Women and the burden of care
When anyone in the family gets sick, chances are it is the mother (nanay, ina, mommy) who bears the burden of caring for the ailing husband, daughter, son, sibling, grandmother/grandfather.
Despite the changes in the social order and the shifting sands of gender relations, the “burden of care” still falls heavily on women, who must balance responsibilities outside the home, house management, time commitments, and even her own health to look after the ailing in the family.
This domestic role is reflected in women’s roles in our society, too. The overwhelming majority of school teachers, for instance, are women. Many in the frontlines of the fight versus the COVID-19 contagion are women—nurses, midwives, doctors, researchers, even hospital personnel who transport the sick, help look after their needs, scrub and disinfect the surroundings. So, too, must we acknowledge the continuing efforts of those who serve on the sidelines: househelp, sales clerks, vendors, even policewomen who somehow soften the harsh ways of law enforcers.
And it’s worthwhile to realize that this pattern is replicated elsewhere, even in prosperous, supposedly egalitarian societies.
But is the gender disparity in terms of health care really only a matter of unequal burdens and matters such as wage disparity, low status, and employment insecurity?
Sadly, it also has a bearing on the quality of health care available, and the health outcomes of women.
Writing in the health web page ThinkGlobalHealth, Julia Smith, a research associate in the Faculty of Health Sciences of Simon Fraser University, points out that the medical field often overlooks gender disparities in major public health crises, which impact on the survival of women. Data from the current Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, writes Smith, “indicate that two-thirds of the people infected are women.” These higher infection rates, she reports, “are attributed to women’s social responsibilities as caregivers and due to their lack of trust in unknown male health providers.” Those in charge “need to take these factors into account if they are to reach those most at risk of infection and most in need of care.”
Women are penalized for their gender roles in other ways, says Smith. In response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, “maternal health clinics were closed as resources were diverted to the outbreak response. Consequently, the maternal mortality rate in the region, already one of the highest in the world, increased by 70 percent.” To cope with the COVID-19 outbreak,
Smith suggests that women, and policymakers and practitioners, should ask questions like: Do pregnant women in quarantined areas have access to care? Are sexual and reproductive supplies, such as contraception, readily available?
Outbreak responses, says Smith, “consistently fail to meaningfully include gender analysis. This is despite substantial evidence from other researchers that gender inequities exacerbate outbreaks, and responses that do not incorporate gender analysis exacerbate inequities.”
Smith points out that while the focus is on differences between women and men and between girls and boys, “inequities related to race, ethnicity, sexuality and religion are integrated.” Add to the list inequities in income and social standing. Despite responding to tremendous pressure to put in more hours at work and risk exposure to deadly organisms, the mostly female health workforce must put up as well with low wages and even, in the case of frontline workers here, the lack of protective equipment to ensure their continued health.
Still and all, despite the gendered differences in treatment and privilege, women are stepping up to the challenge. Vice President Leni Robredo, the highest-ranking woman official of the land, responded promptly to the crisis by distributing protective equipment to hospitals and launching a shuttle service for health workers stranded because of the transport lockdown. The TOWNS (The Outstanding Women in the Nation’s Service) Foundation, a group of women achievers, with the help of major conglomerates and private donors, is likewise sourcing and distributing scarce protection equipment, while groups like Rock Ed, led by TOWNS awardee Gang Badoy Capati, are mobilizing donors to prepare food for the health frontliners who cannot even find the time to step out for a meal or snack.
Such initiatives are life-saving while also raising the morale of beleaguered health workers. Nurturing and caring and loving, it seems, are embedded in women’s DNA.
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