Age-old problems and inequalities have been exacerbated in the “new normal”: The impact of COVID-19 on women’s paid and unpaid work

Asya Varbanova

UN Women Türkiye Country Director

COVID-19 has drastically changed our lives and is re-shaping our present and future in ways we could not have imagined only a few months ago. As of August 31, around 25 million people have been infected and 844,000 [1] people have lost their lives due to the virus. This is not only a global health crisis, but one with profound economic and social effects.  As in all crises, the impacts and consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic are not gender neutral. While globally men reportedly have a higher fatality rate, women and girls are especially hurt by the resulting economic and social fallout. Impacts on women and girls have worsened across the board, from their livelihoods and income, to their personal safety, access to services and time availability.

At home, at work, in cyberspace

Women and girls are disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 crisis due to pre-existing gender inequalities. Many have become more vulnerable at home, at work, as well as in cyberspace which has replaced public spaces such as schools and work. The effects of the crisis are compounded and especially felt by women and girls who belong to already disadvantaged or marginalized groups, such as refugee and migrant women, and those with disabilities.

Global evidence shows that women are losing their livelihoods faster and risk being plunged into poverty because they are more exposed to hard-hit economic sectors, and have been employed in more insecure and low-paying jobs to begin with.

Beyond the economic impacts, violence against women has increased around the world, up from already alarmingly high rates before the pandemic. Social isolation and difficulties in accessing services have forced many women to remain trapped at home with their abusers, with little support or exit options. Evidence is also emerging that girls are at an increased risk of child marriage as a negative coping mechanism of COVID-19, associated with economic fallout and school closures. Furthermore, as women and girls are more active on online platforms due to social distancing measures, they are more likely to become the target of cyberviolence such as stalking, zoom bombing, and sexual harassment. In Australia for example, online abuse and bullying have increased by 50% amid lockdown restrictions. In the United Kingdom, traffic to the government helpline for adults experiencing intimate image abuse nearly doubled in March 2020.[2]

As COVID-19 is straining even the most advanced and best-resourced health systems in countries around the globe, important health-related concerns may be neglected. Critically, women’s sexual and reproductive health needs to remain a priority to ensure that the gains from the past are maintained and not reversed.

Moreover, many women are sacrificing their health for economic security. Globally, women make up 70 per cent of the health and social care workforce, and they are more likely to be front-line health workers, especially nurses, midwives and community health workers.15 The figures are similar in Türkiye, where about 50 per cent of doctors, 70 percent of nurses and 100 per cent of midwives are women.[3] This exposure raises their risk of infection.

Care burden falls on women

COVID-19 has deepened inequalities both outside and inside our homes. The home has traditionally been the place where women shoulder the bulk of domestic and care responsibilities. Unpaid care and domestic work sustain families and communities on a day-to-day basis, from one generation to the next, and make a significant contribution to economic development by nurturing people who are fit and productive. Yet, this work remains invisible, undervalued and neglected in economic and social policymaking, and its distribution is grossly imbalanced: in normal pre-pandemic times, women were doing three times more unpaid care and domestic work when compared with men globally[4]. In Türkiye, this ratio is more than four to one: women spend 4.3 hours daily on unpaid care work, whereas men spend less than an hour[5].

With the introduction of distancing measures, closures of schools and kindergartens, and intensified care needs of older persons and ill family members, the demands for care work have increased significantly. This burden has fallen largely on women, further skewing the existing imbalances. Many women have found themselves juggling increased unpaid care work while contending with a reduced income, and in some cases, they are also trying to do full-time paid work in crowded households. Single mothers face even more stress, as they have no one to share their care burden and are more likely to work in low-paid, vulnerable occupations.

At UN Women Türkiye, we conducted a rapid gender assessment[6] on different socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19 for women and men in April of this year. According to the findings, both women and men stated that the domestic and care responsibilities at home have increased significantly. However, women expressed an increase to a larger degree across all categories of unpaid care work in comparison with male respondents before the COVID-19 outbreak. In the assessment, 78% and 60% of women stated that their workload has increased in the “cleaning and maintaining the household” and “cooking and serving meals” categories, compared to 47% and 24% of men reporting such increase respectively. Moreover, a significant number of surveyed men do not usually do the cooking (40.7%) or cleaning (25.5%) both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. The corresponding ratio for women is very small (5% and 2.2%).

The assessment also revealed some positive developments. Women have reported an increase in the engagement of men in sharing responsibilities of domestic and care work within the household after COVID-19. This presents an important opportunity to advance a more equitable division of labour in the long-term, not only during times of crisis and mandated stay-at-home periods. Sustained effort is needed in this regard, such as continuous communication campaigns and education programmes on male involvement in gender equality.

