The Covid-19 pandemic has caused an emergence of another parallel pandemic of violence against women and girls – mainly those who were locked up in their homes with their abusers during lockdown.
“We are living in deeply unsettling times. The pandemic has turned everything upside down, how we live, how we work, how we interact,” said Gita Sen, adjunct professor of global health and population at Harvard University.
What’s more important, she added, was the backlash against gender equality and human rights, specifically the rights of women and girls across the world, including in parts of Asia and the Pacific.
“I have seen very little active leadership to remove stigma and to deal with the backlash against gender equality. Some leaders have gone in the opposite direction and we really need to tackle this,” she said.
Sen, who is also a distinguished professor at the Public Health Foundation of India, shared her views during a virtual conference organised by the steering committee of the 10th Asia Pacific Conference on Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and Citizen News Service (CNS) on July 9.
She said The State of the World Population Report 2020 pointed to disturbing facts, especially regarding female genital mutilation, child marriage and sex selection (as a result of aversion to daughters), which were present in the region and harmed women and girls while undermining equality.
“The existing […] structural inequalities [have been] exacerbated during the pandemic,” Sen said.
“Covid-19 has shown us the weakness of our health system, where women tend to be at the bottom of the health worker hierarchy.”
Sen also pointed out that the fragility of economic systems had impacted informal and migrant workers, women and minority community communities the most.
“This happened even in a very high per-capita-income country like Singapore. While it could manage the pandemic well in the initial stages, later on migrant workers, who lived in crowded buildings on the outskirts of Singapore and lacked access to proper services, became the hub for the new spike [in cases].”
Economic inequality has widened the gap between the rich and the poor in the region.
“We need to move toward universal basic income for everyone, including the migrant workers on whom our economies depend. We need to invest in housing, water and sanitation. We need progressive tax systems.
“The rich must [pay a] wealth tax to fund essential public services,” Sen said.
In the health sector, she stressed the unreliability and very high costs of private health care.
“We cannot depend on the private sector in health care if we want to move toward universal health coverage,” Sen said.
“Investment in the public provision of healthcare services, effective regulation of the private sector and ensuring that women health workers, who predominate at the lower ranks, are treated properly as workers [are needed],” she added, insisting that women were key in moving toward a more balanced economy and more sustainable and caring societies.
Meanwhile, Caroline Homer, who is co-program director of maternal, child and adolescent health at Burnet Institute, presented a plenary talk entitled “Addressing barriers to accelerate progress on SRHR in Asia Pacific”.
“SRHR [sexual and reproductive health and rights] is essential for human development, sustainable development and for countries to reach SDGs.
"There are enormous links of SRHR, gender equality and women’s wellbeing,” said Homer, who is also a visiting professor of the Midwifery Faculty of Health, the University of Technology Sydney.
She added that countries that had strong and effective SRHR had very strong economic development and were better for environmental sustainability.
However, Homer raised concern over many existing problems in the Asia-Pacific,
“There are not enough women. In addition to healthcare access, the region has also seen a rise in violence against women and girls during the pandemic,” she said.
“SRHR is not a women’s issue or men’s issue but it is all of our issues. We see high rates of nearly one in three women experiencing intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence.
“We are seeing higher rates of violence across the region. In my country [Australia], in the 27 weeks of the pandemic, 27 women have been allegedly murdered by their partners or by family members.”
She explained that Covid-19 had exacerbated many of the other barriers – particularly access and availability to health services – as many services wear geared toward responding to Covid-19, rather than providing health services.
“The region sees many health workers, particularly nurses, midwives, doctors, community health workers, were struck by Covid-19 and many of them have died. The loss of healthcare workers is an enormous tragedy.”
For the latest updates on the coronavirus, visit here.