How do outbreaks affect men and women differently?

Disease outbreaks are known to affect women and men differently. Below we describe some of the ways COVID-19 may have different biological, social, economic and psychological effects on men and women. It is essential to understand that other identity characteristics such as race, ethnicity, economic status and disability status will also interact with gender to exacerbate the impacts and risks for some women more than others. At the end of this article we provide practical advice on how to consider gender in hygiene programmes. It is acknowledged that gender is not binary, and that diverse sexual orientations and gender identities and expressions may be differently impacted by COVID-19, however for the purpose of this paper, women and men are referred to.

Sex and gender differences in COVID-19 infection and mortality

Men may be more at risk than women of getting severe symptoms or dying from COVID-19.

COVID-19 does not discriminate in terms of who can be infected, but studies so far indicate that mortality rates are higher among men than women. It is still unclear why there are such stark differences but potential explanations include:

Source: WHO - Epi Data (Week 13)

Gender differences in workforce composition and job security

Women are more likely to be in roles that place them at higher risk of infection and are more likely to bear the brunt of the economic consequences of COVID-19.

In cultures and societies around the world women play a lead role in caregiving, both within the home and in health and social services. For example, women represent 70 percent of the health and social sector workforce globally. These professional and caring roles put women at an increased risk of becoming infected and this was something documented in the other recent outbreaks too, such as the West African Ebola outbreak and in the Zika outbreak in South America. In many countries, women are socially prescribed as being primarily responsible for household labour like shopping and water collection, tasks which require women to leave the house during the COVID-19 outbreak - again exposing them to risk.

Women represent a smaller proportion of the global workforce who engage in formal employment but are more likely than men to work on a part-time basis and are much more likely to be engaged in the informal labour market. The economic consequences of COVID-19 are therefore more likely to result in reduced employment for women since informal or part-time workers are more likely to be laid off and have work hours reduced. At the same time, individuals engaged in this type of work are likely to have reduced access to employment protections. The absence of protective mechanisms could result in immediate cessation of income or being forced to continue to work in unsafe conditions (e.g. for informal workers travel may remain essential and physical distancing measures may not be upheld). School closures associated with COVID-19 may also make it disproportionately harder for women to fulfill their normal work requirements due to the fact that they perform most of the childcare.

Power dynamics, decision-making and governance during outbreaks

Historically women are typically less involved in decision-making during outbreaks.

Existing inequalities can often become more pronounced during outbreaks. Indeed this has been recognised during the COVID-19 pandemic so far. In the recent Ebola outbreaks in West Africa and DR Congo, women were less frequently consulted than men and as a consequence their needs and requirements often went unmet. During the Zika virus outbreak, differences in power between men and women meant that women did not have autonomy over their sexual and reproductive lives. Globally, women are underrepresented within politics and in senior roles within workplaces and therefore women’s voices are less able to come to the fore at this time. These same patterns are also true within health services. Despite women being the majority of the global health workforce they are underrepresented in senior health positions. Water departments or water services are key players during outbreaks since water access enables community-level hygiene practices, yet in this sector too, women have been historically underrepresented. Despite this situation women represent 82% of people employed in professional cleaning professions including the cleaning and maintenance of public WASH facilities or WASH facilities at schools and health centers.

Source: UN SDG infographic.

Domestic and gender based violence

In times of crisis, women and girls may be at higher risk of sexual or intimate partner violence.

Increased rates of violence have been documented during previous outbreaks and disasters and among people who are displaced or living countries affected by complex emergencies. For example, sytematic reviews have estimated that 1 in 5 displaced women have experienced sexual violence. Due to stigma and under-reporting the true figure may be much higher. The reasons for increased rates of domestic violence include:

  • Increased tensions within the household. This may be due to economic strain, trauma (e.g. loss of a loved one) or simply spending extended periods within the confines of the household.
  • Reduced support. Existing community structures and legal systems that would normally support women and girls may be underfunded and lack capacity and therefore weaken and become dysfunctional.

There may be a heightened risk of violence against women and girls in settings where there are weak health systems, weak rule of law and gender inequalities. Women and girls are also made more at risk of violence based on other aspects of their identity. For example, women and girls with disabilities, or women and girls from indegious or minority ethnic backgrounds face enhanced vulnerability to sexual abuse and exploitation. Sexual and physical violence towards men and boys is also likely to increase during crises but has historically been poorly documented.

School and workplace closures may increase the risks of adolescent girls being exposed to different forms of sexual exploitation and abuse, and early marriage. In water scarce locations women and girls may be forced to engage in transactional sex in order obtain sufficient water (see this video for more information about this issue). During the COVID-19 outbreak families will have a higher demand for water in order to meet increased hygiene needs so it is possible that this situation may make women and girls more vulnerable to this form of abuse.

