As the world is reeling from the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is extremely important to move away from a simplistic analysis of the situation that limits it to health emergencies ‘only’. An intersectional analysis is pivotal to address differential impacts of the crisis on diverse populations. Marginalised people who are most likely to be affected by this crisis are also the ones who are most unlikely to be prioritised in responses to address the crisis. The absence of an intersectional approach, in the COVID-19 response, risks leaving the most marginalised behind.
While the full scale of the impact on people in conflict is still unfolding, one cannot deny that the pandemic has exacerbated their plights by adding yet another layer of challenge and complexity to their already vulnerable health and wellbeing. This has been validated by the countries who are using the COVID-19 crisis as an excuse to deny refugees in their lands. As a result, hundreds of Rohingya refugees are stuck at sea while seeking refuge in Malaysia and Thailand. The unprecedented lockdown of the entire world in order to facilitate social distancing, though is a required measure to ‘flatten the curve’, does not provide for a feasible option especially for populations living in dense settlements such as migrant dwellings and refugee camps. The lockdown further impedes humanitarian aid and daily supplies that this population is dependent on.
“The tragedy is the wreckage of a train that has been careening down the track for years”- Arundhati Roy
Due to the existing discriminatory gender norms and structural inequalities, women and girls are disproportionately impacted in crisis situations. This is made even worse for women and girls who are migrants (especially undocumented migrants and those in precarious work), internally displaced, those who are living in refugee camps and women who are still in the countries with ongoing conflicts. In addition to the increased burden of unpaid care work for women, the restrictions in mobility has led to a surge of domestic violence globally, with women trapped with their perpetrators. Studies have also shown that women and girls in conflict are primarily and increasingly targeted by the use of sexual violence, including as a tactic of war. The pandemic further intensifies their vulnerability to violence due to lack of attention on this issue by decision makers and law enforcers in the face of new crises. Women and girls in conflict are further away from helplines, health, legal services and shelter homes. Flow of information is also limited compared to their male counterparts due to no or limited access to technological facilities such as phone and internet. Even after the lockdowns are lifted, women are unsafe as the studies show that abusers are more likely to murder their partners and others in the wake of personal crises, including lost jobs or major financial setbacks. These issues of women and girls are at risk of falling through the cracks of the COVID-19 response due to the shift in priorities that fails to take their realities into account.
“Mounting data suggests that domestic abuse is acting like an opportunistic infection, flourishing in the conditions created by the pandemic.”
In conflict situations, access to essential services such as health care, including sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services are generally disrupted putting women and girls at a greater risk of unplanned pregnancy, maternal mortality and morbidity, severe sexual and reproductive injuries and contracting sexually transmitted infections, including as a result of conflict-related sexual violence. These are escalated in the wake of a pandemic as we see the resources being shifted to immediate responses for COVID-19, leaving inadequate resources for SRHR needs. Ignoring SRHR needs during the time of crises leads to long term suffering for women and girls and continues the vicious cycle of inequalities.
As our governments are turning more towards private sectors and global banks for support in the fight against COVID-19, there is an increased threat that the effect of such partnership and collaboration may exceed this current crisis. One of the potential results of it is lack of universal access to health care services including SRH. The increase in out-of-pocket expenditure for health as we have seen in the past as a result of structural adjustments and privatisation of health sectors, will further deteriorate SRHR of women and girls in general and especially marginalised women who have little to no access to resources for their own health care.
We have seen from the unfolding of the crisis and the responses globally that it is impossible to win against this pandemic if the impact of the crisis and responses to marginalised people remains unaddressed. There is also no denying that COVID-19 has laid bare the untenable structural inequalities within and between countries. It has made it impossible for anyone to ignore these inequalities in this fight against this pandemic.
This crisis is a lesson for all to reimagine a world with an end to structural inequalities of any form where every individual is free to exercise their SRHR without fear of threats and violence. We therefore call on our leaders and decision makers to live up to their commitment to leaving no one behind especially in the time of crisis. It requires that in an effort to resolve the COVID-19 crisis, priorities are not shifted to ignore, overlook or negotiate human rights including SRHR of all.
Only sound, equal and just socio-political, economic and health systems can prepare us better to face a pandemic of this scale.
by Biplabi Shrestha