COVID-19’s impact has left out the most vulnerable and marginalised women particularly in rural areas exacerbating their invisibility and widening financial-digital disparities. Governmental responses to the pandemic have relied heavily on digital resources that excluded marginalised women, especially those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Financial inequalities have also increased, pushing women into extreme poverty and marginalisation. To address this, a holistic social protection approach is vital, nationally and locally levels, aimed specifically at women in all their diversity.
The COVID-19 pandemic sparked a severe global crisis with lockdowns to control virus transmission. Implementation of such measures in various countries had significant impacts for vulnerable and marginalised groups, especially women. Some noteworthy changes can be seen in women’s livelihoods, access to healthcare and in increasing financial-digital disparities and in rising domestic violence that usually targets women. Overall, the pandemic has widened the gender divide, with the most visible socio-economic impact on women from low-middle income (LMI) countries. In the light of these growing inequalities, it is crucial to highlight the many women, especially in rural areas, left out due to financial-digital disparities and also excluded from most of the research examining COVID-19’s impact.
Evidence suggests that marginalised women have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. That includes higher risk, as women are more likely to work as front-line health workers and caregivers, socio-economic degradation, increased domestic violence, lack of access to healthcare, barriers to mobility for women that affect their earning capabilities, loss of livelihood, and accumulation of debt. This further manifests in food insecurity for women and their families including children, loss of access to appropriate resources for survival including education, healthcare, employment or business opportunities. The pandemic has forced women, especially those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, to take drastic financial decisions to support their own survival and their families, leading to destitution and aggravating vulnerabilities.
While technological advances continued to spread during the pandemic, the widening of the digital divide as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has been neglected. This divide has been worsened by the way governments have implemented measures. Examples include governments cash transfers through existing or new digital platforms. For instance, Bangladesh distributed $11.9 billion and India distributed $260 billion as cash transfers. Women with no access to the platforms or lacking digital literacy either struggled or could not access the cash transfers at all. Exacerbating this, in LMI countries women are less likely to own a mobile phone, a smartphone or have internet access.
In many countries, such as the UK, COVID-19 has exacerbated the situation for people facing multiple inequalities e.g. low income, precarious employment, poor health, and poverty. They were adversely impacted when information sharing and services moved online when they had no access to their support network. Less than 50% of those who needed computer access to for home schooling had the requisite hardware. In rural areas, the scenario triggered by the crisis is more alarming. Many people there have been excluded from adequate digital access, often due to poor internet speed in rural areas; this caused difficulties for students trying to accessing education and families needing accessing for essential needs. This group disproportionally includes women, who remain the unreachables that countries de facto failed to include. While this striking disparity predates the COVID-19 pandemic, those affected continue to suffer from the widening digital divide due to increasing reliance on technology and rampant use of digital systems and devices. During the pandemic, digital disparities fed into and intensified this vulnerable population segment’s invisibility.
A further severe impact of COVID-19 is the growing financial divide. For instance, a case study on Bangladesh reveals that people in rural areas, also predominantly employed in the informal sector, suffered significantly due to COVID-19 due to delayed harvest, late payment or lower income, causing reduced food consumption and vulnerability. Financial disparity was more apparent in households led by women. Many households found it difficult to afford essential expenses even if they sold assets and relied on credit, thus incurring household debt.
Countries like Bangladesh where poverty is a persistent issue struggle to reduce poverty or rural inequalities. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the situation for vulnerable and marginalised groups who faced loss of livelihood, lower income and food insecurity. Another factor impacting the financial resilience of vulnerable and rural groups is the lack of financial and digital literacy. Coupled with existing inequalities and extreme poverty, the pandemic threatened survival for many households, with women the most vulnerable group pre-COVID-19 period. Lack of financial literacy appeared to be a key issue. As a result, many households, especially those headed by women, suffered from poor financial management and inappropriate financial decisions.
As the global economy plunges into COVID-19 resilience and recovery strategies, it is of utmost importance for governments, specifically in LMI countries, to build outreach strategies for invisible groups, the unreachables, and bring them to the forefront of financial-digital inclusion.
One option is to provide social protection aimed specifically at reducing financial-digital disparities among women. This would offset financial-digital inequalities for vulnerable and marginalised women, alleviating poverty and hunger. National strategies must include women in all their diversity to foster financial and digital literacy, overcome health and income inequalities, fund job creation while helping women explore entrepreneurship without debt concerns, and, above all, implement feminist policies to promote women and children’s welfare and prosperity. Equal access to digital and financial services for the vulnerable groups is vital, including skills development, effective regulatory protection, appropriate products and grassroots awareness-building programmes.
Lemona Chanda is an award-winning gender equity and development activist working towards women’s economic empowerment with a focus on land and property rights, financial and digital inclusion. She is also the Founder of OurCause, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes the Sustainable Development Goals.