COVID-19: An Erosion of Women’s Rights Guaranteed under International Law

Source: Anthony Wallace, Instagram
Source: Anthony Wallace, Instagram

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is the latest communicable disease that poses a threat of global spread. In the past twenty years, there have been seven[1] such diseases, including COVID-19.[2] In 2015, the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General created a High Level Panel on the Global Response to Health Crises.[3] In the 2017 Final Report, the High Level Panel recommended “[f]ocusing attention on the gender dimensions of global health crises.”[4] It found that “greater attention must be paid to the disproportionate burden on women during health crises both in the health sector (as informal and formal caregivers) and with regard to economic and social impacts on women and girls.”[5] The Panel further urged that “[p]olicy-makers and outbreak responders need to pay attention to gender-related roles and social and cultural practices, including vulnerability to interpersonal violence, when developing health intervention and communication strategies.”[6] Despite the Panel’s recommendations, no such actions have taken place over the past three years.[7] This has placed Women’s Rights as an afterthought in states’ responses to COVID-19 resulting in violations of states’ obligations to women under the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).[8]

CEDAW aims to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women, de jure and de facto, that are the result of either actions or omissions on the part of state parties, their agents, or committed by any person or organization that is involved in all fields of life, including but not limited to, politics, economics, society, culture, civic and family life.[9] Since its inception, CEDAW has fostered the development of domestic violence laws in a number of states, including Turkey, Nepal, South Africa, and the Republic of Korea.[10] CEDAW also focuses on the elimination of discrimination against women in the field of healthcare to ensure access to health services, including those related to family planning. This includes, but is not limited to, services in connection with pregnancy, confinement and the post-natal period, granting free services where necessary, as well as adequate nutrition during pregnancy and lactation.[11]

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds and infection rates rise, states around the world have implemented restrictions, isolations, and quarantines in an effort to slow the spread of the disease. While the impact of these measures on the spread is still unknown, reports of increased violence are appearing in states all across the globe “from Argentina, to China, Germany, Turkey, Honduras, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States….”[12] Since the March 17 lockdown in France, reports of domestic violence[13] have increased by 30%.[14] In Argentina they have increased by 25% since the lockdown began on March 20.[15] Calls to helplines in Cyprus and Singapore have increased by 30% and 33% respectively.[16] Increased reports of domestic violence and demands for shelters have been reported in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and Spain.[17] These rising rates of domestic violence threaten women everywhere. The failure of governments across the globe to adequately address the rising situation violates the rights that are guaranteed to women in CEDAW.

Additionally, women’s sexual and reproductive health services are being put at risk. According to Françoise Girard, President of the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC), “as COVID-19 has taken hold, access to sexual and reproductive health care services, from routine services and testing for STIs to antenatal care, contraception, and abortion, has suffered significantly.”[18] Marie Stopes International (MSI), an international non-governmental organization that provides sexual and reproductive health care services in 37 states, projects that 9.5 million vulnerable women and girls will lose access to services due to travel restrictions and other barriers during this time.[19] It is estimated that this will lead to 3 million unintended pregnancies, 2.7 million unsafe abortions, and 10,000 pregnancy related deaths.[20]

While there are many factors that states need to take into account and focus on, women’s rights cannot be forgotten or ignored. States must act to protect the rights of women as they are guaranteed in CEDAW because failing to do so violates international law and places women around the globe in dangerous positions. As more women are faced with increased rates of domestic violence and are unable to access adequate healthcare due to the rising pandemic, women’s rights are put more at risk every day.

  1. COVID-19, MERS, H1N1, H5N1, SARS, Zika, and Ebola.
  2. Julia Smith, Overcoming the “Tyranny of the Urgent”: Integrating Gender into Disease Outbreak Preparedness and Response, 27 Gender and Development 355 (2019)
  3. Id.
  4. U.N. Generally Assembly, Report of the Global Health Crises Task Force, U.N. Doc. A/72/113, at 18 (2017).
  5. Id. at 19.
  6. Id.
  7. Clare Wenham, Julia Smith, & Rosemary Morgan, COVID-19 and the Gendered Impacts of the Outbreak, 395 The Lancet 846, 846 (March 14, 2020)
  8. As of 2019, CEDAW has been ratified by 189 states, with only seven states refusing to become a party. These seven states are the United States of America, Palau, the Holy See (the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome), Iran, Somalia, Sudan, and Tonga. United Nations, Multilateral Treaties Deposited with the Secretary-General, Convention in the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Dec. 18, 1979),
  9. Dubravka Šimonović, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women,
  10. Amnesty Int’l, A Fact Sheet on CEDAW: Treaty for the Rights of Women, (Aug. 25. 2005),
  11. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, 1249 U.N.T.S. 13,
  12. Amina Mohammed, UN Backs Global Action to End Violence Against Woman and Girls Amid COVID-19 Crisis, UN News (April 6, 2020),
  13. When viewing statistics dealing with domestic violence, it must be kept in mind that less than 40% of women who experience domestic violence report these crimes or seek help. Infographic: The Shadow Pandemic – Violence Against Woman and Girls and COVID-19, UN Women (April 6, 2020),
  14. Id.
  15. Id.
  16. Id.
  17. Id.
  18. Samira Sadeque, How the COVID-19 Pandemic is Affecting Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Health, Inter Press Service News Agency (April 7. 2020),
  19. Our Response to the COVID-19 Crisis, Marie Stopes Int’l,
  20. Id.