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Women bore brunt of social and economic impacts of Covid – Red Cross | Global development

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The social and economic burden of Covid-19 has fallen disproportionately on women around the world, the Red Cross has warned, in a stark analysis of the impact of the pandemic.

Women were particularly affected by loss of income and education, rises in domestic violence, child marriage and trafficking, and responsibility for caring for children and sick relatives, according to a comprehensive report published by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) on Monday.

Francesco Rocca, president of the IFRC
‘In a crisis, it is always women who pay the highest price,’ said Francesco Rocca, president of the IFRC. Photograph: IFRC

“In a crisis, it is always women who pay the highest price,” said Francesco Rocca, president of the IFRC. “It’s too long that we’ve been talking about this … it’s urgent.”

It was vital that the uneven socioeconomic impact of Covid was taken into account in recovery plans and could inform how the world tackled other crises, including the climate emergency, said the report’s co-author, Teresa Goncalves. “We can still recover better,” she said.

The survey examines how the pandemic collided with existing factors, including poverty, migration, conflict and extreme weather, bringing together detailed anecdotal reports from Red Cross national societies with data from the World Bank and the UN.

Of the 38 countries that took part, 31 of them, or 82%, identified women as disproportionately affected. Urban poor and migrants and refugees were also identified as particularly at-risk groups.

Although globally absolute job losses were higher for men due to their higher participation in the labour market overall, relative job losses were higher for women. Along with young people and migrants, women are over-represented in casual work and dominate sectors critically affected by the pandemic, such as retail, domestic work and tourism.

The report highlights several countries severely affected by the blow to tourism including Spain, the Philippines and Jamaica.

In Jamaica, as in many parts of the world, women make up a large proportion of people indirectly making a living from tourists. Female street vendors were hard hit, for example, said Kevin Douglas of the Jamaican Red Cross, especially at craft markets and in small villages reliant on a stream of visitors, such as Middle Quarters, a small village where women normally line the street competing to sell peppered shrimp.

Radhika Fernando, of the Philippine Red Cross, described a “shattered” tourism industry: “We are not getting anyone here.”

Women in the Philippines were expected to take on greater responsibility for caring for children and relatives, she said, as well as home-schooling responsibilities throughout what is thought to be the longest Covid school closure in the world.

Women wash clothes at their home in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, August 2020.
Women wash clothes at their home in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, August 2020. The country expects a baby boom in 2021 due to lack of access to contraceptives during the pandemic. Photograph: Rolex dela Peña/EPA

This trend was echoed throughout the report, in richer and poorer countries. In Spain, for example, where among people accessing Red Cross services, 18% of women had lost their jobs compared with 14% of men, women also took on the bulk of unpaid labour at home. José Sánchez Espinosa, of the Spanish Red Cross, said: “We are working to change attitudes. We tried to convince men that they have to share the burden of the caring of the families.”

Almost all Red Cross societies surveyed, including Spain, reported increased demand for mental health support, with women often disproportionately represented.

Migrants, refugees and internally displaced people were uniquely affected by the socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic, the report also found, intersecting with the challenges facing women.

In Colombia, nearly half of the 1.8 million people who have fled Venezuela are women and girls, who are “doubly vulnerable”, said Diana Cruz, a migration community engagement officer for the Colombian Red Cross. Shantytowns, home to high numbers of displaced Colombians and Venezuelan migrants in Bogotá and elsewhere, faced waves of evictions in police raids last summer, she said.

“It is very hard when you hear mothers telling you: ‘We’ve lost the roof over our heads. I’m alone on the street with my daughter.’ They are worried about rape or sexual abuse. This happened in the middle of the pandemic,” she said.

Lockdowns around the world brought increases in domestic violence. In Colombia there were about 73,000 victims of domestic violence in 2020, more than 40% more than the previous year, though the number of cases is likely to be far higher, particularly among undocumented migrants deterred from reporting for fear of being deported.

Migrants and refugee women also suffered unique challenges in Lebanon, compounded by the economic emergency. “There’s been an increase in child marriage as a way out, especially in refugee families that don’t have any security,” said Rana Sidani Cassou, head of communications for the IFRC in the Middle East and north Africa.

