocols for online support services.

  12. Engage men and boys to address and prevent violence against women and children.

Sameeha Suraiya is Lead Content Strategist of BRAC Communications and Sarah-Jane Saltmarsh is Head, Programme and Enterprise Communications