Nepal | August 08, 2020

COVID-19 and Women: Impacts and vulnerable points to focus on

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Anita Maharjan practises extra caution for her family of six and a dog in the time of COVID-19. She is cleaning her home twice a day, soaking vegetables in salt water, cleaning the plates again before meals, changing bed sheets frequently, washing the clothes of all family members daily, and also making her children use hand sanitiser. “I am busier than before,” shared the 39-year-old.

Women hold various roles in society. And a pandemic like COVID-19 impacts them in different ways, and differently than men.

“Disease outbreaks affect women and men differently — pandemics make existing gender inequalities worse for women and girls,” UNFPA had noted in a guideline document released in March, emphasising that it needs to be considered.

It added, “All vulnerable populations will experience COVID-19 outbreaks differently.

For the nearly 48 million women and girls, including four million pregnant women, identified by UNFPA as in need of humanitarian assistance and protection in 2020, the dangers that COVID-19 outbreaks pose will be magnified.”

Women working in the health sector are one of the most vulnerable groups in COVID-19 outbreak. According to a UNFPA document, women represent 70 per cent of the health and social sector workforce globally; many are midwives, nurses or community health workers, roles that place them on the front lines of any disease outbreak.

Nurse, doctors and other health professionals and workers who come into contact with patients directly are the most vulnerable, said Mana Kumari Rai, President of Nursing Association of Nepal. “Due to the exposure to disease, nurses and doctors who take care of patients in the frontline are equally vulnerable to the disease,” she explains.

Meanwhile, Madhu Giri, Assistant Professor, Central Department of Anthropology, Tribhuvan University says the pandemic affects such women working in health sector in two ways. “First, they have to handle kitchen and cleanliness, and they have to take care of patients in hospitals and care centres because they are likely to be the forefront fighter of infected cases,” he explained.

“Second, they suffer psychologically and mentally for the sake of protection of family, children and elders.”

This doesn’t mean men are not affected. They are, but in most cases men have access to authentic information, and a wider network of people to help them manage emotions, stress and anxiety better, while they are relatively free from kitchen chores, cleaning and care-giving responsibilities.

Sexual and reproductive health of women also put them in a vulnerable situation. One’s health has lot to do with immunity and there is no difference in the level of immunity between men and women in normal conditions.

However, special conditions such as pregnancy and postnatal phases affect their immunity level, as per Dr Yam Dwa, gynaecologist, who says “during these times, they have low immunity due to physiological changes”. And if women are exposed to infections in such periods, their case will be severe.

While it is important to take extra care of such women amid COVID-19 outbreak, the lockdown is not making it easy for women to access health facilities.

Sabita KC Neupane from Pepsicola, in her mid-20s who is a few months pregnant, has follow-ups to do but she fears the risk of visiting hospitals at present.

There are high chances of hospital-acquired infections in pregnant women in general hospitals that treat mixed groups of patients. So, Dr Dwa suggests a hospital that is turned into a corona treatment centre should not cater to other patients.

Postmenopausal women too are at risk, as per Dr Dwa.

Alongside hormonal deficiencies, such women are susceptible to diabetics or respiratory problems, which can worsen their condition if infected.

Other than health-related issues, there is high chance of women experiencing violence during lockdown, said Mingma Lama, Programme Manager of Nepal Fertility Care Center (NFCC).

That’s why NFCC has shared a hotline on social media and many people have been inquiring about the hotline and their services, as per Lama.

Without revealing the numbers, she also informed that they have helped a few callers reach safe havens.

Call for help included a wife experiencing domestic violence at the hands of her husband, a foreigner at a home stay going through psychological violence for being a foreigner and the stigma that foreigners are carriers of COVID-19, and a teenager feeling unsafe with her violent uncle.

Different kinds of violence from child molestation to domestic violence to violence against tenants can take place during this time.

But as most of the violence takes place in households, Lama opined that during lockdown, “there might be more cases of domestic violence”.

“One might be going through frustration due to livelihood problems and one will take it out on one’s close ones. And if there is a situation of ongoing violence, this violence will be exaggerated,” she explained.

No gender-based data on COVID-19 in Nepal has been published yet, however, a few steps should be taken.

Listening to one another and sharing of work, emotions, news, stories are fundamental steps in family, informed Giri. Another is counselling, especially for professional women, he added.

A version of this article appears in e-paper on May 17, 2020 of The Himalayan Times.

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