The Ms. Q&A: UN Women’s Anita Bhatia on How Coronavirus Impacts Women Around the World

“Women are carrying the world on their shoulders, in a way.”

—Assistant-Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of UN Women Anita Bhatia

Across the globe, women make up the majority of the workers on the frontline of the coronavirus. As the pandemic continues to spread, they are becoming increasingly exposed to the coronavirus at high rates—while lacking protections ensuring their safety.

And, as the rest of the workforce continues to be sent home in isolation, women are stereotypically expected to care for their families—but without the essential daily wages they need to maintain financial stability for themselves and their families. 

UN Women is a UN entity working for the empowerment of women. Assistant-Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, Anita Bhatia, addressed these concerns, as well as others that arise when viewing responses to the virus through a gender-focused lens.

Roxy Szal, associate digital editor for Ms. Magazine, spoke to Bhatia about COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on women internationally.

Deputy Executive Director Anita Bhatia visits Thailand, July 2019. (UN Women Asia and the Pacific / Flickr)

Please note, this interview has been shortened and edited for clarity. 

Roxy Szal: We know the many ways this crisis disproportionately affects women. In your most recent op-ed, you broke down the impacts of coronavirus on women into three buckets: economic impact, the impact on women’s health and the lack of women’s perspective. Can you go into more detail about the economic effect on women, both in the formal and informal sector?

Anita Bhatia: Let’s start with informal.

In the informal sector, both in developed and developing economies, a much greater proportion of the work is done by women. If you look at the share of women in informal employment in developing countries, it’s actually 4.6 percentage points higher than that of men. This is data from the ILO from 2018.

We also know from ILO data that nearly 14 percent of women who are in the formal sector don’t have access to social protection.

Combine that with the fact that right now, economies are kind of frozen all over the world. Everything is in lockdown.

And so, of course, both men and women are badly affected. But, when you think about the fact that a lot of the informal work, even in developed economies, is done by women—and I’m talking here about people who clean houses, domestic workers—these women have no social safety net, they have no paid leave because they are not formal sector employees, they have no health insurance.

So, this triple whammy—not being in a job that has benefits, being wage earners, not having that social safety net—means that they are disproportionately impacted.

Now, everything is in lockdown. A while ago, it was just travel, tourism, restaurants, food production, those industries that have a very high percentage of female labor force participation.

So I think that, with the lockdown, men and women are equally affected, but women are disproportionately affected because they make up a disproportionate percentage of the informal economy—particularly when it comes to caregiving.

If you look at people who work in frontline healthcare, 67 percent of the global healthcare workforce is female. Then there’s that whole issue of how they’re exposed to infection. Even though there seem to be more men than women dying, more healthcare workers are women, so actually they get exposed to the infection much more. They’re more likely to fall sick.

Women are carrying the world on their shoulders, in a way.

RS: We are curious to hear from women in different regions dealing with the effects of coronavirus. In India, your native country, do you have anything to share about how women there are faring (in comparison to the rest of the world)?

AB: It’s a very, very difficult time for the average woman in India.

First of all, so much of India’s economy is informal, and within the informal economy, a huge percentage is female. So, for them, on a daily basis, it is really simple: It’s about basic needs. It’s about survival.

Many are daily wage earners and have nowhere to go when there is a lockdown. So they cannot even get out, and they’re not receiving a salary.

You can be sure that the impact is huge because they many no longer have an income source. And women have the burden of care because they would be expected—given gender norms—to be cooking, providing food for the family and doing house care, as well. In a stereotypical home, women would carry a much greater burden of care to start with, because they end up doing not just their own work, but also taking care of the children, taking care of the elders.

Those who are better off, those who have access to financial resources and are at home, if they are in the workforce, they are certainly finding they are carrying a bigger burden of care at home. That burden disproportionately falls on women.

Finally, given the high level of domestic violence in most countries, my fear is that those levels of violence will also go up because of the conditions that have been created for perpetrators through lockdown. That is an unintended consequence of the lockdown. You have to socially distance, you have to isolate, you have to restrict freedom of movement. It’s like an abuser woke up and said, “Let me create the dream conditions”—that’s what this would look like. Now you have state-sanctioned circumstances for abusers to be more abusive.

And so, it’s really important for governments to not forget about these women and make sure hotlines and services are kept open.

RS: You mentioned that women make up the majority of domestic workers and the global health workforce. Has this or will this affect their risk of getting the virus due to higher exposure rates? 

AB: Yes, absolutely.

I was watching this nurse on TV last night in New York, and she was saying, “You know we just need basic things. We need masks, we need protective gear, and we just don’t have it.”

Of course everybody’s affected by this—it’s not like there are not male doctors and male nurses—but again, when you look at the number of nurses who are women and the number of frontline responders who are women, you realize that women are carrying the world on their shoulders. There are just too many women being affected by the fact that our overall response to this is not as robust as it should be.

We need much more urgency around getting our frontline workers the personal protective equipment that they need in order to do a good job. We know that when you have a crisis like this, essential health services get directed to dealing with the pandemic.

Then, there are other essential services like giving birth, abortions, accessing contraception. These are not non-essential services. Governments have to think about services for women as essential and try to find some way to keep those going in the midst of this horrible crisis. 

