Analysing the impact of COVID-19 on gender, peace and security

In April 2020, we published a post titled ‘Why is human security important?’ to kick-off a series of blog posts for Project HAMOC exploring the importance of this concept for planning and analysis of the human environment in conflict and crisis situations. In the current blog, authors, Olivia Iannelli and Hayley Watson look at the importance of a gendered analysis within our understanding of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The impact on men and women

With the escalation of COVID-19, various stakeholders have come forward to stress the need for gender analysis and considerations of the pandemic.

By gender analysis, this blog means a thorough analysis of how the crisis and the responses to it are impacting the different physical, cultural, security, and sanitary needs of men and women. By undertaking a more holistic approach, it will ensure a better response to the differing experiences of men and women.

In her piece for the Atlantic, Helen Lewis discussed the ways in which pandemics, such as COVID-19 and Ebola, magnify all pre-existing inequalities, particularly linked to women, but that very few researchers actually look at the gendered impacts of these outbreaks. As have the UN Populations Fund, Clare Wenham, Julia Smith, Rosemary Morgan in a piece published by The Lancet concerning Gender impacts of the outbreak. Elsewhere, on the 9th April 2020, the UN published a Policy Brief on the Impact of COVID-19 on Women, in which it outlined some of the economic impacts and the health Impacts on women, the Unpaid Care work often borne by women, Gender-Based Violence as well as the impacts of Humanitarian and Fragile Settings and on Human Rights.

Other gender-oriented considerations have been made on the pandemic. For example, BMJ Blogs found that men are more likely to die from COVID-19 than women with 71% of deaths in Italy and 62% in Germany being male. However, women face other issues. Indeed, as Phillip Ball from the Guardian states “sex differences in our vulnerability to this coronavirus and other life-threatening diseases are shaped by social norms and practices.” Domestic abuse, for instance, which disproportionately affects women, has risen worldwide.

Women are also more likely to be at the front line of the response, and thus more at risk of infection as they constitute 70 per cent of the workers in the health and social sector.

As schools and day centres shut down due to COVID-19 restrictions, working mothers are also affected as they often undertake the majority of childcare. Women are also more likely to lose employment due to COVID-19, as they are more likely to be employed in precarious, informal jobs which tend to be the first to be cut. However, gendered considerations and the advancement of women’s rights have taken a back seat, as often happens during geopolitical crises.

The impact on vulnerable communities

COVID-19 will amplify pre-existing inequalities and will heighten vulnerabilities, but it will do so even more harshly for “people and communities that are already uprooted due to conflict, displacement, the climate crisis or other diseases outbreaks.”  Among these people, women and children are even more vulnerable in conflict and crisis situations which exacerbate discrimination and increase violence against them, thus, exposing them to heightened risks of human rights violations. Despite the ceasefire issues in Yemen and the Secretary-General, António Guterres’ call for an immediate global ceasefire there has not been a complete halt of conflict. Indeed, recent events in Lake Chad and Sahel regions point to an escalation of violence by Boko Haram, while populations in the Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continue to suffer from attacks by armed groups. Terrorist attacks also continue in Mali, where on the 7th of April 2020, fighters raided a military base in the Northern town of Bamba, killing 25 soldiers. Fighting in Syria continues, the Taliban has refused a government call for ceasefire and fighting in Libya has intensified over the past month.

The continuation of conflict during this time is somewhat troubling, as the vulnerability women and children have during conflict is doubly heightened in the time of COVID-19 – they fight not only the difficulties of war but also a potential disease without the shelter and protection needed.  Additionally, as Njoki Kinyanjui states in her recent blog, despite the WPS (Women, Peace and Security) agenda, “women remain on the periphery of peace and political solutions; and therefore, have limited decision-making power on social, economic, health, protection and justice outcomes” which can have disastrous long-term effects on them. Women and children in crises who already suffer from limited access to health services may be further excluded from attention and access to the severely stretched health systems due to COVID-19. Indeed, during the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, more women died due to obstetric complications than the infectious disease itself but this is neither highlighted nor considered. According to the UN, due to COVID-19, push and pull factors for child recruitment in conflict as well as sexual exploitation and abduction may increase, as empty schools may be occupied. For this reason, a ceasefire is severely needed.

Supportive policy resolutions and the key roles of policymakers

In the past few weeks, there have been online memes, articles and blogs circulating hailing the work by women in power, such as Prime Ministers, Jacinda Arden, German chancellor, Angela Merkel; Denmark’s prime minister, Mette Frederiksen; and Sanna Marin, the Finnish prime minister to tackle COVID-19.

It is hard to ignore the success these women have had. Perhaps, their success is due to the fact that they have undertaken a holistic approach to tackling COVID-19 in which gender and gender-specific considerations are at the forefront. Indeed, 20 years after UNSCR 1325, it is critical that every COVID-19 response plan be driven by the WPS agenda. In other words, including women in COVID-19 responses and developing socio-economic plans in which the unique experience of women and girls are put at the forefront. Without these fundamental steps, women’s rights may actually regress and the positive steps we have made towards equality could be washed away.

The WPS agenda emerged from the UN resolution 1325 (2000). This resolution stated that gender-specific considerations should be brought to the centre of all “United Nations’ conflict prevention and resolution, peace-building, peacekeeping, rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts.”

These considerations include the views, needs, experience, knowledge and interests of men and women in policymaking, planning and decision-making in conflict and are “crucial to ensuring adequate preparation, mitigation, response and recovery from crises.”

The concept of Human Security, on the other hand, is outlined in the General Assembly resolution 66/290 which states that “human security calls for people-centred, comprehensive, context-specific and prevention-oriented responses that strengthen the protection and empowerment of all people and all communities”. With the outbreak of COVID-19, human security, the WPS agenda and its call for a people-centred, gendered analysis of crises, is more important than ever.

To find out more about our work in human security and Project HAMOC, a platform dedicated to a human-centric analysis for conflict and crises, please visit the project webpage.

Olivia Ianelli, Senior Research Analyst at Trilateral Research

Hayley Watson, Senior Practice Manager at Trilateral Research

Hayley Watson


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