As part of our Gender Equality Week series, our colleagues in the Asia Pacific weigh-in on the gendered toll of the COVID-19 pandemic. Feature post by Principal Consultant Mia Urbano and Senior Consultant Felicity Pascoe with Alinea-Whitelum – Alinea International’s development consultancy service in Australia.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report for 2021 leads with the finding that COVID-19 has set back the closing of gender equality gaps by a generation – from 99 to 135 years. For East Asia and the Pacific, the gap now stands at 165 years. Notably, the report was published in March 2021, before the Delta variant and the threat it has posed to gender equality.

In the Asia Pacific region, the prolonged border closures, shelter-in-place orders, school and worksite interruptions, decimated tourist, service and retail industries, and accelerated digitalization will not bode well for most women. With the ongoing disruption to education, the projection is now that girls are less likely to return to the classroom than boys, globally.

While it remains unclear when and how countries will emerge from the grip of this pandemic, evidence continues to mount on the gendered toll. For the ‘first time in modern economic history’, restrictions have been imposed for the sake of public health. However, recent data from Asia and the Pacific starts to sketch the rebound and recovery that is needed for women, once countries are in a position to do so.

In Vietnam, after a decade of stability, there was a three per cent drop in the labour force participation rate of women in the 12 months to December 2020. A fall of three per cent may sound minor, but it equates to nearly one million female workers. Some of the country’s hardest hit sectors such as tourism, hospitality, retail and light manufacturing are female-intensive industries. However, unemployment figures have not adjusted and do not reflect discouraged workers who have permanently given up seeking employment, or maintaining the double shifts of care and work, and the ‘workers’ with zero hours. Those employees were not counted in this tally.

There have been 4.2 million reported cases of COVID-19 in Indonesia, since the start of the pandemic. Women make up the majority of frontline care workers in the country – as healthcare professionals and care givers in the home. In May 2021, UNICEF conducted a study in Indonesia which concluded that in almost three quarters of households (71.5 per cent), mothers were primarily responsible for childcare and home schooling, compared to 22 per cent of men. In addition to carrying the responsibility of caring for children and home schooling, roughly half of these women were also engaged in paid work to support families.

In addition to research that highlights that a decrease in employment options increases the precariousness of conditions for worker, it is also known to increase the risk of sexual harassment for women. In 2017, prior to the pandemic, an International Labour Organization and DFAT report on women in business in Indonesia cited a study found that 57 per cent of sampled garment factory workers in Jakarta had experienced sexual harassment. The threat of job loss in a COVID-19-contracted labour market can only be assumed to amplify the problem and collude in greater silence on this harm.

Pre-existing gender divides – such as in access to capital and collateral – are also deepening for women traders. A study of market vendors in Fiji (85 per cent of the sample were women) found that most vendors did not have sufficient savings to see them beyond a fortnight of interrupted trading. Concerningly, this data was from early in the pandemic – in April 2020 – when cases were close to zero. Business struggles have also been found to follow gender lines. A Pacific Trade Invest Australia survey of businesses in July 2020 found that 71 per cent of women-led businesses in the Pacific region reported very negative impacts of COVID-19 to their business, as compared with 57 per cent of men-led businesses.

Economic recovery will take place in this gendered landscape. The measures adopted, the choice between austerity and social security, the targeting of assistance packages, and even the preferred transfer mechanisms, are deeply implicated in which sectors, businesses, workers and segments of the population are thrown a buoy. Public investment in capital works and digital infrastructure won’t translate to benefits for women if gendered occupational segregation and technology dominance is left unaddressed. Whereas public investment in child and elder care, by comparison, would generate new jobs and replace the reliance on women’s provisioning.

The UN Women’s policy brief on women’s leadership and COVID 19 highlighted that, globally, women heads of government in Denmark, Ethiopia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, New Zealand and Slovakia are leading effective responses to COVID-19. Their approach was recognized as ‘transparent and compassionate’, and focused on the collective and collaboration, rather than the individual and competition. The effective containment policies and lower death rates from COVID 19 in the above named countries that were led by women are disproving the discriminatory gender norms and beliefs about women in leadership.

With women being the exception in economic ministries and national COVID-19 taskforces of the region, economic recovery needs to be planned with women in mind.