Epidemics and Gender Vulnerability

Violence against women as a shadow pandemic during COVID-19

By Beverly Mtui, BA.

How the world is fighting two pandemics concurrently

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been reminded that women are affected differently by health crises and emergencies. Professor of history at the University of Agder in Norway, May-Britt Ohman Nielsen, says that “infectious diseases affect women and men differently, primarily because they have different roles and functions through history. The greatest difference regarding illnesses and pandemics is that women often take on emotional responsibilities” i.e. additional care work.[1]

Women are differently affected by epidemics than men

Interestingly, if we take a closer look at history, it appears that women usually have a higher life expectancy than men during epidemics. In the research article Women live longer than men even during severe famines and epidemics[2], the life expectancy of women and men for seven high-mortality populations during extreme mortality conditions between the years 1773 and 1933 was analyzed. It was revealed that even in the face of adverse conditions such as famines (Swedish famine in 1772–1773, Irish famine in 1845–1849 and Ukrainian famine in 1933), epidemics (Icelandic epidemics in 1846 and 1882) and slavery (Freed Liberian slaves from 1820-1843 and Plantations slaves in Trinidad from 1813-1816), women tended to survive better than men.[3] Furthermore, the research shows even for less extreme famines[4] that the overall impact was greater for men than for women, also in regions where the mortality rate for women was generally higher than for men.[5]

The global numbers of COVID-19 deaths paint a similar picture. According to the rapid risk assessment Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in the EU/EEA and the UK – eighth update of 8 April 2020, a total of 74 066 deaths have been reported worldwide by 7 April 2020 with 51 059 deaths being reported from the EU/EEA countries and the UK.[6] Despite higher age groups being generally more affected by COVID-19, the risk assessment reports that “for all age groups where the outcome of cases was reported, there were more deaths among males overall”. [7] In fact, the male-to-female ratio for deaths was 2.1.[8]

Good Time Being A Woman?

Taking all of this into account, one would probably agree with North American country artist Emily Reid and think “Good Time Being A Woman.” Unfortunately, not so much: women have been fighting an additional battle. One that existed even before COVID-19 startled the world. Calling it the “Shadow Pandemic”, UN WOMEN highlights the increase of the human rights violation that is violence against women during COVID-19. “Globally, 1 in 3 woman have experienced physical or sexual violence mostly by an intimate partner”. However, UN WOMEN states that “data and reports have shown a rise in all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, since the outbreak of COVID-19”.[9]

In order to understand this phenomenon, we must first deconstruct the term violence. In Violence in War and Peace,[10] Philippe Bourgois analyzes the normalization of violence in society and targets the “continuum of violence”: Violence as such is divided in four different layers: political, structural, symbolic and everyday violence. The interplay of structural and symbolic violence strengthens and amplifies everyday violence that conversely allows the continuation of symbolic and structural violence, and effectively leads to political violence. On the other hand, political violence can induce new forms of structural and symbolic violence leading again to different expressions of everyday violence.

Increases of violence on several levels

In addition, it is clear that violence in all its forms intensifies and fortifies in situations of crisis, particularly health crises, as shown by an increase in gender-based violence and intimate partner violence during the earthquake in Haiti in 2007, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the eruption of Mount Saint Helens in the 1980s, disasters that led to unemployment, family, and other stressors.[11] Evidently, this is reflected in the current pandemic in the following ways:

Increase of everyday violence: According to UN WOMEN, there has been an increase in reports of domestic violence and calls to women support services, particularly during the COVID-19 lockdown period of March-April 2020. In France, reports of domestic violence rose up to more than 30%, and Singapore as well as Cyprus also experienced a rise in emergency calls to women’s helplines of more than 30%.[12] Why? According to the Council of Europe, particularly during the lockdown i.e. “isolation and confinement leads to higher levels of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence”[13].