The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates there are at least 67 million domestic workers over the age of 15 worldwide, 80 percent of which are women. Pictured: Lucy Nyangasi, a domestic worker in Kenya. (Solidarity Center / Flickr)

RS: Will women face greater financial hardships because of the volatility of their jobs—especially traveling domestic workers and healthcare professionals—during the pandemic? 

AB: They probably face an intersecting burden.

For example, the Philippines has a huge proportion of domestic workers all over the world. If you’re a domestic worker from the Philippines, I am willing to bet that there is a lot of stigmatization going on of Asian workers right now. This crisis is making countries become extremely isolationist.

So, you are socially isolating at home—and socially isolating as a country. The social isolation as a country means you are going to reject people who are migrant workers and who are refugees.

On one hand, it really is a borderless issue, meaning nobody escapes this, everybody is affected: rich, poor, young, old, male, female.

But, at the same time, we are seeing that countries are trying to become extremely isolationist. That means they are extending this isolation mindset. It really is what I would call nationalist isolation.

RS: Has the UN been making efforts to include women in their discussions and decision-making processes regarding COVID-19?

AB: Absolutely. The secretary general issued an appeal [yesterday] asking donors to respond to the needs of this crisis. In his speech, he specifically mentions the needs for women and girls.

On [the UN Women] side, we are gearing up to respond to both the spike in domestic violence, but also to lay the groundwork for women’s business, women’s entrepreneurship and women’s economic resilience to focus on what needs to be done, because we need to start thinking post-pandemic. There has to be a light at the end of the tunnel.

Post-pandemic, we know that women’s employment rates and cogeneration is just going to go up. It’s already bad, it’s just going to get worse. I think we are already seeing the estimates of the decline and the estimates of the job loss all over the world, those numbers are starting to come in. Women are going to be disproportionately affected by cuts and layoffs.

We have seen this movie before: We saw it during ebola. Women actually suffered a great deal; it took them much longer to get back into the workforce. We can predict, based on what we saw in ebola, that it will take women longer to get back into the workforce, longer to re-establish some kind of financial security. We have to design interventions and programs that actually respond to this. Remember, a lot of households are single, female-headed households, and this will be particularly hard on them. If they lose a job, how are they taking care of their children?

We don’t have enough gender disaggregated data, and you actually need that. Without that, you cannot make the case that you need to target interventions to women. 

RS: From what you’ve seen at the UN or in other political or even scientific spaces, are people taking note of the gender and sex differences regarding the pandemic?

AB: When you turn the TV on, every single person you see speaking on this crisis is a man—other than [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi and [Dr.] Deborah Birx. By and large, it’s all men. That is a reflection of how few women actually make it into decision-making.

Twenty-five percent of parliamentarians worldwide are women; 75 percent are still men. Less than 10 percent of heads of state are women. So you’re seeing those heads of government and state out there. But, by and large, you’re seeing men.

We need to bring women’s voices into decision making so you get better decisions, and you get people thinking about women in the response. I really believe that you can make the response more robust if you include women’s voices because they will think of things the men simply have not thought of. I think we also need to really leverage and strengthen women’s groups to get messaging out.

For example, I saw this video yesterday, which was hilarious and sad and tragic, of Italian mayors talking to their citizens about why they need to stay at home. There is not a single woman who is a mayor. But then, you think, if you had mobilized women’s groups, they would have been much more effective in getting the message out.

I think this idea of using women’s voices and women’s networks to get messages out … their capacities are being under-leveraged. I think communities, municipalities, governments should be thinking about how we leverage women’s organizations to get messaging on socially distancing out and to get that behavioral change. 

RS: Across the world from China to the U.S, quarantines and shelters-in-place are leading to increases in rates of domestic violence. What can be done to mitigate or avoid this?

AB: I think governments need to sensitize law enforcement. When you get calls, take these seriously, because people can also die from this. Crisis and pandemic response is priority number one, but at the same time, be aware that domestic violence situations are going up.

Then, the governments need to ensure that domestic shelters are considered essential services and kept open. That’s really an important policy intervention. The hotlines have to be kept open. Companies can provide support for keeping domestic violence hotlines open. They are looking for ways to support during the crisis, and this is one of the things they can direct support towards.

RS: How can we make sure we bring women’s perspectives into view?

AB: I think leaders can reach out. They can look around them at the women on their decision-making teams. They can say, “I am consulting with my team, and I am bringing the voices of women into decision making.”

That’s a very easy thing to do: Just look at your team, see who’s a female there, and give her a prominent role in decision-making. It’s not that complicated. It’s basically acknowledging that decision making will be better if informed by women’s voices. We want people to acknowledge that women’s voices matter and that decisions will be better if they have women’s voices. 

First, data always helps to make the case for why decision making is better when informed by a diversity of views. Data can help show where women’s voices were leveraged—for example, in the post-ebola reconstruction, the response was actually better. It’s about effectiveness, how you can be more effective in your response. I mean, you don’t thank a fish for swimming. I should be able to take this for granted, that decision making is informed by women’s views, as well.



Fiona is a journalism student at the University of Southern California. When not in the office nor in class, she is often found photographing her friends, attending local concerts and eating sourdough toast.