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Kanwal Waqar & Kosar Bano
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Kosar Bano & Kanwal Waqar
The uneven impact of COVID-19 has exposed entrenched gender and other inequalities in Pakistan. Initial research indicates that COVID-related death rates are higher among men. Nonetheless, in many ways, COVID-19 has had a disproportionately negative impact on women and girls. A recent UN report on the gender aspects of COVID-19 noted the pandemic’s “potentially strong adverse impacts on the livelihoods of vulnerable groups” and stated that it is likely to “further compound pre-existing gender inequalities” in developing countries like Pakistan.
In Pakistan, women have contributed significantly to combating the pandemic, working as frontline workers, doctors, nurses, paramedics and ‘lady health visitors’. According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, 80% employees in the health sector are women. The role that women perform as caregivers within households is also of immense importance. Yet a tendency to underrate and underutilize their knowledge and skills persists.
As a result of the lockdowns in Pakistan, restrictions on movement have made it difficult to access health care facilities, especially for women in remote areas. Anecdotal evidence indicates that women bear additional domestic burdens of caregiving and carrying out disease prevention measures. This increases their exposure to COVID-19. In many cases, women are expected to continue working even when they fall sick.
Even in pre-pandemic times, statistics show that 56% of the rural population does not have access to hand washing facilities with water and soap at home, which is essential for preventing the spread of COVID-19. Certain social practices increase vulnerability to COVID-19 among women. For example, due to a lack of latrines – as well as cultural stigma associated with women’s use of lavatories in the presence of male family members even when these facilities are available – many women are forced to defecate in fields, which makes them unable to properly dispose of faeces or wash their hands thoroughly after defecation. In addition, the use of firewood in stoves is a major cause of respiratory illness – which increases vulnerability to COVID-19 – especially among women and children, who spend most of their time at home and are thus constantly exposed to smoke.
Women in Pakistan are often expected to cook and serve food in their households. However, women disproportionately suffer from malnutrition and food shortages because of discriminatory norms in food allocation. Food insecurity among women in Pakistan is also a result of unequal access to resources such as land, credit, and technology as well as the fact that their work is often unpaid. Such difficulties are compounded in the mountain areas of Pakistan, where arable land is scarce and even land that is available is underutilized due to outmigration of men. Our correspondences with mountain women reveal that the current lockdown has prevented them from selling their agri-products and procuring grain for themselves, potentially rendering them food insecure.
News reports note that there has been a surge in domestic violence, honour killings, and gender-based violence during the lockdown. As has been recorded worldwide, in Pakistan as well, enforced immobility and a decline in economic activity have led to an increase in depression, aggression and violent behaviour within households. The Government of Pakistan’s Ministry of Human Rights has established a helpline to help victims of domestic violence. However, such facilities are not readily accessible to women from rural areas.
Schools in Pakistan have been closed for the past four months and been instructed to conduct lessons online. However, it is difficult for people in rural areas to access online classes, due to poor availability of internet and electricity. The situation is even more difficult for girls in Pakistan, since they are often not allowed to leave their homes to use facilities elsewhere. Reports also indicate that increased financial vulnerability has led parents to pull their daughters out of schools and arrange early marriages for them.
Many of our women contacts in rural Pakistan have mentioned that the lockdown has increased women’s domestic burdens since their family members are now restricted to the house and family members living in the cities have also returned to their villages. They also note that men rarely share domestic duties. The responsibility of maintaining adequate facilities for handwashing and other preventive measures also falls disproportionately on women.
While the current lockdowns across Pakistan have had adverse impacts on all sections of society, those with low-paying jobs and in the informal sector have been particularly hit hard. In Pakistan, 70% of women work in the informal sector. Many of them have lost their jobs during the pandemic and many women in rural areas have lost significant income due to their inability to sell agri-products. As mentioned by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in its recent report, in Pakistan it is also the case that poor, single and widowed women face difficulties in gaining access to social safety programmes as many such programmes only regard men as the primary breadwinner of the family.
The gendered impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have compounded and exacerbated existing gender and social inequalities in Pakistan. They also pose immediate and long-term risks for individuals, communities, societies, countries, and the Hindu Kush Himalayan region as a whole.
Our Gender Resource Group (GRG), which includes leading women from the government, private sector, and civil society, is working with local communities to sensitise women about various facets of the pandemic.
Our work with the Government of Pakistan to enhance livelihood opportunities through projects for tunnel farming, the cultivation of high value crops (e.g., Fiji apples and kiwis) and innovative cottage enterprises (e.g., yak and Angora rabbit farming) is ongoing, although the pandemic has thrown a spanner in the works. We’re currently involved in expanding access to information, financial services, and markets.
As was articulated in detail in our COVID-19 impact and policy responses in the Hindu Kush Himalaya policy paper, in order to be effective, response and recovery plans must take the social and gender dimensions of the pandemic into account. Below are some recommendations for making COVID-19 response in Pakistan more inclusive and gender sensitive, which may also be relevant across other areas of the HKH:
As with other crises, the pandemic offers an opportunity to reevaluate and reform existing norms and structures. By forcing men to remain at home, for example, the pandemic has compelled them to pay closer attention to hardships faced by women in the household. According to some reports, such recognition can lead men to treat women with greater respect and dignity. If the situation is taken as an opportunity to change behaviour and equalize playing fields, social norms and expectations can be altered for effective gender transformative change.
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Amina Maharjan & Surendra Raj Joshi