CHIANG MAI, 21 MAY 2020: The fifth virtual conference hosted and facilitated by the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) on ‘The Impact of the COVID-19 Crisis on Women in Asia: Vital Needs and Post-Crisis Recovery’ affirmed, “The COVID-19 pandemic has deeply affected women around the world, and the urgent and pressing needs of women must be addressed not only during the crisis, but should be made part of the post-pandemic crisis recovery. Gender-sensitive policies that recognise and respond to women’s needs will benefit not just women but society at large.”
This conference, the fifth in a series of online conferences initiated by the CCA, was held on 21 May 2020 and was viewed by over 5,500 people across the world on the CCA’s social media platforms, in addition to about 80 registered participants on Zoom.
A myriad of severe issues that are cyclical and closely associated with each other have come to light in the last few weeks as the global COVID-19 pandemic ravages the world. The crisis has revealed some of the deepest flaws of the structures of our society, a core issue being gender inequality. Women seem to suffer the brunt of the cumulative direct and indirect effects of the crisis, which has exposed the persistent and institutional nature of gender inequality.
Dr Mathews George Chunakara, the General Secretary of the CCA, moderated the virtual conference and initiated the discussions in each segment. He explained the socioeconomic consequences of the crisis and what it meant for the future of millions of women in Asia, saying, “As this unprecedented crisis spawns across the world today and the situation spins out of control in many parts of the world, several impacts of COVID-19 are hitting women in the hardest ways. The spread of COVID-19 is not only a global health pandemic; it is also substantially affecting people’s livelihoods, especially those of women.”
“Across the globe, we know that women are paid less and save less. They tend to hold less secure positions in their jobs and have less access to social protection. We know that domestic gender-based violence spikes when disaster strikes and the emerging situation in Asia is not entirely different,” the CCA General Secretary stated.
It was in the light of this awareness that CCA initiated the webinar and brought together leaders in the field of human rights and gender issues to discuss the plight of women amidst the COVID-19 crisis, said Dr Mathews George while introducing the panellists.
Melissa Alvarado, from the UN Women Asia Pacific Office, elaborated on core issues related to the gender impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. The first was security; in places where military-style lockdown measures were enforced by a predominantly male police force, there were potential risks of misconduct and increased use of violence instead of de-escalation. The second was intimate partner violence which was being reported from many parts in Asia. The preoccupation with COVID-19 led to a diversion of resources from those who needed it, and women were being turned down at hospitals and police stations and told to return after the pandemic subsided. The third was the socio-economic impact. There was an increase in care burdens and gendered expectations in families. The combination of time constraints due to housework, lack of technological education, and minimal access to devices meant that women could not be ‘more present’ in the workforce.
The COVID-19 crisis has halted the advancement and gains already made in several areas of women’s rights. Alvarado said that gender equality was a priority that was written into all SDGs (the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals), and gender sensitisation needed to be deeply integrated into all decisions, security, and design of recovery. “Women think differently, they provide unique solutions and innovation. Women’s voices must lead the decisions about women’s lives,” she emphatically stated.
Maya Dania, a young Indonesian lecturer who teaches at the Mae Fah Luang University in Thailand, spoke on how the COVID-19 pandemic had spawned a ‘new lexicon’ in the description of gender relations. She mentioned the trend of ‘COVID-Divorce’, which was caused by boredom and gender stigmatisation under lockdown. She also highlighted certain COVID-related sexist cultural phenomena, where cartoons and memes were used in Malaysia and Indonesia as advisories on soft-spoken and mild demeanours that women could model so as to ‘prevent’ domestic violence and appease their frustrated partners.
Traditional gender roles were being strongly reinforced, said Dania. She also mentioned the WHO’s observation that lack of access to contraceptive measures could lead to a spike in unplanned pregnancies, thus pushing a large number of women towards greater health risks. This was worrying given the fact that pregnant women are among the most susceptible to contracting the COVID-19 virus. What was needed, she said, was an urgent and quick response that included vulnerability assessment and advocacy to stop violence against women, minimise accidental pregnancies, and reduce maternal/infant mortality in Asia.
Nirmala Gurung, from YWCA Asia (Nepal), focused on the repercussions of the COVID-19 crisis on women working in the informal sectors of the economy. Women form the majority of the workforce in the informal economy, often taking up low-paying, high-risk jobs. Given their social disadvantages, poor working conditions, and negligible social security, they have fewer resources at their disposal. As such women workers depend on their daily earnings to survive, closures of industry (and by extension, the economy) would result in them falling into extreme and persistent poverty, she warned. “We need intersectional perspectives,” she said, recommending that churches and FBOs carefully analyse the gendered impacts of COVID-19 and initiate online and offline support for women in their communities.