In several countries healthcare workers (the majority of which are women) have been the target of violence, abuse and ostracism and have been accused of spreading COVID-19 in communities. Organisations and response initiatives may need to look at how to mitigate the risks of violence towards these workers when travelling to and from areas of work and challenge misconceptions through community interactions.

Decreases in key services

Other key healthcare services may be compromised, putting women at disproportionate risk.

Healthcare funding during crises is often prioritised to meet urgent increases in critical needs and this can result in compromises to other important health care services. Fear among communities and physical distancing restrictions can also result in people being less willing to access health care for other purposes. Sexual and reproductive health, maternal and newborn care and vaccination programmes are some of the key health services that are often compromised during outbreaks and this typically has long term impacts on women and child health.

Menstrual hygiene management (MHM) may also be compromised at this time. In some settings we are seeing people panic buying sanitary products resulting in limited access for many. In other settings the economic impact of COVID-19 may mean that women and girls are now less able to afford MHM products. In settings where there are existing stigma and taboos surrounding menstruation these barriers may be at risk of being unreported and undiscussed.

Women are also more likely than men to have a disability and people with disabilities typically have worse access to healthcare and poorer health outcomes than non-disabled people. Barriers accessing healthcare among women with disabilities are typically more pronounced than for men. These existing inequalities are likely to be exacerbated at times like this, when health systems are stretched.

Long term effects of COVID-19 on mental health

Women may be more at risk of developing post traumatic stress in response to the outbreak.

A study in China found that symptoms associated with post traumatic stress were much higher in the population after the COVID-19 outbreak. They also found that women were more likely than men to show post traumatic stress symptoms and have difficulty sleeping.

What nationwide measures can countries take to reduce the differential gender impact of COVID-19?

The WHO suggests that all countries should adopt the following general measures in relation to considering gender within their COVID-19 response strategies:

  • COVID-19 cases and deaths must be disaggregated by sex and age. Disaggregated data should also be sought on the differential adverse health, social and economic impacts of COVID-19 on women and men. The findings of such analysis should be used to fine-tune response policies.
  • Countries should include responses to violence against women, and particularly intimate partner violence, as an essential service within the COVID-19 response.
  • Countries should maintain the availability of, and equitable access to, sexual and reproductive health services and to include them in the essential package of health services for the COVID-19 response.
  • Countries are encouraged to ensure that all front-line health and social workers and caregivers have equitable access to training, PPE and other essential products, psychosocial support and social protection, taking into account the specific needs of women who constitute the majority of such workers.
  • Countries are encouraged to remove financial and other barriers to COVID-19 testing and treatment services, making them free at the point of use as well as providing equitable access to other essential health services.
  • Countries are encouraged to provide access to safe water and sanitation facilities. This must be ensured in disadvantaged areas such as rural communities and informal settlements.
  • Countries are encouraged to provide safety nets to mitigate the adverse and inequitable social and economic impacts of the pandemic, including sick leave and unemployment benefits. These measures are key to support containment measures.
  • Countries are encouraged to stress that health is a human right, to ensure that emergency responses to COVID-19 are inclusive and nondiscriminatory, and to avoid excessive use of emergency powers to regulate day-to-day life. Countries should also take measures to identify and counter stigmatizing and discriminatory practices in COVID-19 responses.

Practical actions for making COVID-19 hygiene programmes gender inclusive

Below we suggest several simple actions to make sure your COVID-19 response programme is addressing the needs of men, women, boys and girls in your community.

Make sure that hygiene promotion staff include a mix of women and men. It is important that community members feel able to talk openly to hygiene promotion staff and voice their concerns. Having mixed gender hygiene promotion teams can be a key way of achieving this. If you are still doing house to house hygiene promotion, we recommend that hygiene promoters always work in pairs. This will help to maintain quality throughout their work (as pairs can provide feedback to each other) and is important for protection. For example, two individuals may be more able to discuss and respond to any concerns they see within families that they visit.

Consult women, men, girls and boys. Effective hygiene programmes require ongoing community consultation. This can be challenging to implement at this time given that organisations are being encouraged to minimise in-person interactions. We suggest setting up a range of mechanisms that will allow you to continue to engage with communities as the crisis progresses.

