The Covid-19 pandemic is affecting men and women differently. Women are overburdened with household chores, and are being neglected more than ever, while experiencing higher domestic violence
Amena Akhtar (31) from Dinajpur was married off at the age of 13.
After enduring years of abuse at the hands of her in-laws, she returned to her parents' home with the dream of resuming her education.
In a family of six with only one earning member, poverty did not allow her to fulfil her dreams.
She came to Dhaka in 2015 and joined a garment factory in Gazipur.
When she started earning, she thought better days would be on the horizon.
But tragically, her father got diagnosed with cancer.
He died this year on 21 February. Amena was not granted any leave to say goodbye to her father.
She did not complain because she needed the salary.
Even after making such sacrifices, Amena got fired in April.
The factory was closed from April 5 to April 26 due to the pandemic.
Defying the shutdown, she went there on April 26 only to know that she was fired.
"They did not pay my dues and said they would call me when the situation gets better. We have loans to pay and my income is crucial to my family. I begged them to let me keep my job, but nothing worked on them," she said.
Amena stayed back in Gazipur so that she could visit the factory every week and beg the authorities to take her back.
Many women workers like Amena are bearing the brunt of unemployment during the pandemic.
Things are also difficult for working women and homemakers, both of whom are overburdened with household chores. Women are also facing domestic violence.
How the pandemic is affecting women
Joly Talukder, general secretary of Garments Workers Trade Union Centre, said that the coronavirus has become more of an excuse for the owners to weaken the unions and deprive the workers of their pay.
She said, "Despite getting the Tk5,000 crore stimulus package, they did not pay the workers their due. At the same time, laying off while depriving minimum rights is on full force."
Fahmida Khatun, executive director, Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), said the pandemic has had some added impact on women as "they are more likely to be laid off first, be it in garment sector or any other sector."
"In rural areas, girls are getting married off because educational institutions are closed for months. When they are less educated, they will not be joining the competitive job market in future. In addition, premature motherhood will raise concerns over health," she said.
In Bangladesh, there are 60 million people in the workforce and 18.9 million of them are women.
There has been an upward trend in percentage of female labour force participation in the country throughout last decade.
Women are employed in different positions in vital sectors such as technology, agriculture and trade.
The Business Standard spoke to women from different professions to have a deeper understanding of their situation during the pandemic.
Women's careers at stake
Sampreety Ali, a graphics designer at a private company, said that even before the pandemic, there were fewer scopes for work and lesser recognition of women in the workplace.
The new-normal situation has pushed these issues to a state beyond repair.
Sharing her experience, she said that people do not directly discourage women to apply for jobs, but they do it through other ways.
"At the beginning of the shutdown, I wanted to switch and started applying in other places. In one of the interviews, I was asked if I could ride a motorcycle. I do not know how riding a motorcycle is relevant to graphics design," she said.
She feels she has fallen victim to institutional discrimination and is upset about her career experiencing a set-back.
For working mothers like Maitri Saha, a successful career has become a faraway dream.
She is an IT officer at Square InformatiX Limited and returned to work on March 21, only three months after her baby was born.
"Shortly after I resumed work, the government declared the shutdown. I was happy as I thought I would get to keep my job and spend time with my son. However, the reality was a lot different," she said.
Despite having a supportive husband and in-laws, she cannot help but feel the pressure.
She has to do household chores, look after her son and at the same time, remain involved in office work.
Acknowledging the difficulties of women like Sampreety and Maitri, Fahmida Khatun said, "Our years of effort to reduce gender gap and promote women empowerment may go in vain if this situation continues."
A challenge for single mothers
A school teacher, Naznin Moni is a single mother with two children, who lives with her elderly in-laws.
She sometimes gets overwhelmed by the amount of work that she has to do all by herself.
"I had to release the home tutors and househelp as I have elderly family members. Now, besides my own profession, I have to supervise my children's education as well. Moreover, all the family members require added health carenow," she said.
The fate of homemakers
Mohua Begum and Abdul Moshiur Khan have four daughters.
Homemaker Mohua did not mind carrying out most of the responsibilities.
However, during the two-month long shutdown, she felt somewhat trapped with her children, husband and no house help.
Her workload increased two or three times more than before.
Every day, she had to manage multiple meals and do the laundry for her family members and at the same time, also deal with their temper tantrums.
Although she is not an earning member, when her husband was concerned about his job security, she was equally worried.
But nobody noticed how overworked she was.
Her story brings us to the Action Aid research in 2017, three years before the pandemic.
The research revealed that women in Bangladesh spend 6.3 hours of their total work time in "unpaid care work" per day.
For the same number of total working hours (15.3 hours), men spend only 1.1 hours per day in unpaid care work.
Farah Kabir, country director of Action Aid, said that they are aware that the load of household chores on women has increased and they have started working on another research about it.
UN Women-Asia and the Pacific said that during lockdowns, around 63 percent of women experienced increased domestic work.
Their report titled "Unlocking the Lockdown: The Gendered Effects of Covid-19 on Achieving the SDGs in Asia and the Pacific" revealed that the Covid-19 pandemic is affecting men and women differently.
Within a month of lockdowns, the world witnessed an upsurge in domestic and gender based violence.
Citing United Nations Population Fund's (UNFPA) estimation, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has expressed concern over lockdowns continuing for six more months.
If they do, we may have to see an extra 31 million cases of gender-based violence globally.
According to Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), till May 2020, around 11,025 women faced domestic violence in Bangladesh.
Troubled migrant workers
Many women from Bangladesh work as domestic help in foreign countries.
Between 2015 and August 2019, a total of 2,91,098 Bangladeshi women migrated to Saudi Arabia for work, according to the Bureau of Manpower, Employment, and Training (BMET).
There are reports of these migrant workers are facing more abuse during lockdown.
Among many other things, this sector also requires gender sensitive measures during the pandemic.
Grave psychological impact
Advocate Alena Khan, chief executive of Bangladesh Human Rights foundation, stated that job insecurity, gender based violence, economic strain, and workload is not harming women only physically, they are also negatively affecting their psychological health.
Dr Farah Deeba, associate professor, Department of Clinical Psychology, University of Dhaka, said, "Diseases are not gendered, they scare men and women equally. It is the system that is putting further stress on women."
She explained that women repress their feelings because they do not get to channel their frustration like men.
Sometimes they are forced to remain silent in the face of violence.
"If not acknowledged at this moment, these problems can have long-term effects which may slow down the recovery process in future," she said.
Alena Khan felt that only recognising psychological or physical health is not enough as long as we do not find alternative ways to engage women in the workforce.
"We must find ways to include more women in the workforce. And we have to do it soon. Our government and the NGOs need to come forward with a better gender sensitive plan to address the condition," she said.
She added that rape and kidnapping of women have also increased during the pandemic, but law enforcement agencies are failing to arrest the criminals.