Case counts, death tolls, the question of immunity — coronavirus coverage is all-consuming. For four consecutive days, July 21 to 24, more than 1,000 people in the United States died from covid-19. We have more than 4 million infections in the country, with data suggesting that the actual number of cases is likely dramatically higher. Worldwide, there are over 16 million cases and more than 640,000 deaths.
But in the long shadow of covid-19 stats, other stories get less attention.
For instance, more girls are at risk of being coerced into child marriage or forced to undergo female genital mutilation as a result of the pandemic, lockdowns have led to higher rates of domestic violence, and women around the globe are losing access to birth control, safe abortion and sexual health education.
“If most people learn about their sexual health in school — and it’s not always comprehensive — if kids are not in school and the curriculum is so dramatically reduced, where will sexual health education fit in?” said Amanda Klasing, the acting co-director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch.
Below, you’ll find a selection of pressing problems — and one gain — affecting women and girls around the world. This article is by no means comprehensive, but it’s a start.
Madina Umayeva, 23, a mother of three living in Gudermes, texted her sister on June 12 from a new phone number saying she was planning to leave her husband. She asked that her sister not share the number with her spouse or mother-in-law. That evening, Umayeva was found dead in her home. Her cousin told the media that Umayeva had been a victim of domestic violence: “She told me that when her husband beat her, it was as though he became uncontrollable, deranged, like a beast. She said that she couldn’t live with him any longer. She had left him several times but always came back — older relatives intervened, the elders put pressure on her, saying that a woman should be married.”
Umayeva was buried swiftly by her husband’s family before a cause of death could be identified.
In late June, her body was exhumed for an examination, but ultimately, the head of the Chechen Republic admonished Umayeva’s family for pushing for her body to be examined. He also said that Umayeva “should have held on to her marriage … when a woman is married, there are arguments, and fights, and sometimes her husband beats her.” Umayeva’s mother was pushed to apologize for seeking an investigation into her daughter’s death; she did so publicly, on camera. Advocacy and activist groups have called for a full, unbiased investigation into Umayeva’s death.
Some good news: For the first time, Gabon has a female prime minister. Rose Christiane Ossouka Raponda, 56, who previously served as the country’s defense minister, was appointed to her new role by the central African country’s president, Ali Bongo Ondimba, this month. Trained as an economist, Ossouka Raponda also made history in 2014 when she became the first woman to serve as mayor of Libreville, the capital of Gabon. According to a statement from the president’s office, her role will involve ensuring the country’s “economic relaunch and necessary social support in the light of the world crisis linked to COVID-19.”
Divorce in Kenya can leave a woman without access to marital property. It’s difficult for women to get property in their own name, or to even have their name jointly listed with their spouse’s, Human Rights Watch reported. (2018 data from Kenya Land Alliance shows that women held just 1.62 percent of land title deeds given between 2013 and 2017.) “For most women seeking to leave a marriage, the fear of intimidation from their husband or his relatives and traditional dispute resolution that reinforces discrimination means they leave with little more than a few personal belongings they can physically carry with them,” the Human Rights Watch report, which was released in June, says. In many instances, “elders enable the woman to remove her personal belongings from the home but are very clear that she cannot be given a share of the house or land.”
While Kenya’s constitution includes the equitable distribution of joint property between spouses and the country’s 2013 Matrimonial Property Act acknowledges that married women have the same rights as their male counterparts, there are numerous challenges — from legal costs to lack of clarity over how to show proof of a spouse’s contributions — that prevent women from getting their due.
There are millions of migrant domestic workers in the Middle East, particularly in the Gulf countries. Many of them are women from Africa and Asia working abroad to provide for their families and themselves. Particularly violent or deadly cases of abuse against migrant domestic workers have been covered widely — an Indian worker whose arm was cut off, a Filipina worker who was found dead in a freezer — but less lethal cases of overwork and undernourishment can lead to illness, exhaustion, or worse. Coronavirus can make conditions deteriorate further for domestic migrant workers. With families spending more time at home, workers will likely be faced with additional cleaning, cooking and other duties; they may also see their pay reduced, or cut off entirely, due to any economic hardship their employers face during the pandemic.
Klasing, of Human Rights Watch, worries about the effects of the pandemic on women’s rights. “It’s often women who are the last brought back into the position that they were in before, if they ever are,” she said. “If you think about the movement that it’s taken over the last 30 or 40 years to get women and girls into education, into the workforce and the economy” and to shine a light on domestic violence and drive home the point that there are “government obligations” to end it, “there’s a real risk that all of those gains are reversed to some extent,” she added.
“I think there is that opportunity for real transformation,” Klasing said, “but it requires political pressure.”