In Afghanistan, the Afghan Red Crescent Society (Arcs) responded to a rapidly changing situation, with the pandemic coinciding with the Taliban’s rapid takeover this summer and now one of the world’s largest food crises, as half the population face hunger. Dr Mohammad Nabi Burhan, acting secretary general for Arcs, said: “From the beginning of the pandemic … so many people who were earning a daily wage, working on the streets in cities, lost their jobs. The impact was huge on the general population, and women are always more vulnerable.”rcs

Afghan internally displaced persons wait to receive food aid in Kabul, October 2021
Afghan internally displaced women wait for food aid in Kabul last month. Many of the pandemic’s effects have been compounded by the Taliban takeover. Photograph: EPA

School closures have bled into an uncertain situation under the new government. “I strongly hope schools for girls will start, because they have to be educated,” said Nabi.

Kenya was an example of a country where Covid had collided with the climate crisis and poverty, to the particular detriment of women and girls. Dr Asha Mohammed, secretary general of the Kenyan Red Cross, said she was “shocked” by the impact of school closures on girls, with an increase in teenage pregnancies and child marriages.

With drought in the north, some families in rural areas had resorted to marrying off their daughters in exchange for cattle, she said. “It feels like a zero-sum game. You put efforts in one area to bring girls back to school after Covid closures and then there’s another disaster.”

Mohammed has just returned from Cop26 in Glasgow, where she made the case for lessons to be learned from Covid. “The only difference we will make is if we have interventions that clearly target women and girls. If we don’t make them resilient to these disasters, it will not help.”

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Lives lost at Europe’s borders and Afghan MPs in exile: human rights this fortnight – in pictures

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A roundup of the struggle for human rights and freedoms, from Mexico to Manila

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Belgium tightens Covid rules as health system ‘is cracking’

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Belgium has introduced new measures to curb the surge of Covid-19 infections in the country, following the third emergency meeting of federal and regional governments in three weeks.

“The autumn wave is much heavier than was estimated,” Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo said on Friday (3 December).

“The infection rates are among the highest in Europe and the pressure in healthcare has become unsustainable,” he also said, arguing that new measures are necessary because “the system is cracking”.

One item on the agenda that proved to be divisive was the closure of schools – a move supported by experts and the federal government but opposed by regional governments.

Belgium’s so-called concertation committee of federal and regional governments finally decided to keep schools open, but it impose a longer, three-week, Christmas holiday for primary and pre-primary education. The holiday will now run from 20 December to 10 January.

According to Flemish prime minister Jan Jambon, this extra week will be used to administer the booster shot to the teachers.

And until the school holiday, a class will go until quarantine after two cases of Covid-19 are detected (previously three cases). Additionally, all extracurricular activities will be barred.

Children from the age of six upwards will also have to wear a face mask at school and all other places where its use is compulsory. And parents have been advised to test their children regularly.

For this coming weekend, indoor events with more than 4,000 attendees will be cancelled. From Monday, this will apply to all with more than 200 attendees.

Events with fewer than 200 people inside will still be allowed under the current criteria – that everyone needs to have a corona pass, be seated and wear a face mask.

Museums and cinemas would remain open, but with a capacity limit of 200 people per room.

The committee also decided that restaurants and bars can continue to remain open until 11PM, as it is currently the case – although experts had asked to close them at 8PM.

This new package of measures has already been criticised by representatives of the cultural sector, who argued that the restrictions do not target the source of the problem.

“Instead of fighting the virus, we are fighting culture. Bars open, but culture [events] only 200 people. Who are we fooling?,” said Michael De Cock, director of the Koninklijke Vlaamse Schouwburg [Royal Flemish Theatre].

There is also no restrictions for private social life in the so-called “contact bubbles” – despite this also being recommended it by experts. Nevertheless, there is a recommendation to limit contacts as much as possible.

At work, there are no new measures, as the committee previously announced that teleworking is mandatory at least four days a week.

Intensive-care cases expected to peak next week

An average of 318 Covid-19 patients were hospitalised each day in Belgium this week – which represents an increase of four percent compared with the previous week.

There are currently 3,707 people hospitalised in the country, of which 821 are in intensive care.