Increase of structural and symbolic violence: Economic impacts for women such as earning less, working more, unpaid care work, increased risk of unemployment due to caring for children and people in need, and thus increased risk of poverty.[14]

Increase of political violence: UN WOMEN states that in conflict-affected areas where people depend on humanitarian aid, particularly women and children are at highest immediate-risk for COVID-19. Furthermore, women and girls are more vulnerable to gender-based violence in refugee camps, when practicing hygiene at latrines or water distribution sites.[15]

As May-Britt Ohman Nielsen emphasised: “Pandemics are a magnifying glass that sheds light on social conditions, gender included.[16]Therefore, if we ask who is affected by COVID-19, we must also ask how, as it is clear that COVID-19 has an even severer impact on women worldwide.

“Gender-based violence […] is a profound health problem for women across the globe. Although a significant cause of female morbidity and mortality, gender violence is almost never seen as a public health issue.”[17]

[1], accessed November 28, 2020.

[2] Zarulli V et al., “Women Live Longer than Men Even during Severe Famines and Epidemics,” Yearbook of Paediatric Endocrinology, September 11, 2018.

[3] Zarulli et al. 5.

[4] Dutch Hunger Winter, the famines of Madras and Bombay, five south Asian famines, the Bengal famine, and the famine in the Matlab region.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in the EU/EEA and the UK – eighth update, accessed November 28, 2020.

[7] Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in the EU/EEA and the UK – eighth update, 6.

[8] Ibid.

[9] The Shadow Pandemic: Violence against women during COVID-19, UN WOMEN, accessed November 28, 2020.

[10] Philippe Bourgois, “The Power of Violence in War and Peace: Post-Cold War Lessons from El Salvador,” Ethnography 2, no. 1 (2001): 5–34.

[11] Shalini Mittal and Tushar Singh, “Gender-Based Violence During COVID-19 Pandemic: A Mini-Review,” Frontiers in Global Women’s Health 1 (September 8, 2020).

[12], accessed November 28, 2020.

[13], accessed November 28, 2020.

[14] Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Women (2020), UNITED NATIONS, accessed November 28, 2020.

[15] UN Secretary-General’s policy brief: The impact of COVID-19 on women; Transcript of the UN Secretary-General’s virtual press encounter on the appeal for global ceasefire, UN, 23 March 2020., accessed November 28, 2020.

[16], accessed November 28, 2020.

[17] Lori Heise, “Gender-Based Abuse: The Global Epidemic,” Cadernos de Saúde Pública 10, no. suppl 1 (1994): 135–45.


International History and Politics of Epidemics

Plague Column, Vienna
Plague Column, Vienna

This blog accompanies the MA seminar “International History and Politics of Epidemics” (2020/2021) at the Institute of Development Studies of the University of Vienna. The seminar is based on the assumption that throughout history, epidemics and pandemics have had an impact on societies and humanity as a whole. They had demographic, socio-economic, political and cultural repercussions and they impacted international cooperation. In return, responses to these diseases have been shaped by politics, economics, or culture. The impact of epidemics and pandemics on societies varied depending on their socio-political or economic vulnerabilities and inequalities, many of which can be explained by history. As the world faces another pandemic, Covid-19, this seminar explores ways of making sense of the current crisis by looking at the past. The seminar covers issues such as the role of science and religion in the management of epidemics or cultural and socially constructed responses to disease. Further concerns are the links of epidemics with the environment, gender, democracy, capitalism, the media, humanitarianism, international development, diplomacy, and international governance. These and other topics will be the subject of individual essay-style blog posts written by the students over several weeks. Furthermore, the blog will also feature collaborative podcasts discussing some themes in more depth. They will discuss such diverse issues such as Robert Koch’s role in colonial East Africa, the practice of quarantine, COVID in the history of “biopolitics”, epidemics and the International Red Cross after the First World War, the WHO and the eradication of smallpox, and the international response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. The website is directed towards an audience interested in better understanding the current pandemic by looking at the past.