Women suffering ‘shadow pandemic’ of violence, inequality and unpaid work

The pandemic has rolled back hard-won rights. Fundamental change is required

For almost two years the pandemic has altered our lives in ways we would never have imagined. We have all missed loved ones and felt scared, worried and isolated. But the pandemic has not affected us all equally.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, have intensified. Cramped living conditions, movement restrictions and isolating women with their abusers have all contributed to this “shadow pandemic”.

Women are over-represented in sectors that are worst affected by the crisis, particularly retail and hospitality, where such jobs cannot be done remotely. Women have faced obstacles re-entering the labour market. As reported by Oxfam, the Covid-19 crisis cost women around the world at least $800 billion in lost income in 2020, equivalent to more than the combined GDP of 98 countries.

It’s no surprise that women are not able to return to the workforce. Globally, women took on 173 additional hours of unpaid childcare work in 2020, compared with 59 additional hours for men, according to research by the Centre for Global Development. With more of us at home and schools and creches closed, unpaid care work was never so visible, yet the burden of work is not shared, with long-lasting effects. Another study by the McKinsey Global Institute showed that, following the pandemic, mothers were more likely than fathers and women without children to stay out of work.


Women are also on the frontlines of the pandemic, making up 70 per cent of the healthcare workers globally, work that is typically underpaid and under-resourced. The World Health Organisation estimates a global shortage of 5.9 million nurses, with almost 90 per cent of those shortages being in low- and middle-income countries – exactly where vaccine access is at its lowest due to the failure by countries such as Ireland to ensure equal vaccine access.

Domestic work

When core education and health rights are not realised, the impact is felt triply and most acutely by women and girls. Women and girls are more likely to be excluded from accessing basic services, to lose opportunities for decent work in the public sector and to bear a disproportionate share of the unpaid care and domestic work that rises when public services fail.

Even within the humanitarian response to endless crises around the world today, women are systematically excluded from decision-making, viewed as passive beneficiaries rather than having their agency recognised.

The pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities between women and men in almost all areas of life, rolling back hard-won achievements on women’s rights.

The challenge is how to address these underlying power dynamics – only targeted political approaches and feminist alternatives that really get to the root causes of these issues will change this status quo.

We need to call out this patriarchy that continues to drive systems of gender inequality and oppression. Feminist movements in the global north – but most particularly the global south – need support, resources and solidarity to address the lack of response from states to realise women’s rights.

We need to shift the assumptions that all women’s experiences are the same and develop nuanced responses to the needs of young, old, LGBTI and women with disabilities.

In responses to poverty and inequality, we need to work as equal partners with movements in the global south with a shared vision of this redistribution of power towards women’s rights.

Fundamental questions

We need to address the nature and structure of the global economy that exploits the people of the global south at the expense of consumption in the north – addressing how economic ideology, trade, taxation and corporate human rights abuses compound gender inequality. A report published this year by ActionAid, Public Services International and Education International, The People Versus Austerity, shows that International Monetary Fund (IMF) advice to cut government spending in 15 developing countries as part of their austerity programme has wiped nearly $10 billion from public sector wage budgets. This is the equivalent of cutting more than three million jobs, including doctors, nurses and teachers at the height of the pandemic.

Change can happen. Even though people are struggling in Ireland, we have seen increasing generosity from the general public to help us to challenge the inequalities that are becoming more visible than ever.

The importance of care and public services are now more recognised than ever. And so, there seems to be no better time to consider some fundamental questions. Is an economic model that has championed austerity and the cutting of public services for the past 50 years the best suited to meet our needs? Is a model that exploits the poorest countries and prioritises the richest nations at the expense of our planet still fit for purpose? And is the care of our children, our sick and our elderly the least important or should it be the most valuable work of all?

It is time to challenge assumptions that underpin our economic system, and to support the global movement for a system based on care, a just transition, corporate accountability and public services that deliver on women’s rights.

Karol Balfe is chief executive of ActionAid Ireland