A woman makes a bed and prepares laundry in Indonesia.
A domestic worker in Jakarta, Indonesia. Copyright: ILO/A. Ridwan Licensed: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0.

As researchers learn more about coronavirus and the way it impacts us all, they’ve revealed a few key differences along gendered lines. Slightly more women than men may be getting COVID-19, but more men are dying from the virus. Women, on the other hand, are more economically vulnerable from the financial fallout of the novel coronavirus. This difference takes on a new meaning as the world braces itself for an impending recession.  

The New York Times bi-weekly newsletter on gender and society recently reported a sobering fact: that the economic fallout from the coronavirus will have a “disproportionate negative effect on women.” The newsletter examines the results of a study from researchers at Northwestern University, the University of Mannheim in Germany and the University of California, San Diego, which found that the economic downturn will result in worse economic outcomes for women than for men and that the disparity from this crisis will be even worse than in previous recessions. The differences are attributed to women’s disproportionate representation in jobs that have been most affected by the global shutdown, like those in the restaurant and travel sector, for example. In addition, because women are often responsible for childcare, those who are able to work from home will see an increase in their overall workload with reduced availability for remunerated work. 

Both the newsletter and study point to differences in labor trends between men and women, but overlook another crucial reason why women are more vulnerable in this economic downturn than men: the role that women play in the informal economy. According to the United Nations (UN), women make up a disproportionate percentage of workers in the informal sector around the world, earning a living as domestic workers, street vendors, and seasonal workers, among other occupations.   

Women of color, and immigrant women in particular, have been especially vulnerable in the midst of the economic shutdown. As a recent article in the DCist depicts, people of color in the informal economy are particularly impacted by government regulations forcing their operations to close. While in some places, restaurants are allowed to remain open for takeout services, street vendors may shutter their operations or suffer from a lack of customers. In many countries, informal workers fall outside of official social support programs, making opportunities for relief nonexistent or dependent on donations from outside groups. Given that many stimulus packages being enacted around the world do not provide protections and benefits for workers in the informal economy, a continued economic depression will have a larger impact on women than on men. 

International human rights law presents a framework for considering the intersectional impact of coronavirus, taking into account race, gender, and immigration status and considering the differential economic outcomes for those facing lost employment. Under international human rights law, governments are tasked with considering the uneven economic impact of crises and of their responses to them, including along lines of gender. Human rights treaties like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) offer a starting point. Almost all countries have signed and ratified CEDAW since it came into force in 1981. The U.S. stands apart as one of the few countries that has not ratified the treaty. However, many of CEDAW’s provisions address economic inequality between genders, making them relevant to the challenges faced in the United States and globally in today’s time of crisis.  

Articles 2 and 3 of CEDAW, for example, require governments to ensure women’s equality through the enactment of relevant legislation and other “appropriate means.” Similarly, Articles 4 and 11 encourage governments to take temporary measures to ensure economic equality between men and women, and to eliminate any direct or indirect discrimination in the field of work and employment. 

States can uphold CEDAW’s articles in a number of ways. As a start, the United Nations agency focused on gender equality has recommended that government stimulus packages address the health and social needs of those in the most need. In particular, the agency recommends paid and sick leaves that cover women who are not able to work because of caring responsibilities. It also suggests that governments take special care to include informal sector employees in compensation schemes. The committee tasked with monitoring compliance with CEDAW has encouraged support to women-owned businesses and the equal inclusion of women in policymaking spaces.  And the working group appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to report on discrimination against women worldwide has asked governments to study the gendered impacts of economic crises and to take gender equality into account as countries develop recovery plans, like Iceland did following the 2008 economic crisis. Learning from 2008 could inspire governments to undertake measures like preserving women’s jobs, establishing gender quotas, and providing job training and childcare for caregivers. Moreover, as the working group’s report recognizes, extending protections for informal workers through changes to laws and enforcement policies can have huge impacts for women workers.  

Ultimately, women must be expressly considered in all COVID-19 relief packages for a country to experience meaningful and lasting change.  

This is one in a series of blog posts authored by International Human Rights Clinic students who have focused on workers’ rights during the pandemic. View the introduction to the series here.