The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented challenge across society in Northern Ireland. It has put in sharp focus the value and importance of care work, paid and unpaid, and highlighted the essential nature of often precarious and almost always low paid retail work. Women undertake the majority of this work, and women will bear a particular brunt of this crisis; economically, socially and in terms of health. The Women’s Policy Group NI is calling on decision makers across Northern Ireland to take action to ensure a gender-sensitive crisis response.
The current crisis affects men and women differently, and in many cases deepens the inequalities women experience on an everyday basis. These inequalities, along with key solutions, were highlighted in a Women’s Manifesto issued by the Women’s Policy Group in preparation for the general election last December1. These solutions remain central for a long term response, but the developing crisis has put a number of issues in sharp relief for urgent emergency action.
Most seriously, domestic violence rates rocketed in China when the pandemic hit there2, demonstrating the risk to women and girls, which increases during lockdown, and the sector here already reports a rising number of calls to helplines in the UK and Ireland3. Homeless women, women with insecure immigration status and sex workers are particularly vulnerable, as regular support structures are limited during the lockdown. Urgent action to enable refuges and support services to remain open and safely managed is required, particularly as capacity is already limited following a decade of cuts.
Women constitute over 70% of health and social care staff, with a significant proportion from BAME backgrounds. For many this involves a double burden, as women also shoulder the lion’s share of unpaid care work. This puts women at increased risk of infection, as well as spreading infection to vulnerable family members. Many women will be expected to take on additional care commitments as the epidemic in Northern Ireland escalates, potentially putting themselves and those they care for at risk. In addition, women with disabilities may face challenges in accessing the care they need and may need to isolate for longer, adding to potential physical as well as mental health impacts. It is essential that home carers, as well as health and social care staff, have access to appropriate advice and where required, and to adequate protective equipment, to protect themselves and society at large.
Access to Contraception and Abortion:
Women must also be able to access sexual and reproductive health services, including contraception and emergency contraception, as well as the means to access safe abortion care. If the COVID19 crisis is to intensify as predicted, it is crucial that women have full access to reproductive healthcare. Women should not, and may not be able to, travel to access an abortion and healthcare workers should not be put at risk by requiring pregnant people to physically attend healthcare premises. We support calls for the Health Minister to create a provision for telemedicine4.
Childcare, Caring Responsibilities and Work:
Some women will also face stark choices between their work and care commitments as part of the situation. In particular school closures – while fully justified – create significant challenges for many families, and women are more likely to be forced to leave work to care for children. This applies particularly to parents of children with disabilities, as child care for children with disabilities is extremely limited even in ordinary circumstances. This increases the risk of poverty and is also likely to have health impacts for parents. Crucially, economic support is required for parents and carers who are isolating due to a family member showing symptoms or are looking after a child or relative with COVID-19, especially for single parents, the vast majority of whom are women.
Economically, women are overrepresented within the hospitality and leisure sector, and are therefore disproportionately affected by the economic crisis. Many are also extremely vulnerable if they do get ill; 70% of jobs earning under the £118/week limit for Statutory Sick Pay5 are undertaken by women. Self-employed women also tend to run businesses with very tight margins, and many have limited savings to fall back on. This increases the risk of poverty and debt, and increases the reliance on high cost lenders, with associated long term financial impacts. The risk is greatest for single parents6, who already are more likely than other groups to experience poverty and debt. The Job Retention Scheme and recent amendments to Working Tax Credit and other benefits provide a degree of support for some women, but a longer term plan is required to ensure all women affected by job losses can provide for themselves and their families both now and in the recovery phase.
For low income families, the crisis will put an insurmountable strain on budgets through increased expenditure on food, energy and online services. Lack of access to computers and laptops to support education at home will also add to the pressure experienced by parents, with potential health impacts for parents as well as long term educational impacts for children and young people.
In summary, early evidence highlights a range of urgent needs in the acute and recovery phase of the crisis. However, the Women’s Policy Group is also hopeful that long term, gender equality can be strengthened through actions put in place to address the specific gendered impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. This is of particular importance when implementing any policies to mitigate against the impact of economic downfall, as the austerity measures that followed the financial crisis disproportionately impacted women7.
The Women’s Policy Group NI is calling for:
- Immediate action
- Gender balanced COVID-19 taskforces and working groups, crucially with representation from women’s sector groups to ensure a gender lens to all actions
- Prioritisation of domestic violence services, including additional resourcing during the crisis and identifying staff as key workers
- Urgent arrangements to support families entitled to free school meals, in line with England, Scotland and Wales
- Urgent support arrangements for vulnerable and low income households, including:
- A ban on evictions for at least three months, in line with England, Scotland and Wales as well as Ireland,
- Arrangements to secure access to energy supplies for all customers, including a security of supply guarantee for customers falling into debt,
- Streamlined access to Universal Credit and emergency financial assistance,
- Providing financial support for childcare, in particular for parents unable to work due to lack of childcare resulting from COVID-19 and associated measures,
- Providing priority access for single parents to supermarkets, pharmacies and other facilities, along the lines of the priority access given to the elderly and more vulnerable at present,
- Ensuring ongoing access to sexual and reproductive health services for women, including access to contraception and the introductions of measures to enable abortion access through telemedicine,
- Provide access to support services and safe shelter for particularly vulnerable groups including homeless women, women with insecure immigration status and sex workers, in line with provision in England, Scotland and Wales
- Surveillance and response systems collating data broken down by sex, gender, age and pregnancy status
- Expanding economic support measures to cover all workers affected by COVID-19, including self-employed people and employees unable to work as they are caring for relatives or forced to isolate due to a family member showing symptoms
- Medium term action
- Developing support structures for people experiencing extended financial hardship and/or unemployment due to the COVID-19 crisis,
- Ring fencing of support for SMEs for female enterprise (building on the Cura Italia model),
- Funding to address wider health impacts of crisis, in particular mental health impacts.
- Long term action
- Introducing gender budgeting to strengthen gender analysis across policy areas,
- Providing access to universal childcare
- Introducing gender pay regulations and addressing values underpinning low pay in care sector
Queries can be sent to Rachel Powell, Women’s Sector Lobbyist, Women’s Resource and Development Agency, firstname.lastname@example.org
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1 Women’s Policy Group NI Election Manifesto 2019: http://www.womensregionalconsortiumni.org.uk/sites/default/files/Women%27sManifesto2019.pdf
2 China’s Domestic Violence Epidemic: https://www.womensaid.org.uk/vawg-sector-statement-on-covid-19/
3 Women’s Aid Sector Statement on Covid-19, Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales: https://www.womensaid.org.uk/vawg-sector-statement-on-covid-19/
4 See Alliance for Choice statement ‘Regulations Published for Northern Ireland Abortion Provision Amidst COVID-19’: http://www.alliance4choice.com/news/2020/3/regulations-published-for-northern-ireland-abortion-provision-amidst-covid-19
5 The Women’s Budget Group estimate that UK wide, 70% of workers who do not qualify for SSP are women; Women’s Group COVID-19: https://wbg.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/FINAL-Covid-19-briefing.pdf
19 March 2020
6 91 percent of single parents in Northern Ireland are women. Women’s Regional Consortium http://www.womensregionalconsortiumni.org.uk/sites/default/files/Impact%20of%20Ongoing%20Austerity%20Women%27s%20Perspectives.pdf p.42
7 86 percent of tax revenue savings in the decade following the financial crash came from women, ibid p.18