Pandemic has brought major setbacks for gender equality, new report says

The pandemic "continues to highlight existing gender equalities," EU Equality Commissioner Dalli said during the presentation of the report. [FREDERICK FLORIN/EPA-EFE]

The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted gender equality, mental and reproductive health across Europe, with little to no progress being made over the last 12 months, according to a report presented on Thursday (28 October) by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE).

According to the report, the EU’s overall score in the institute’s Gender Equality Index has remained almost stagnant compared to 2020, increasing by 0.6 % to 68 out of 100 possible points.

“Europe has made fragile gains in gender equality. But big losses are emerging as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” EIGE director Carlien Scheele said.

While the index is published every year to track where EU countries stand on gender equality, this year’s report focuses on health and the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic.

“Addressing today’s topic comes at a timely moment, as the biggest global health crisis we have experienced continues to highlight existing gender equalities,” EU Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli, said during the presentation of the report.

Pandemic disproportionately affected women

The report finds that women face a higher risk of contracting the virus as they are overrepresented in the health sector. Additionally, healthcare workers also faced particular mental distress, according to the study.

“COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on women and girls,” Hans Henri Kluge, Director of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Regional Office for Europe, said during the presentation. “It has exacerbated existing inequalities and placed a disproportionate burden on women, including in healthcare settings,” he added.

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While women were more likely to catch COVID, hospitalisation rates were comparatively higher for men. According to the researchers, this is linked to pre-existing conditions that are more common among men, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Gender equality was impacted in other areas asides from health. For example, the economic fallout of the crisis is more significant and more long-lasting for women than for men, Scheele explained. According to the researchers, this is because women are employed in different jobs than men and take on a higher share of unpaid care duties.

Unmet healthcare needs

The report also finds that access to health services is still not universal in the EU. While around 3 % of men and women report unmet needs for medical examinations, the rate is especially high for specific groups of women, such as elderly or less well-educated ones (4%), and single parents (5 %).

“Equal access to good quality health services, including sexual and reproductive health and rights, allows women and men, in all their diversity, to live a full and active life in society,” Dalli said.

Through the EU4Health Programme, she added that the Commission was ready to support member states in recognising “every person’s fundamental right of access to healthcare as enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the Pillar of Social Rights”.

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The EU4Health Programme, worth € 5.3 billion across the EU, was launched to respond to the pandemic and aims to address healthcare systems’ resilience. Among the programme’s ten objectives is improving access to healthcare and making medical products and devices more affordable.

Apart from the EU4Health Programme, Dalli said the Commission was also combating inequalities through the EU Gender Equality Strategy and the European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan.

Birth rates curbed

Access to treatments and services “even in the most robust of healthcare systems” had been further put at risk during the pandemic, Dalli stressed. “In particular, women and girls struggled with accessing menstrual hygiene information and supplies because of school closures, mobility restrictions and economic distress,” she added.

Restricted access to sexual and reproductive health services might also be one of the reasons why birth rates have dropped since the start of the pandemic, especially in those countries most affected by it, according to EIGE.  The researchers also identified psychological distress, economic uncertainty, and an increase in women’s unpaid care work as factors that led couples to delay or abandon their plans of having children.

Irrespective of the pandemic, the report found shortcomings in women’s access to sexual and reproductive healthcare as limited availability, access to contraceptives, high costs, and stigma pose barriers. Moreover, access to safe abortion and maternal healthcare remains unequal across the EU, according to EIGE.

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[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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