Be aware of local services to support women and families. Make sure hygiene promotion staff have a list of services available in the local area that they can refer people to. This could include mental health services, general health services, sexual and reproductive health services, women’s refuge centres or protection services and economic assistance programmes. Make sure to consult the organisations providing these services so that you are aware of how they may have adjusted their services given the COVID-19 outbreak. Where these services are lacking, advocate for their importance.

Engage local level organisations. In most settings there are established local organisations and networks to support women. This may include Disabled Person’s Organisations or local networks supporting older people. These groups are likely to represent a trusted voice within communities and may help your organisations adapt programming to the local context. Working with these groups may also enable certain initiatives to be sustained beyond the outbreak.

Consider how your COVID-19 response programme may contribute to or challenge gender stereotypes. At the moment lots of hygiene promotion is likely to use visual and mass media communication materials. The design of these should be gender sensitive. WaterAid has developed some useful guidance on ‘Do’s and Don’ts’ for developing gender-aware materials at this time. For example they suggest ensuring gender balance in imagery and avoiding stereotypes that show women and girls as the only ones responsible for hygiene practices in the home. At this time it is important that hygiene programmes do not create an unrealistic burden of work for women and girls. Women and girls often have access to different information sources to men and boys so you may also need to utilise a range of delivery channels to ensure no one is left out. For example many organisations are using mobile phone messaging as a way of reaching people during COVID-19 response, but women remain much less likely than men to own a mobile phone.

Check that you are effectively reaching and engaging women, girls, men and boys. When monitoring your programmes consider collecting gender disaggregated data to make sure that your programmes are inclusive. For example if you established a phone hotline you could record information on the number of men who call compared to women. If you are doing household visits you could record which members of the household were spoken with. Make sure to also set up measures to allow for feedback from communities. When doing this you may need to actively seek opinions from men, women, girls and boys. Make sure to also include the opinions of other vulnerable groups such as ethnic minorities or people with disabilities.

Enable women and girls to practice safe menstrual hygiene management (MHM). The following actions can be taken to promote access to products and enable safe MHM. Further ideas are available in this UNICEF resource and in this webinar.

  • If sanitary product supplies are limited or sporadic in your setting consider distributing these products to women and girls. If deciding to do this be mindful of variations in personal preferences related to MHM products and the effect that distribution could have on markets. Distributions should also consider prioritising groups within the community who may be more likely to lack access at this time. This could include health workers who may struggle to manage their menstruation hygienically given their increased workload and the additional PPE measures that are in place.
  • Consider establishing boxes of emergency MHM products in key locations such as health centres, schools (if these are still open) and in markets. Members of the population can take from these boxes as needed and donate to them if they are able.
  • Identify women and girls who may be isolating due to COVID-19 and ensure that they have all they need to practice safe MHM at this time.
  • If setting up temporary health facilities for COVID-19 make sure facilities are female-friendly, accessible for all users, and that bathrooms have access to soap, water, and a means of safely disposing of sanitary products. Focusing on this may also be key in many existing health facilities where this is lacking.

Make water points safe and accessible. Women and girls are more likely to be responsible for collecting water. In many regions of the world this may mean that they have to travel far from the house, wait in line with others and come into contact with surfaces (e.g. pump handles) that may be contaminated. Making water points safer and more accessible could help protect women and girls. Consider the following simple actions:

  • If women are travelling more than 30 minutes to get to a water point this creates a risk for transmission and means families are unlikely to have sufficient water to practice regular handwashing. Consider funding or advocating for increased water provision. Start by identifying ‘quick wins’ such as repairing dysfunctional water points, promoting rain-water harvesting, or encouraging people to store water of different quality within the home (for example, surface water or non-potable water can safely be used for handwashing).
  • Set up physical distancing measures at frequently utilised water points. In many countries people set up a ‘jerry can queue’. This involves placing your jerry can in line behind others and waiting your turn. This kind of system can be maximised during this time so that people do not have to stand near each other while queuing for water. Alternatively simple cues in the physical environment can be used to remind people to stand 2m apart. Cues can be painted onto concrete or stones or a small piece of wood can be laid across a path.
  • Set up handwashing facilities at water points. When people use water points they are likely to have to touch surfaces (like taps or pump handles) that others have come into contact with. Requiring everyone to wash their hands with soap before touching these surfaces can reduce contamination.
  • Try to use the COVID-19 outbreak as an opportunity to redistribute water collection responsibilities more fairly across homes and communities. This requires messaging that targets everyone, not just women, and working with local leaders to create longer-term change.

Other resources on considering gender in COVID-19 response programmes

Editors notes

Author: Sian White

Reviewed by: Jane Wilbur, Bethany Caruso, Pryia Nath, Chelsea Huggett

Last updated: 26.5.2020

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