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Coronavirus is a "catastrophe within a catastrophe" for women, U.N. report says

While the coronavirus pandemic doesn't discriminate, its effects are not evenly distributed. With rising domestic violence rates, lack of access to reproductive healthcare, and more, a new United Nations report says the coronavirus pandemic will be particularly disastrous for women.

In December 2019, the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap report predicted global gender equality is over 200 years away. North America — aka, the United States and Canada — was expected to close the gap behind every region other than East Asia. That's largely thanks to the U.S. slipping in rank over the past year.

Now the pandemic may make things much worse. A report from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the arm of the U.N. dedicated to sexual and reproductive health, highlights how the coronavirus pandemic is critically undermining progress made towards achieving goals like ending gender-based violence and meeting needs for family planning.

For example, if lockdowns continue for another six months, the UNFPA predicts there will be 7 million unplanned pregnancies and 31 million gender-based violence cases. That's due to the fact that access to family planning services and other relevant health care is curbed during the outbreak, as is access to resources to combat domestic violence.

Additionally, women make up the bulk of the essential worker population. "Globally, roughly 70% of the health workforce is comprised of women. At the moment, there's more risk of women being exposed [to the coronavirus] as a frontline worker," Dr. Ramiz Alakbarov, UNFPA's deputy executive director, told Business Insider.

"These issues aren't exclusive to the developing world. Inequality is less pronounced in the developed world but it's still there. It's a catastrophe," Alakbarov added. "Women are the first to lose their jobs during these crises, they're the first to stand up for the family, they take most of the brunt economically. But this report is a catastrophe within a catastrophe."

The report estimates that for every three months the lockdown is extended, there will be an additional 15 million domestic violence cases. The increase in domestic violence is already being seen across the globe. Earlier this month, USA Today found that while crime rates plummeted over the second half of March, that wasn't true for domestic violence cases. Instead, domestic violence calls and disturbances surged by 10-30% among police agencies who contributed data to USA Today's report.

This was similarly seen in Fresno, California, where the sheriff's office and police department saw an increase in domestic violence calls. That spike coincided with the first week of California's shelter-in-place order.

In Europe, countries like France and Spain have responded to rising domestic violence rates with their own initiatives. In France, someone can say a code word to a staff member at essential businesses and receive assistance. Organizations based in the United States have also launched their own similar campaigns.

Lack of access to reproductive health care is also a significant issue. The report estimates 47 million women in low- and middle-income countries will not be able to access modern contraceptives. The International Planned Parenthood Federation says more than 5,000 clinics have closed in 64 countries. In the United States, some states have dubbed abortions as "non-essential" during the crisis, limiting patients' access to the procedure.

“It’s a calamity. Totally calamitous,” UNFPA's executive director Natalia Kanem told The Guardian. “It is so clear that COVID-19 is compounding the no-longer-subterranean disparities that affect millions of women and girls.”