How COVID-19 pandemic affected women in Russia


pandemic, besides unearthing systemic challenges of the world healthcare, demonstrated once more the persistence of gender inequality in our society. The disease outbreak and lockdown affected the situation of women around the globe. In Russia, the issue of women’s rights is acute as well.

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How COVID-19 pandemic affected women

Rise in unemployment and unpaid labor

According to recent data, there are more than 7 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 400,000 people across the world died from coronavirus disease. Pandemic causes economic losses as well: as estimated, the damage will amount to 8,3 trillion US dollars and 1,6 billion people will lose their livelihoods.

In Russia, almost a half of employed citizens may lose their jobs or suffer income losses due to the crisis, say the experts of Institute for Social Analysis and Prediction of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration — it means, about 35 million people. The most vulnerable groups include self-employed and sole proprietors, employees in branches most affected by the pandemic (trade, catering, sports, tourism, entertainment) and precarious workers with off-the-book salary or wages below subsistence level. It means that the crisis will hit first of all women — according to the Russian Statistics Agency Rosstat, women are overrepresented in these social groups.

Moreover, there is an additional risk factor. Women’s wages in Russia are 30% lower than those of men and women are more likely to sacrifice their career for family — in this situation, women who lose their jobs during the crisis risk never to re-establish the pre-crisis income level. At least, that was the situation after other pandemics. Researchers exploring the consequences of Ebola and Zika outbreaks as well as SARS, swine and avian influenza concluded that those pandemics had affected the overall standard of living — however, after some time men succeeded to return to the pre-pandemic income, while women did not.

In Russia, the salary gap is partly caused by inaccessibility of some “male” high-paying jobs for women. The list of professions banned for women impacts most of all the women living in monotowns who are not allowed to work in the city-forming enterprise due to the prohibition. The problem might be especially acute during the lockdown when other income opportunities are limited.

Another risk group is single mothers. In Russia, there are more than 5 million mothers who raise their children alone without any financial support (child support debts exceed 150 billion Rubles) — it is about a third of all the families. 27% of them live below the poverty line. Furthermore, it is the most overly-indebted social group. If women lose their jobs now, they forfeit possibility to provide for their family — all they may count on is either ad hoc assistance from the government in the amount of 10,000 Rubles for the child younger than 16, or monthly assistance, which amounts to a half of the above mentioned sum and is much more difficult to achieve.

Moreover, during the pandemic, women tend to be more engaged into unpaid domestic labor, the so called “second shift,” when after finishing the day on their official job, women do household chores. Cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, compiling shopping lists, solving minor domestic problems as well as caring for children and aging relatives — all those amount to c. 23 years of work, with which men are usually unfamiliar. For example, in Russia, only 2–2,5% of men use their right to take childcare leave. Similarly, as the Russian Statistics Agency Rosstat says, women take twice more medical leaves due to their children’s illnesses than men. The pandemic only increased this burden with the closure of kindergartens, schools, hospices and other service establishments.

Sexual exploitation of women is an additional risk. According to the research exploring the consequences of the Ebola epidemic, when the outbreak was over, the teenage prostitution spiked. The reason is that sex trade uses not only physical dependence and fraud — it also takes advantage of the person facing necessity to manage epidemic related debts. Russian activists have already reported the increasing activity of webcam platforms, which offer women “easy money” during the crisis. The activists emphasize that such employment is often a form of sexual exploitation.

Salary gap between men and women can be seen also on other, less obvious examples, which demonstrate increased vulnerability of women during the pandemic. For example, according to the Gender Equality Index, women and men differ in access to private vehicles — men tend to use a car, while women tend to use public transport. It jeopardizes them: the usage of public transport increases six-fold the risk to catch even the regular flu.

According to another study, women amount to 30% of business-class passengers only and mostly fly in economy class with its less isolated seats. Women comprise only 7% of the pilots (whose cockpit is also pretty well isolated), while 80% of flight attendants (whose job implies much closer contact with passengers) are women.