“Although the number of infections is very high, the number of deaths in our country is lower than in comparable countries, and that is due to the high vaccination coverage,” said de Croo.

“Getting vaccinated is an act of solidarity,” he added.

More than 75 percent of the Belgian population is fully-vaccinated, and over a million people have received a booster shot.

For his part, Belgian virologist Steven Van Gucht said on Friday that the number of Covid-19 patients on the intensive care units of the country’s hospitals are expected to peak next week.

“It is unclear whether we can then expect a rapid fall or whether the figures will remain at that high level,” he also said, according to VRT news.

The highest number of new Covid-19 infections (25,574) during this fourth wave was recorded on Monday 22 November.

But new measures will make coronavirus figures fall more quickly, relieving the pressure on the health care sector, Van Gucht said.

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India’s ‘pencil village’ counts the cost of Covid school closures | Global development

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School closures in India during the pandemic have left their mark on more than the children who have seen delays to their learning. In one Kashmiri village the impact has been catastrophic on employment.

Pick up a pencil anywhere across India and it is likely to come from the poplar trees of Ukhoo.

This village, with an abundance of trees, about 10 miles south of Srinagar city in Kashmir’s Pulwama district, supplies more than 90% of the wood used by India’s pencil manufacturers, which export to more than 150 countries.

Before Covid, more than 2,500 people worked in the village’s 17 pencil factories and the industry supported about 250 families.

But, after nearly two years of school closures and a dramatic drop in demand for the village’s products, factory owners reduced their workforce by more than half.

Workers were dismissed without pay, while many of those who kept their jobs had migrated from other parts of India, and were cheaper to employ. Now the village and its workforce are waiting eagerly for the market to revive.

Rajesh Kumar, 26, from Bihar, has worked in Ukhoo for seven years. Like other migrant workers, he lives in a room on the factory premises and works 10- to 12-hour shifts. During lockdown last year, the factory owner provided food and accommodation when production shutdown for about three months. He is one of the luckier ones to be back working now.

“I hope the pencil demand increases and these factories are full of workers again, as many of our friends and people from our villages find work [here] and are able to make a living,” says Kumar.

Poplar logs outside a pencil slate factory, Ukhoo
Factory owners have had to lay off half of their workers during the pandemic. Photograph: Adil Abbas

Farooq Ahmed Wani, 27, from the city of Jammu, has worked as a machine operator in Ukhoo for the past five years.

“We are hoping that schools reopen throughout the country so that there is more demand for pencils in the market,” he says in an optimistic tone. “Then these factories can employ more young people and more migrants can also get some work here.”

Pencil wala Gaon, or “pencil village”, attracted the attention of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. In his monthly radio programme, Mann Ki Baat, last year he said the district was an example of how to reduce the country’s dependency on imports. “Once upon a time we used to import wood for pencils from abroad but now our Pulwama is making the country self-sufficient in the field of pencil making,” Modi said.

90% of the wood used in pencils manufactured in India comes from Ukhoo.
Ukhoo supplies 90% of the wood used in pencils manufactured in India. Photograph: Vincent Lecomte/Gamma-Rapho/Getty

A recent ministry of home affairs report said that the village would be developed as a “special zone” for manufacturing. “Now the whole country would be supplied finished pencils, manufactured completely in Pulwama,” the report noted. But the pandemic has shown how overreliance on one product in a region brings its own problems.

A migrant worker trims a plank of poplar wood at a pencil slate factory
A migrant worker trims timber at a pencil factory. The factories attract workers from several states. Photograph: Adil Abbas

Abrar Ahmed, a unit supervisor at one of Ukhoo’s factories, says everyone has suffered. “Even the sawdust from woodcutting machines is usually taken by the local villagers who then sell it to poultry farms and for other purposes in the village.”

Manzoor Ahmad Allaie owns one of the biggest factories in Ukhoo.

“We are only doing about 30% to 40% [of normal levels of] business now because of the Covid lockdown impact from last year, which means we produce about only 80 bags of pencil slats a day,” says Allaie. “Earlier we could produce about 300 pencil slat bags [a day] in the factory, which were transported out of Kashmir.”

He is eagerly looking forward to India’s schools fully reopening. It has been a hard two years for the pencil villagers, he says.

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