Women’s rights and COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating existing gender inequalities as lockdowns lead to higher rates of gender-based violence, less access to sexual and reproductive health services, increased unpaid care work, and much more. Not all women, girls, and gender diverse people are experiencing the pandemic in the same way. Women with disabilities, refugee and migrant women, Indigenous and minority women, LBTI women, women experiencing discrimination based on work and women living in poverty face heightened risks of discrimination, violence, and other rights violations. A pandemic is not an excuse to violate women’s rights!

Read on to learn more!

Gender-based violence

We are being told to stay home, but home is not a safe place for everyone. With rising unemployment and pandemic-related anxiety, rates of gender-based violence are on the rise in Canada and around the world. At least nine women and girls were murdered this April in Canada. In early April, Vancouver’s Battered Women’s Support Services reported a 300% increase in calls over a three-week period. In other communities, calls to women’s shelters have decreased, with shelters worried that women are unable to safely contact them. Similar patterns have been reported around the world.

Everyone has the right to live free from violence. Gender-based violence survivors must have access to police protection and justice, as well as to shelters, helplines, and other vital services and support. A pandemic is not an excuse to violate women’s rights!

Sexual and reproductive health and rights

The pandemic is stretching healthcare systems around the world to their breaking point, making it harder to access abortion and contraception. Some countries, including Nepal and South Africa, have reduced or suspended access to these essential services. Even where services remain open, travel restrictions, social distancing measures, job losses, and shortages of medicines are creating new barriers to access.

Sexual and reproductive health information and services, including safe abortion, post-abortion care, prenatal care, contraception, and menstrual products must be available to all. A pandemic is not an excuse to violate women’s rights!

Sex workers’ rights

Many sex workers have stopped direct-contact sex work to comply with social distancing guidelines. Others are out of work with the closure of strip clubs and massage parlours. Some of the most marginalized sex workers are not able to stop working and face an increased risk of surveillance. Most sex workers abruptly lost all their income, but because of the precarious and criminalized nature of their work, sex workers do not qualify for emergency income supports.

Responses to the pandemic must not discriminate. States must guarantee equal access to income supports for women, girls and gender diverse people in the informal economy. A pandemic is not an excuse to violate women’s rights!

Women human rights defenders

Some states are using the pandemic as an excuse to shrink the space for civil society to safely advocate for human rights. Poland, which already restricts abortion, has introduced legislation to further restrict abortion access, while people are unable to engage in mass protests against the proposed legislation due to social distancing policies. Carlota Isabel Salinas Péres of the Organización Femenina Popular, a grassroots organization in Colombia, was murdered while complying with stay-at-home orders; her attackers therefore knew where to find her. And in Iran, there are cases of COVID-19 in prisons, raising fears that jailed women human rights defenders are at particular risk of contracting the virus because they are unable to take the same social distancing and hygiene measures as those outside of prison to protect themselves.

Prisoners of conscience, including jailed women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia and Iran, should not be in prison in the first place, and should be immediately and unconditionally released. The rights of women human rights defenders, including protection and access to justice, must be protected, respected, and upheld. A pandemic is not an excuse to violate women’s rights!

Too many rights violations to outline in one blog

This is nowhere near an exhaustive list of the many rights being violated during the pandemic. But it is a list of a few of the women’s rights issues that are top of mind for Amnesty International right now. Human rights—and notably, the rights of women, girls, and gender diverse people—must be at the centre of all government responses to the pandemic. A pandemic is not an excuse to violate women’s rights!

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