Women’s war

The battle with COVID-19 is called the first war where women are at the frontline. Indeed, many women are more exposed to the risk of getting infected. And not only on the planes.

Pharmacists are among the first ones who may catch the airborne virus. In Russia, 83% of pharmacists are women. Under the conditions when masks, antiseptics and gloves are in high demand, the workload of female pharmacists increases. It may manifest in the increased shift length or even in persecutions by embittered customers. Many pharmacists report that they themselves do not possess proper personal protective equipment (PPE).

However, the main battle field is in hospitals. Women are overrepresented in medicine across the world. Russia is not an exception — of the doctors and medical personnel, 71% and 95% respectively are women. According to official data, at least 489 medical workers died from COVID-19 in Russia. As Mediazona reports, the majority of them were nurses.

One of the reasons is that they lack basic personal protective equipment during close contacts with patients. And even if they have PPE, it is not always effective for women: as the study by the Trade Union Congress demonstrated, 57% of women acknowledged that unfitted PPE size complicated their work (PPE are designed on the basis of the parameters of an average male body).

Nevertheless, despite the over-representation of women in medicine, the gender gap is still there: they hold only 25% of senior positions.

Accessibility of medical and legal assistance

One of the deceased medical workers in Chechnya was a pregnant woman. Pregnant women face additional risks: they experience more difficulties with receiving timely medical care during the lockdown. This is due to the fact that the access to women’s health clinics, day patient facilities and consultative facilities for pregnant women was restricted because of the risk of COVID-19 proliferation and numerous maternity clinics were transformed into infectious hospitals. Moreover, as it stands in the recommendations of the Russian Ministry of Health, not all COVID-19 treatments may be used for pregnant women.

Expectant women also face another risk: the studies exploring the consequences of Ebola in African countries mention that because of the insufficient resources, the health care system frequently ignored women who were due to give birth. The consequences were deplorable: in Sierra Leone, more women died from childbirth complications than from Ebola itself. In several Russian cities, maternity clinics have already limited delivery with the partner present and some of them have even ceased to accept birthing women.

Women who experienced an unintended pregnancy in this spring comprise one more risk group. Abortion turned out to be inaccessible in several women’s health clinics due to the pandemic. In Moscow, only 3 of 44 clinics agreed to perform abortion in the framework of compulsory health insurance (so called OMS, Obyazatelnoe Medizinskoe Strakhovanie). Others explained that this medical procedure was considered non-urgent and had been cancelled for the period of the pandemic to reduce the workload of the doctors. In Russia, abortion without medical justification is allowed only before the twelfth week. Thus, many women will not have enough time to perform the procedure while it is still legal. As expected, the insufficient accessibility of medical care may lead to millions of unwanted pregnancies.

Another vulnerable group in Russia is transgender people who are going through or have already completed a gender transition and whose needs are not discussed publicly. Some of them cannot receive vital hormonal therapy anymore. Some are locked down with abusive relatives, some lost their jobs and suffer from lack of food and money, as the activists of the initiative group “T-Action” report. According to them, many are facing delays in long anticipated reassignment surgery, sometimes operations are even cancelled. Moreover, transgender people are experiencing problems with obtaining new IDs because the work hours of registry offices are very limited.

Pandemic of violence

The COVID-19 outbreak is also called the pandemic of domestic violence: the number of people who went to police with domestic violence complaints has multiplied across the world. In Russia, the level of domestic violence has increased two and a half times.

Triggers for physical abuse include stress associated with instable social and economic situation, increased consumption of alcohol and deteriorating financial situation. Moreover, the isolation itself contributes to the situation making the abusers believe that their crimes against their partner or family members can go unnoticed during the lockdown.

According to the UN data, 137 women across the world are killed by their relatives every day. In Russia, activists report about approximately 500 women killed by their partners since the beginning of the year. However, domestic violence exists not only in intimate partnerships. Elderly women — mothers and grandmothers — are also abused by their male relatives and comprise more than 80% of all aging people who experienced domestic violence. Over the last year, domestic violence against women was practiced more than 15,000 times — and it is only the official statistics. Over 70% of victims do not trust the police and prefer not to seek their help.

