Too often in a crisis, the specific needs of women and protection of their human rights are left off the agenda. As the National Cabinet plans its COVID-19 response for all Australians, it must be mindful of the needs of women. We suggest five steps to achieve more gender-just outcomes at this challenging time.

Have women at the table

A National Cabinet has been assembled to deal with this emergency and to make decisions that impact on the lives of all Australians, such as whether to close down schools or limit access to public spaces and how to distribute scarce resources.

The formation of the National Cabinet provides a unique opportunity to bring all Australian governments – Federal, State and Territory – together in a spirit of political bipartisanship with a focus on keeping all Australians safe regardless of location.

It is essential that women are part of the planning for and implementation of measures to address this emergency. Both men and women are equally capable of securing the rights of women, but evidence suggests women in politics are more likely to ask the ‘gender justice questions’ and have greater sensitivity to the lived experiences of women.

Reflecting the current gender representation of leaders across all Australian parliaments, the National Cabinet includes only two female voices among seven: Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian.

Key health and medical officers are also predominately men. Across the Federation there are four of nine Women Health Ministers, and three female chief medical officers in Dr Jeannette Young (Queensland) Dr Kerryn Coleman (ACT) and Dr Kerry Chant (NSW).

While we will not achieve gender parity in these positions during the crisis, we strongly urge all leaders to specifically consult with women from across all segments of society. We are particularly concerned that women from Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander, remote, rural, migrant, asylum seeker and other communities have the opportunity to provide input to the National Cabinet throughout the COVID-19 crises.

Social isolation and family violence

As we are all directed to spend more time in the home, and as some people are required to self-isolate at home by law, it is critical that the National Cabinet consider what this means for women who experience violence in their homes.

Activists from China to Brazil have reported a surge in domestic violence during widespread quarantines that are aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus. The crisis has heightened emotional and financial stress and added danger for victims of family violence, who may find it harder to find safety and support in any period of lockdown. Services in New South Wales are already reporting a dramatic increase in demand.

The $150 million announced by the National Cabinet to increase capacity of vital services for those experiencing family violence, including the hotline 1300RESPECT, is a welcome first step. Also critical is government identification of the specific needs of women and children living in refuges, and ongoing government support and implementation of Safe at Home programs, which enable police to remove perpetrators, allowing victim/survivors to remain at home.

Supporting these services will be even more important in regional and rural areas where family violence services were expecting an increase in demand after the summer bushfire emergency.

Emergency Departments (EDs) are an important site for identifying abuse. Women are known to disclose abuse in EDs, where they are able to receive a risk assessment, crucial health information, safety planning and referrals by a multidisciplinary team, working together to ensure their safety.

Many women face significant and potentially fatal risks in seeking care. However, as COVID-19 presentations rise dramatically and resources are diverted to managing the crisis, the health system’s responsiveness to women needing urgent and thorough attention may decline just as rapidly.

Family violence is an already under-identified cause of ED presentations, including assault-related injuries and situational crises. Healthcare workers have reported that screening protocols have been sacrificed in order to increase patient flow, particularly during busy periods. If hospitals are overrun, the scarcity of hospital beds and the use of alternative overflow facilities may also compromise their privacy.

We call on governments to ensure support for under-resourced healthcare workers located in EDs, and to assist in the development of protocols and governance structures that will help to maintain system responsiveness during the coronavirus crisis.

Women workers on the frontlines

According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, in 2018 80% of Australia’s workforce in health care and social assistance were women. Along with retail workers and food servers, they are already among Australia’s lowest paid and protected workers.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is aware of this, and has explained that one reason Australian schools are staying open, despite restrictions on mass gatherings, is to help parents who are health workers be available for work.

We call on the National Cabinet to pay particular attention to the needs of these women workers, who are such vital assets in our health system. The National Cabinet could start by considering this list of recommendations from the National Workers Union, which represents aged care, childcare and disability support workers and so many ‘invisible’ workers who don’t have the option of working from home, but who are essential to our national response.

Women are carers

Women continue to carry the main burden of unpaid care labour in our homes and neighbourhoods. Children, older persons, those experiencing disability and illness all rely predominately on women carers.

Protecting these carers must be front of mind for the National Cabinet. Managing respite facilities and NDIS services and making provisions for income support is critical for those whose work is essential to maintaining our social fabric. A priority in the Cabinet’s decision-making must be the needs of older women carers and single parents who face particular vulnerabilities at this time.

Consider menstrual rights

Supermarkets have been struggling to re-stock after panic buyers cleared shelves of toilet paper, tissue and pantry items. In responding to this panic buying, we ask the government to ensure that retailers are required to maintain provision of essential sanitary products. In considering the closure of neighbourhoods and communities, including regional and remote centres, inclusion of provisions for girls and women’s menstrual rights is essential.

COVID-19 is presenting challenges for every member of society. Women’s lower rates of representation, higher risk of family violence, ongoing care responsibilities, lower income status, and greater likelihood of being a single parent, leaves them especially exposed and, now more than ever, in need of attention by government leaders.

The Australian Human Rights Institute has launched On Guard, a new weekly newsletter monitoring developments on the human rights dimensions of COVID-19. Read the first newsletter and subscribe. 

Professor Louise Chappell is the Director of the Australian Human Rights Institute at UNSW Sydney. Professor Chappell’s research focuses on institutional gender justice in local, national and international settings. Twitter: @chappell_louise

Dr Janani Shanthosh is a global health lawyer and Research Fellow at The George Institute for Global Health, and Academic Lead of the Health and Human Rights Program at the Australian Human Rights Institute. Twitter: @janshanthosh

Professor Louise Chappell and Dr Janani Shanthosh