The COVID-19 Pandemic and Gender: Selected Considerations

Revised on 29 May 2020, 2:55 p.m.
Any substantive changes in this HillNote that have been made since the preceding issue are indicated in bold print.

(Disponible en français : La pandémie de COVID-19 et le genre : sélection de points à prendre en considération)

Public health emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic have socioeconomic consequences that men and women experience differently because of biology, gender norms, and inequalities. Understanding how disease outbreaks affect women and men differently is essential to develop policies and interventions that can successfully address the effects of and recovery from a pandemic.

Ideally, analyses of the socioeconomic outcomes of pandemics should incorporate a range of intersecting factors, including gender, age, ethnicity and income. According to a news article, the Department for Women and Gender Equality has been asked to apply gender-based analysis plus (GBA+) to the federal government’s COVID-19 spending programs and policies.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) recommends that gender equality be “at the core of the parliamentary response to COVID-19” and that parliamentary decisions and actions be gender-responsive. The IPU suggests that gender equality committees continue to function during the pandemic and that gender equality be included in the mandate of any special parliamentary committees established to scrutinize governments’ COVID-19 responses.

Intimate Partner Violence and Pandemics

Gender-based violence can increase during and after disasters and public health emergencies such as pandemics. For instance, the rate of domestic violence increased following the Ebola Virus Disease outbreak in Sierra Leone in 2014-2016. Women and girls are disproportionately the victims of gender-based violence.

Recommendations or orders from authorities to stay at home during pandemics can increase exposure to abusive partners, increase financial and emotional stress, disrupt social and protective networks, and decrease access to services – all factors that could exacerbate intimate partner violence (IPV). Various direct and indirect pathways link pandemics to violence against women and children.

Pathways Linking Pandemics and Violence Against Women and Children

Figure 1 highlights nine pathways linking pandemics and violence against women and children: 1. Economic insecurity and poverty-related stress; 2. Quarantines and social isolation; 3. Disaster and conflict-related unrest and instability; 4. Exposure to exploitative relationships due to changing demographics; 5. Reduced health service availability and access to first responders; 6. Virus-specific sources of violence; 7. Inability of women to temporarily escape abusive partners; 8. Exposure to violence and coercion in response efforts; 9. Violence perpetrated against health care workers.

Source: Centre for Global Development, A Gender Lens on COVID-19: Pandemics and Violence against Women and Children.

Anecdotal observations suggest an increase in IPV in certain countries, including Canada, France and the United Kingdom, during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Canada, approximately 80% of IPV victims are women. According to a Statistics Canada survey on the impacts of COVID-19, 10% of female respondents were very or extremely concerned about possible violence in the home, compared to 6% of male respondents. Violence is also intersectional; many factors other than gender can affect an individual’s risk of experiencing IPV, such as indigeneity, age, geographic location and sexual orientation.

International stakeholders have called on governments to implement measures to help prevent IPV and to support victims during the COVID-19 crisis. As part of its COVID-19 Economic Response Plan, the Government of Canada announced it would provide up to $50 million in funding to women’s shelters and sexual assault centres. The funding includes up to $10 million through Indigenous Services Canada’s Family Violence Prevention Program and up to $40 million through the Department for Women and Gender Equality.

Unpaid Care Work and Pandemics

Women all over the world, including in Canada, carry out a higher proportion of unpaid care work than men. Reasons include gender norms that affirm women in caregiving roles, the distribution of care duties in most families which reflect those norms, and gender inequalities in the workforce. Research on previous outbreaks of disease, and preliminary analysis from the COVID-19 pandemic, indicate an increase in unpaid care work:

During a public health emergency, care work may have unintended negative consequences on the mental and physical wellbeing of caregivers, including an increased risk of their falling ill.

Without paid leave or flexible work arrangements, caregivers may have to reduce paid work hours, turn down advancement opportunities, or leave paid work altogether to care for family members. Balancing paid and unpaid work can be challenging for single parents, particularly for women as single mothers made up 81% of lone parent families in Canada in 2016.

Some researchers suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic could accelerate changing gender norms regarding unpaid care work: businesses may adopt more flexible work arrangements for employees with childcare needs, and in some families, the role of primary caregiver may be switched leading to a reallocation of household duties.

The Government of Canada’s COVID-19 Economic Response Plan includes the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, a taxable benefit for individuals who – among other reasons – have stopped working due to pandemic-related care of children, dependents or sick family members.

Economic Downturns, Gender and Economic Security

The COVID-19 pandemic will have serious economic effects. It is estimated that the global economy will contract by 6% in advanced economies in 2020. Data indicate that Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP) declined by 7.2% in March 2020. An average of GDP forecasts by some Canadian banks and by the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer shows an estimated GDP decline of approximately 5% in 2020. UN Women has outlined the importance of applying a gender lens to the COVID-19 pandemic-related fiscal stimulus packages and social assistance programs.

Economic downturns can have gendered economic consequences that reflect, in part, the gendered division of labour in the workforce. During the 2008 recession in Canada, men were more likely than women to experience job losses. During the 2014-2016 Ebola Virus Disease outbreak in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, women were particularly affected since many of their sources of employment were disrupted.

Statistics Canada estimates that more than 3 million Canadians have lost their jobs since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis in March 2020. Canadian labour force data show that from February to April 2020, the decline in employment for women was slightly higher than that of men (-16.9% compared to -14.6%). The data indicate that 93% of the decline in employment for men can be attributed to loss of full-time employment, compared to 70% for women. An April 2020 survey suggested that individuals who identify as a gender and sexual minority have been more affected by layoffs and reduced work hours than the average household in Canada.

The Government of Canada has implemented a series of measures to help workers, businesses, and industries weather the economic shocks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additional Resources

Clare Annett, Robert Mason and Laura Munn-Rivard, Health Outcomes During Pandemics in Different Population Groups in Canada, HillNotes, Library of Parliament, 6 April 2020.

Status of Women Canada [Department for Women and Gender Equality], Provincial and territorial resources.

Julia Smith, “Gender and the Coronavirus Outbreak,” Think Global Health, Council on Foreign Relations, 4 February 2020.

Data2X, Gender and Data Resources Related to COVID-19.

Authors: Dominique Montpetit and Laura Munn-Rivard, Library of Parliament