What makes things worse, is that the police investigate such cases reluctantly — in 2017, domestic violence was removed from the Criminal Code, and now the penalty for it is a fine, which is paid from the family budget.

During the pandemic, the police even amerces women who report domestic violence. For example, in Ulyanovsk a woman who came to the police station to report the abuse from the father of her child was fined for stay-home regime violation. In Krasnoyarsk, policemen penalized young women who reported rape.

Russia did not ratify the Istanbul convention (Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence) and thus has not instituted protection orders and protocols on assistance to victims. The system of shelters remains underdeveloped as well. With its population of many millions, Russia has only about one thousand and five hundred places in shelters for the victims of violence, while according to the Convention, there should be at least one place in a shelter for each thousand of population, i.e. hundred times more. The state funding comprises only 0,12% of all grants provided to the crisis centers.

However, even the few existing crisis centers did not have choice but to shut down temporarily due to the pandemic. The reason lies in local regulations. First, the crisis centers are not officially recognized as vital institutions during the lockdown and second, they are not allowed to receive visitors under the conditions of the pandemic: they lack masks, gloves and do not possess enough separate rooms to ensure self-isolation for all victims. Meanwhile, the work on the draft of a bill on prevention of domestic violence has been postponed until the pandemic ends.

Another issue is that different governmental authorities lack consensus on whether the problem exists at all. The Government Commission on Crime Prevention assigned governors to explore the possibility of opening crisis centers for female victims of domestic violence until June, while the Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova pointed out that the Interior Ministry should have investigated the cases of domestic violence more thoroughly. At the same time, the Interior Ministry assured the public that there was no need in that, and the State Duma members even asked the Procurator General's Office to verify this information, since it appeared “besmirching the institute of marriage.”

Additional risk that women face during lockdown and that gains less attention is sexualized violence. Condom producers observe sales growth of 30% in Russia in comparison to the pre-pandemic level. However, sexual coercion in the intimate partnership remains a taboo subject in Russia, and because of the absence of a law on consent and increasing clerical rhetoric no changes are expected. The latest thorough study on the topic was conducted almost 20 years ago by the MSU (Moscow State University) scholars, and it demonstrated that 60% of men an 50% of women were sure that rape was principally impossible in the intimate partnership. However, the researchers assume that latent rapes comprise up to 90% of all the rape cases.

LGBT-people face similar difficulties. They may also be subjected to intimate partner violence, but due to stigmatization are often deprived of the possibilities to protect themselves that heterosexual people possess. The pandemic hit LGBT-refugees as well — because of the global lockdown, the right of asylum ceased to exist, borders and ministries are closed, bureaucratic processes stopped, and there is no possibility to take refuge in another country.

What is next?

No country in the world has achieved general parity yet. It will take about 200 years to reach genuine equality between men and women, including equality in salaries.

For now, Russia is no. 81 in the ranking of the Global Gender Gap Report, but the COVID-19 pandemic and the social and economic crisis associated with it may threaten even this position. Women’s rights on physical and sexual health (limited accessibility of abortion and domestic violence) and their economic situation are of particular concern.

The UN has offered concrete measures that might help to avoid the backsliding in the sphere of women’s rights and impact their quality of life significantly. The experts advise to recognize shelters as vital establishments, to increase their number by using hotel rooms and educational facilities for this purpose, to support female business owners, to involve women in decision making process and to gather gender disaggregated data in statistics, to name a few.

Furthermore, the UN has encouraged men to participate in the domestic labor alongside women and launched a hashtag #HeForSheAtHome offering men to tell about their experience of household work.

Nevertheless, one of the most critical measures addressing gender inequality in Russia may be the legislation on prevention of domestic violence. Hopefully, the work on it will be resumed soon — as it is planned, a revised version of the bill is going to be discussed during the current session of the State Duma.

Editor: Natalia Zaitseva