As UN Women, we are including men and boys as allies and agents of change in advancing gender equality. For example, our HeForShe movement invites men and boys to stand together in solidarity with women and girls to create a bold, visible, and united force for gender equality. Recently, we launched #HeForSheatHome campaign which promoted equal sharing of care work and domestic work, which was joined by thousands of Turkish men.

Women are hit harder economically

The impact of COVID-19 across the global economy is profound. Millions of people around the world have lost their livelihoods and income, and the future remains highly uncertain. Women – who in general earn less, save less, hold insecure jobs, and live close to poverty– have been particularly hard hit. The crisis is risking a reverse of the hard-won gains made in advancing women’s economic empowerment for many countries, including Türkiye.

Some of the sectors affected most severely by the pandemic are feminized sectors characterized by low pay and poor working conditions, including a lack of basic worker protections such as paid sick leave and family leave. The accommodation and food service sectors, for example, have been devastated by job losses[7]. In most countries, women are over-represented in these sectors, often with a tenuous hold on their jobs.

In Türkiye, prior to the crisis, in 2019, the employment rate for women was 32.2%, significantly lower than that of men (68.3%).[8] Furthermore, 33.6% of young women (aged 15 – 24) were neither in education or employment, with the equivalent rate for young men at 15.6%[9].  As of May 2019, 42% of all employed women worked in informal employment (compared to 31% of men), and in May 2020, this rate was 36.7% (26.4% for men).[10]. With plummeting economic activity due to the pandemic, women are particularly vulnerable to layoffs and loss of livelihoods, and for the many who are not in formal employment, the prospects of remaining economically active and accessing decent jobs have dwindled.

According to UN Women’s rapid gender assessment in Türkiye, both women and men report negative economic consequences in terms of reduced hours of paid work, loss of jobs, and financial worries. However, women lost their jobs to a higher extent (19%) than men (14%). Job losses were reported particularly for women who own businesses and employ other people.[11]

A slowing economy, job losses and lack of social protection are expected to push millions of additional people into poverty. New research by UN Women and UNDP shows that the COVID-19 crisis will dramatically increase the poverty rate for women and widen the gap between men and women who live in poverty. The poverty rate for women was expected to decrease by 2.7 per cent between 2019 and 2021, but projections now point to an increase of 9.1 per cent due to the pandemic and its fallout[12]. These projections only take into account the downward revision of the gross domestic product (GDP). The reality could be worse if other factors – such as women leaving the workforce due to childcare responsibilities – are accounted for.

These worrying trends and reversal of progress are not inevitable. Recommendations to prevent women from falling behind permanently due to the pandemic range from addressing occupational segregation, gender pay gaps and inadequate access to affordable childcare, to introducing economic support packages for vulnerable women, increasing social protection measures targeting women and girls and expanding research and data availability on the gendered impacts of COVID-19.


Women to lead and participate

Ultimately, it is crucial that all measures taken to address the COVID-19 crisis – be it by the public or private sector – are gender-sensitive and take into account the different needs, priorities, and experiences of women and men, both outside and within the home. This can only happen if women are represented in the decision-making mechanisms and processes that devise policy measures to deal with the immediate and long-term health, economic and social impacts of the pandemic. They need to be not only beneficiaries, but also architects of efforts to rebuild and address existing inequalities. Placing women and girls at the center of preparedness, response and recovery are critical if we are to build a more resilient and equal world in the wake of COVID-19 and if we are to weather other crises in the future.


[1] WHO. 2020. COVID-19 Dashboard. Retrieved September 1, 2020 from

[2] UN Women. 2020. Online and ICT* facilitated violence against women and girls during COVID-19. Retrieved September 1,

[3] İlkkaracan, İ. 2010. Uzlaştırma politikaları yokluğunda Türkiye emek piyasasında toplumsal cinsiyet eşitsizlikleri. Emek Piyasasında Toplumsal Cinsiyet Eşitliğine Doğru İş ve Aile Yaşamını Uzlaştırma Politikaları, İstanbul.

[4] ILO. 2016. Women at Work, Trends 2016. Retrieved September 5,—dgreports/—dcomm/—publ/documents/publication/wcms_457317.pdf

[5] TurkStat. 2015. Time Use Survey.

[6] UN Women. 2020. Rapid gender assessment of COVID-19 implications in Türkiye. Retrieved September 5,

[7] UN Women. 2020. From insights to action: Gender equality in the wake of COVID-19. Retrieved September 9,

[8] TurkStat. 2020. Labour Force Statistics.

[9] TurkStat. 2019. Gender Statistics.

[10] Percentages refer to employed persons who were not registered to any social security institutions related to the main job.  TurkStat. 2020. Labour Force Statistics.

[11] UN Women. 2020. Rapid gender assessment of COVID-19 implications in Türkiye. Retrieved September 5,

[12] UN Women. 2020. From insights to action: Gender equality in the wake of COVID-19. Retrieved September 9