The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) recently reported that COVID-19 will adversely affect women more than men. The study laid bare a swath of undesirable effects including rises in domestic violence and female genital mutilation (FGM). The virus’ attack on women begins on the frontline where 70% of medical personnel are women, said Dr. Ramiz Alkbarov, UNFPA deputy executive director.

‘Catastrophe Within a Catastrophe’

According to the report, “Women and girls have unique health needs, but they are less likely to have access to quality health services, essential medicines and vaccines, maternal and reproductive health care, or insurance coverage for routine and catastrophic health costs, especially in rural and marginalized communities. Restrictive social norms and gender stereotypes can also limit women’s ability to access health services. All of this has particular impacts during a widespread health crisis.”

The pandemic has forced the closure of facilities that provide services to women and the ones that remain open are fielding more calls than usual. If the lockdown continues for 6 more months, UNFPA estimates there will be 7 million unplanned pregnancies and 31 domestic violence cases against women, as Time reported.

“These issues aren’t exclusive to the developing world. Inequality is less pronounced in the developed world but it’s still there. It’s a catastrophe,” said Alakbarov. “Women are the first to lose their jobs during these crises, they’re the first to stand up for the family, they take most of the brunt economically. But this report is a catastrophe within a catastrophe.”

Even before COVID-19, women earned less and were more likely to fall into poverty around the globe, he said. Now, with a lack of job opportunities combined with school closures, their duties have increased as they are often forced into roles providing more unpaid care for the family, such as looking after children.

Long-Term Losses

The impact on women’s health could have long-lasting consequences. With prevention programs closed, another 2 million girls and women are at risk of FGM and 13 million child marriages could be carried out. Unwanted pregnancies could compel women to take dangerous actions.

“As well as resulting in an increased risk of abortions, hemorrhages, and miscarriages,” Alakbarov told Business Insider, “unwanted pregnancies effectively raise maternal mortality. Children and households will be left without mothers. It launches up a whole vicious circle.”

The deadly cycle won’t stop once lockdown measures are lifted or even by the end of the year, the report concludes. UNFPA expects increases in violence and abuse to continue for the next decade, a sign of how quickly positive gains can be lost.

“Many women are being forced to ‘lockdown’ at home with their abusers at the same time that services to support survivors are being disrupted or made inaccessible,” the report reads. 

In a typical year, UNFPA estimates violence against women and girls costs the global economy $1.5 trillion per year.

Women-Focused Recovery

UN Secretary-General António Guterres said women must be at the centre of recovery efforts. To counteract the looming disaster for women across the world, he recommended having women leadership take charge. Women in power is the first step at putting women at the centre of recovery efforts he said. 

“Progress lost takes years to regain. Teenage girls out of school may never return,” Guterres said.

Economically, social safety nets and economic relief measures should provide for women. Governments should take care to ensure vital services for women remain open. This entails allocating more money for organisations providing essential care. 

“Reprioritization of national budgets is needed,” Alakbarov said. “Governments have to reconsider [their priorities], as well as citizens and private sectors. If we don’t over the next six months, we will see the above projections come to fruition.”

For each dollar spent on women’s education and health, $3 is returned to economies, he added. “It’s pretty much the smartest investment any government or society can make.”