Unlocking the lockdown gender-differentiated consequences of COVID-19 in Afghanistan

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The 2020 Gender-Differentiated Consequences of COVID-19 Survey, aiming toward “assessing gendered impacts of COVID-19 on the population of Afghanistan”, has been published to encourage the promotion of a gender-sensitive response to the unfolding humanitarian situation which puts the needs of women and girls at the fore.
The emergence of the novel coronavirus—or Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)—has come as a shock not only to people with lower levels of access to basic services but anyone prone to various types of inequality, deprivation or violence. The outbreak has severely impacted the fragile accomplishments on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in a period of less than one year.
With regard to the Beijing Platform for Action and other international treaties which have become a sound voice for those with no, or a lower level of, access to equal opportunities, COVID-19 has taught us that promoting agendas such as those calling for increased equity or empowerment requires a more sustainable approach in order to devote further attention to changing attitudes and social norms. Consequently, women in most countries have reported an increase in different types of violence, a higher burden of care, loss of income and employment, losing formal and informal education opportunities, and lower levels of access to health care services—such as COVID-19 prevention and testing kits as well as sexual, reproductive, and mental health services. The current situation thus provides a clear picture of where we actually are in terms of promoting gender equality and how much work is required to enhance the inclusiveness and sustainability of planned initiatives.

In order to measure the gender-specific consequences of COVID-19, UN Women have partnered with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and a mobile network operator (Roshan) to conduct a Rapid Assessment Survey across Afghanistan. This survey is also being carried out by UN Women across the Asia-Pacific Region, in countries such as Thailand, Bangladesh, Nepal, Philippines, Samoa, Pakistan, Cambodia, Indonesia and Maldives.

The overall objectives of the survey are to understand the gender-specific impacts of COVID-19 in Afghanistan; develop country-specific, sex-disaggregated data and corresponding gender analysis to inform COVID-19 policy and programming response; and build understanding on the gendered impacts of COVID-19, particularly in relation to changes in employment, access to health, and unpaid domestic and care work in the home.

The 2020 UN Women-IRC survey highlights COVID-19-related impacts on women and men in terms of their gender profiles as aligned with social and societal norms. Acknowledging existing gender stereotypes and stigmas as the main factors fueling ongoing tensions in the name of gender roles, the survey analyses data collected in Afghanistan during the first months of the COVID-19 outbreak on: people’s access to and sources of information on the pandemic; challenges in accessing health care services; loss of employment; reduction in household income; the burden of unpaid domestic care; the effects of school closures; access to water; and triggers of migration and displacement.

Methodology of the survey

The methodology for data collection included two approaches: (1) Delivering text messages to mobile phone users which included a link to the survey, and (2) Compiling data utilizing face-to-face methods which preserve the safety of respondents and enumerators, with measures in place to prevent contagion. This dual approach helped address concerns regarding demographic coverage, as the sample was unlikely to be representative of the total population in Afghanistan, due to limited access to the internet, particularly in the case of women. This dual approach helped capture data from vulnerable groups, such as migrant populations and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), with social media being used to promote the survey and raise response rates.

The mixed methodology approach to data collection was conducted in two phases. The first phase was administered via text message. An SMS containing a link to the survey was disseminated to 2.4 million users of Roshan Telecom internet data packages, delivered over a period of one week and covering the length and breadth of the country. The second phase involved a series of telephone and face-to-face interviews with different communities, including IDPs, returnees and host communities. Face-to-face interviews were conducted by enumerators trained in COVID-19 prevention procedures, with the online survey being rolled out in 31 of 34 provinces. In total, 8,245 responses were received through these approaches, the largest sample size in the region. Offline data was not collected in Kabul as it was felt that the first phase of data collection would largely cover this provinces, Ghazni or Maidan Wardak provinces.

Survey respondents were asked to provide some demographic information about themselves and on behalf of their families and respond to a host of questions on different types of strain felt during the pandemic (as compared to their pre-COVID-19 experience). The survey data collected via online and offline platforms provided space for respondents to outline the challenges they face in terms of public awareness, social norms, and access to services. Although the data collection phase encountered some limitations, the number of responses received was high, despite online platforms being beyond the reach of many and the social-distancing measures applied.

A technical statistics team in UN Women’s Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific conducted the primary analysis, comparing findings across countries in the region. The Afghanistan Country Office, in collaboration with the IRC, completed the final analysis which resulted in a set of recommendations for achieving gender equality realization in the context of Afghanistan.

Key findings of the survey

  • There are gender differentials regarding primary sources of information on COVID-19.
    Women are more likely to either not know about COVID-19 or find the provided information unclear.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic is adversely affecting the mental and emotional health of people in Afghanistan. Women IDPs are particularly affected.

  • Most of the population in Afghanistan face severe challenges in accessing health care. However, women are bearing the weight of these challenges.

  • Informal workers are losing their jobs and formal workers are working fewer hours as a result of COVID-19.

  • As a result of COVID-19, household resources are dwindling for everyone, but there are gender differentials.

  • COVID-19 has increased the burden of unpaid domestic and care work for everyone. However, women noted the largest increases, especially IDP and returnee women.

  • School closures are adding to the unpaid work burden of families.

  • Men are helping out more, but discriminatory social norms still leave women and girls charged with most domestic chores and unpaid care work.

  • COVID-19 is compromising water sources, and women IDPs and returnees are paying the price.

  • COVID-19 is still driving people to migrate.

Recommendations in light of the survey

  • Strengthen meaningful access to information on COVID-19 including through community mobilization and awareness raising programmes on COVID-19 prevention that target and work with women. This must include low literacy materials and modalities, and the safe mobilization of female community members to deliver impactful and gender-sensitive messages.

  • Reinforce referral pathways for women and adolescent girls to access lifesaving and resilience-based services, with quality assurance for the services accessed, and access to female service providers.

  • Invest in nexus programming, increasing coordination between humanitarian and development actors in COVID-19 response at the sectoral and national level. Ensure a space for discussing and strengthening nexus programming that includes UN agencies, both Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) from Afghanistan and International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs), civil society and grassroots women’s rights movements, and government stakeholders.

  • Increase livelihood/economic empowerment programmes that address income/earning disparities between men and women and boost female empowerment, including in terms of access to and coverage of resources.

  • Integrate concrete gender analysis into the planning, development, and delivery of social protection measures, so as to ensure they extend beyond formal economy participation and are capable of reaching women in the informal sector and those engaged in unpaid care and domestic labour.

  • Enhance integrated health responses, including on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS), reproductive and sexual health, and rights and mobile health.

  • Ensure humanitarian interventions specifically address the needs of marginalized groups, including people living with disabilities and female-headed households designed with and for these groups.

  • Promote decision-making led by women and girls and co-ownership of programming, including lessons learned and the development of best practices.