Srey Sotheavy, the Director of the Alliance for Conflict Transformation (Cambodia), spoke of the widespread human rights abuse occurring under the COVID-19 crisis. The loss of income pushed many families into micro-finance debts and the women of such families were being exploited by private moneylenders, she highlighted. NGOs and CSOs that decried the harassment faced a backlash from the government and several activists and community leaders had been detained. Petitions for the implementation of life-saving measures such as the distribution of medical supplies and the suspension of rent and debt collection were turned down, she said.
Deekshya Illangasinghe, Director of the South Asians for Human Rights from Sri Lanka, shed light on the conditions of women migrant workers. COVID-19-related issues exacerbate the challenges migrant women workers already face. Such women workers tended to be essential workers and were exposed to contracting the virus. Institutional responses were also not conducive to their condition. The UAE government had allowed companies to restructure job contracts to lower salaries, pressure workers into taking unpaid leave, or even terminate employment. Domestic workers and housemaids who were highly dependent on their employers during the lockdown would face a loss of income. It was important to create provisions for the reintegration and rehabilitation of returning migrant women workers.
Illangasinghe suggested the incentivisation of employers to retain their workforces and the implementation of new regulations to safeguard women domestic workers and essential service providers as part of the post-crisis recovery response.
Rev. Kim Kyrie, from the Anglican Church in Korea, shared the initiatives taken by churches and women’s groups and women departments of churches during the COVID-19 crisis in the country. “Korean churches and organisations are working together and ensuring all women in Korea are exposed to the same information and receive the same care, regardless of nationality, religion, situation, or age,” she said while outlining how partnerships were forged to provide food, quarantine facilities, and medical and menstrual products for those who needed it.
“It is the role of the Church and Christians to ensure solidarity against the discrimination of those who are socially disadvantaged, those who are vulnerable, and those in the minority – such as women, children, migrant workers, single mothers, abused women, vulnerable women in refugees camps, disabled women, and sexual minorities,” said Rev. Kim, hoping that the ‘new normal’ meant abandoning vested interests in favour of ‘Sangseng’, or living together in cooperation, solidarity, and information-sharing.
Basil Fernando, an internationally recognised human rights defender from the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong, laid stress on the successes of women leaders of states who had led swift and appropriate government responses against COVID-19.
Fernando said that the participation of women in different spheres must be escalated to leadership. This leadership model should be all-inclusive and must include the voices of the most disadvantaged women, not just those who are most educated.
Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), the veteran human rights activist believed, should realise their full potential and persist in greater advocacy, despite the shrinking of civil spaces. “This webinar serves as a means to amplify the voices of those who are suffering in this technological age,” he said, commending the CCA’s efforts to address COVID-19-related issues.
Panellists across the board affirmed the importance of faith leaders in shaping the opinions and attitudes of people. They encouraged faith leaders, especially male leaders, to speak up on women’s rights issues. The demand for equality and women’s rights within the church came primarily from women themselves, and so churches needed to be allies for women.
In his concluding remarks, Dr Mathews George Chunakara said that from the past experiences, it was quite possible to project that the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, in particular the imminent global recession, would result in a prolonged dip in women’s job security and income. Today, all countries face the same crisis and none would safely prevail over COVID-19 by acting alone.
“As we share the same future, all of us must work together to ensure much-needed solidarity and partnership to overcome negative experiences in the ongoing fight against COVID-19,” added the CCA’s General Secretary.
“Gender-equal societies are more sustainable and prosperous, as compared to those where patriarchal practices are still quite deep-seated,” said Dr Mathews George Chunakara, while calling to action all panellists and participants of the webinar.
In light of the challenges caused by the COVID-19 crisis, the CCA’s Asia Sunday 2020 will focus on the theme, ‘God, Heal Us as We are Vulnerable’. Ecclesiastical and ecumenical leaders from the CCA’s constituencies across Asia will lead the one-of-a-kind virtual prayer service. The proceedings will be live-streamed on the CCA’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/ChristianConferenceofAsia on 24 May 2020 at 4 PM Bangkok (Thailand) time.
The sixth and final virtual conference in the CCA’s series of webinars will be held on 28 May 2020 and will focus on the theme, ‘Food Security: Will the world face more deaths due to hunger or COVID-19?’ The registration details for the same will be disseminated later.
The Reports of the CCA’s previous webinars: