With the global pandemic surging, the differential impact on women and girls is being increasingly documented (United Nations, 2020). Evidence from past epidemics, including Ebola (2014-16) and Zika (2016) suggests that women are affected by outbreaks differently than men and carry long-term socio-health impacts that set them back by years. According to UNESCO, it is estimated that Covid-19 has impacted 320 million children in India, out of which 158 million are girls who face the real threat of dropping-out of schools which increases their vulnerability to early marriage and lack of agency. An increase in gender-based violence has been reported across many countries including India.
The economic aftermath of the pandemic has pushed substantial populations into poverty exacerbating already precarious financial inequalities (The World Bank, 2020; The Hindu, 2021). India already bears the world’s largest share of child brides (equaling 23 million) and this is predicted to rise due to the pandemic (UNICEF). An assessment on constraints faced by adolescents during Covid-19 (Centre for Catalyzing Change, 2020) found that more boys than girls had access to digital infrastructures such as mobile phones, internet services, radio, and media. With such low access to technology, digital schooling will further disengage girls from education and widen the educational inequalities among learners. Even if girls have access to technology at home, there is gender disparity in the distribution of domestic responsibilities.
The pandemic is also shifting household dynamics within homes and in communities due to the economic duress generated by income losses. Such pressures tend to de-prioritise women and girls and their needs with adverse long lasting impact. The pandemic is also shifting household dynamics within homes and in communities due to the economic duress generated by income losses. The burden of household work, taking care of children and elder family members has also increased manifold, falling disproportionately on women and girls. In addition, social norms in contexts like India dictate that women and girls are the last to receive medical attention when they become ill, which could hinder their ability to receive timely care for Covid-19 (Population Foundation, 2020).
Gender inequality is also visible in vaccination coverage. Due to the lack of information on Covid-19, vaccines, literacy and the digital divide, there will be a multiplier effect in widening the gap. The patriarchal ecosystem further amplifies this gap. Increasing evidence indicates that Covid-19 crises will amplify existing societal barriers and increase the gender gap that already exists. This has lasting implications for girls and women especially with regard to access to health information and services and education opportunities.
At Breakthrough India, we decided to conduct a rapid assessment to understand the gendered impact of Covid-19 and the subsequent vaccine hesitancy witnessed in India. The survey was administered online and on-ground between 4th– 10th June, 2021. A total of 318 people between the ages of 14-56 years participated, of which 70% identified as female and 30% identified as male. The survey brought to light important insights on the exacerbation of gender inequalities, particularly gender-based violence, over the past one year.
The catastrophic second wave further aggravated the situation while adversely impacting women and children. The survey results highlighted a sudden surge in underage and early/forced marriage, gender-based violence and lack of access to educational opportunities for females. In terms of education, a clear digital divide was evident. Lack of accessibility to technology-driven education and preference for male child(ren)’s education over females were brought up as prominent issues.
Here are some of our most prominent findings:
- About 10% of the respondents mentioned instances of early or underage marriage of girls and 29% of girls were married at the legal age in their locality or community during COVID and lockdown. Reasons being cited included being able to spend less on the marriage ceremonies due to lockdown restrictions or families wanting to reduce their financial burdens by marrying off their daughters.
- Education is another important pillar of the economy that has been drastically affected by the pandemic. 62% respondents said that during COVID and lockdown, girls ‘studies have been more affected in comparison to boys. 10% students are not able to access technology to attend online classes and 11% despite attending online classes it was not as effective as classroom learning and the students don’t actually learn much.
- 42 % respondents reported that they have seen/experienced any form of violence in their locality or community during lockdown. 80.2% reported that violence happened with women and girls. 78.5% of respondents reported that men and boys were the perpetrators of violence.
While the pandemic has greatly affected the mental health of all sections of population, it has had a greater impact on women and girls. Survey analysis showed that the pandemic has lead to an increase in the rate of female unemployment along with a dip in the leisure time for women and girls due to increase in household chores and care-giving responsibilities leading to excessive stress among females.
Globally, the informal sector has been disproportionately affected by job loss and women and girls constitute the majority proportion of the workforce. In India, women were 7 times more likely to lose their jobs and 11 times more likely to not return to work post the pandemic (Azim Premji University 2021; Oxfam 2020). This was corroborated by the our survey, which found that:
- 70% respondents reported more women than men losing their jobs
- 48% respondents reported women either losing their jobs or not receiving their wages/salaries
- 12% reported that even if women were working they were overburdened with managing both household and/or office responsibilities from home
- 73% of respondents reported that during COVID and lockdown, women/girls had to do more household work.
- 74% of respondents reported that during COVID and the lockdown, conversation and meetings with people have been reduced.
- 68% respondents reported lockdown affecting mental health with greater impact and implications for women and girls.
Vaccine Awareness and Sources of Information:
In terms of sources of information, Television and WhatsApp have emerged as widely used sources for news and information in both urban and rural areas. However, social media platforms have become major mediums in dissemination of news and information, while also being vessels for the spread of misinformation and disinformation by spreading myths and false news regarding the pandemic. Vaccination hesitancy has been a by-product of myths and misinformation. The data also showed a trend towards misinformation related to vaccines being higher in rural areas compared to urban areas.
Misinformation related to vaccines is higher in rural areas (43%) compared to urban areas (16%). 54% of respondents from urban areas and 37% of respondents from rural areas reported that they want to get vaccinated, but they are unable to do so due to lack of access to internet connection, data, smartphones, deficiency in digital literacy and vaccination service.
Gender disparity in Vaccine Drive:
An attitude of prioritising vaccination for males over females was also evident. When we asked that, now that the supply of the vaccine is low, who among the family should get the vaccine first, 34% of respondents said that males above 45 years should get the vaccine first while 31% of respondents said that males aged 18-44 years should get it first. Male members of the family are given preference in receiving the vaccination compared to females.
From the rapid assessment, it is evident that, once again, we are leaving behind our vulnerable people. It has become even more important to take proactive measures to avert a third wave and ensure the safety of vulnerable sections of society with a special focus on women and children.
What are our recommendations?
- Need for gender responsive planning for current and future crises: from preparedness to response
- Need for sex disaggregated data to tell the full story in all its entirety
- Vaccination programmes need to account for gender as access; perception around need mediated by gender norms
- Mass media outreach for correct, accurate and gender sensitive information accounting for social gendered realities
- Have dialogues/conversation around this issue with different stakeholders
- Investment in education, especially in appropriate low-tech, affordable and gender responsive educational methods, even as a safe return to schools is enabled for all.
- Robust systems /supporting mechanisms to safeguard women and girls from gender based violence. These must ensure that mechanisms for reporting violence remain accessible even in crisis situations.
- Working and sensitising local-level panchayats and frontline workers, teachers, youth who have a strong foothold with communities and strengthening local infrastructure and support mechanisms.