Lili Chen, Timor Leste
Programme Officer in Global Campus of Human Rights Asia Pacific, Timor Leste project

To date, COVID-19 has swept more than 200 countries and caused almost 1 million confirmed cases and 70000 deaths. Timor-Leste took a series of actions combating COVID-19 after it found the first case of COVID-19 on 21 March. The state of emergency came into force on 28 March, which limited the citizens’ and residents’ right to movement and rights to assemble as well as deployed the police and the military force to implement related rules. Meanwhile, the national parliament allocated $150 million for COVID-19. Timor-Leste has 1 confirmed case until 6 April.

While people are affected by COVID-19, they experience it differently due to gender inequality. Gender sheds light on social constructions among individual, and cannot be reduced to women. In times of health emergencies, gender inequality is likely to be exacerbated. After World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 as Public Health Emergency of International Concern, many states adopt health securitization approach to contain the spread of virus, and Timor-Leste is no reception. Consequently, a deeper look at the health securitization from a gender lens seems relevant and needed. In this article, I will discuss the dynamic of health securitization and gender, examine the gendered impacts of COVID-19, and conclude with two policy insights for future concerns in Timor-Leste.

Securitization can be briefly defined as: prioritizing a certain issue as a security threat which requires mobilizing national resources and political leadership to combat it. Health-related issues, such as AIDS/HIV and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Ebola, have been global security concerns: United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 2177 declared that the Ebola outbreak in Africa threatens international security and peace. Although securitization allows states to relocate resources effectively to tackle a particular health threat, it renders disproportionate allocation of resources to security sectors and diverts aids and humanitarian resources away from basic medical infrastructure and care. It further leaves the gender structure which underscores securitization unchallenged.

In spite of the danger of securitizing health, the academia has been silent on gender. What’s worse, the empirics show that women and girls are exposed to higher risks of Sexual and Gender-based violence (SGBV) and Intimate Domestic Violence (IDV) during the breakout of Ebola and Zika (UNGA, 2016; UNFPA, 2020). Similar trend was reported worldwide as cases of SGBV and IDV surged during Covid-19.

Seeing health securitization from a gender lens requires us to ask questions who these women are. Women form 70% of the health and social task force globally and they perform three times as much unpaid work as men, but many are burdened with work, higher risks to disease, and unpaid care work at home without further support. Women engaging in informal and low-wage activities face economic and food insecurity. LGBTQ+ might also be exposed to higher health risks and even violence.

COVID-19 is having a serious impact on Timorese peoples’ life, especially women. In economic sectors, many businesses have to close or decrease their open hours, and many employed female workers (14200 out of 53000) are laid off or forced to have a salary cut. Informal workers, mostly women and composed 60% of the labour in Timor-Leste, experience the loss of income. For example, two female vegetable vendors who live and sell in Becora have to walk the whole afternoon to Bideu Leciderie to find customers because of “no public transportation” and “no customers and no money to buy food for kids at home”. Each woman is estimated to get $10 if each sells out her vegetables in one day. (Anonymous, April 6, 2020)

Staying-at-home, working-from-home and social distancing put disproportionate pressure on women. The closure of schools and training centers render all children and students to stay home. Parents, mostly women, have to look after them. While women are burdened with care work 24/7 at home, some are exposed to higher risk of violence and health, or stress, compounded by other factors, such as limited access to health care, information, water and sanitation. One female cleaner has to bring her daughter to work because “kids cry if not seeing her”. Men who live together with her “have big salary” and demand her to do all the house chores and care work, even all of them work. (Anonymous, April 3, 2020)

Policies under health securitization do not usually consider gender inequality among individuals, and it exposes women and vulnerable groups to greater inequalities. From a gender perspective, the Timorese government could improve its COVID-19 preparedness and response at least in two ways: First, ensure the basic medical system and service accessible to women, girls, and vulnerable groups. Second, come up with different packages targeting different groups and their particular needs affected by COVID-19. While securitizing health seems favorable by the Timorese government at the moment, the government should not lose sight of weighing its unintended consequences, and addressing some fundamental issues, which shape experiences of women and other vulnerable groups in the first place.

Other References;

UNGA A/70/723. (2016). Protecting humanity from future health crises: report of the High-Level Panel on the Global Response to Health Crises. Accessed April 4th 2020.

UNFPA. (2020, March). COVID-19: a gender lens-protecting sexual and reproductive health and rights, and produce gender equality. Accessed April 4th 2020.

Photo by UN Women/ Guilherme Valle

*The contents of this opinion piece are solely those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the view of the either Global Campus of Human Rights Asia Pacific, the universities under it, or the APMA program.

*This article was originally published by SHAPESEA

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