The Damages of COVID Will Stay With Israeli Women for Years

Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
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An anti-femicide protest in Tel Aviv, last year.
An anti-femicide protest in Tel Aviv, last year.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

Monthly domestic violence complaints ballooned by 250 percent in 2020, Labor and Social Affairs Ministry data shows, with the coronavirus pandemic being a major contributing factor. 

In 2019, before the virus, an average of 270 domestic violence complaints were received each month. But in 2020, the average skyrocketed to 699. And it has continued rising in the first months of 2021, to an average of 756.

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Two new shelters for battered women have already opened this year, and the ministry is preparing to open others if the number of victims keeps climbing.

But soaring domestic violence isn’t the only way the coronavirus has harmed women. Gender inequality has risen in every industry.

More women than men were fired or put on unpaid leave last year. In most months, women accounted for around 55 percent of the newly unemployed, and during the lockdowns that figure jumped to 70 percent. The unemployment rate among mothers of minor children was 20 percent higher than among fathers.

A woman gets the coronavirus vaccine in Tel Aviv, last month.Credit: Hadas Parush

According to a report published by the government’s Employment Service on Sunday, the inequality peaked during the first lockdown last April. That month, 621,081 women registered as looking for work, compared to 500,246 men.

Yulia Eitan, head of the Labor Ministry’s Diversity in Employment Administration for Special Populations, said the virus’ blow to women would have long-term implications for gender inequality in the job market.

“We’re afraid of going years backward, that all the progress achieved in recent decades will be nullified,” she said. “Prolonged absence from the labor market has a price. Women who were forced to stop working and return home to care for children will have trouble returning to the same positions, even if the economy returns to normal. This will affect wage gaps and opportunities for promotion.”

Even women who continued working weren’t immune to the virus’ effects, Eitan added. “We’re also afraid of severe psychological erosion among those who both worked and cared for children all year.”

Ella Bar David, another employment administration official, said that as long as women retain primary responsibility for the home, “We won’t see significant change. We need a deep conceptual change that divides the family and employment burdens equally.”

Dr. Gal Zohar, head of the Employment Service’s research and policy department, said the fact that more women than men lost jobs during the coronavirus lockdown reflects the job market’s preexisting gender inequality. The hardest hit sectors were sales, services and teaching, all of which have more female employees than male.

But beyond that, the closure of the schools hurt all women with young children, reflected in their much higher unemployment rate than that of fathers. This is because when children have nowhere else to go, it’s usually the mothers who stay home to care for them.

That is primarily an economic decision, Zohar said, because men usually earn more than women, and it’s better for the family to have the higher earner keep working. The result is that the preexisting discrimination against women in the labor market ended up worsening discrimination after the virus erupted.

“The coronavirus revealed the gender inequality that characterized the Israeli labor market even before the crisis,” said Rami Garor, the Employment Service’s director. “The data in our report reveals the significance of the salary gaps between men and women and of their differences in occupation. We must strive to reduce these gender gaps.”

Women’s organizations that try to fight gender-based discrimination say they were swamped this year by calls from women from every walk of life.

“Everyone who looked around them during the wave of dismissals and furloughs felt that women were disappearing and that’s indeed the unfortunate conclusion that’s backed by numbers. Employers, who tend to reward men in terms of salary, apparently also tended to give up on the women first this year,” said Israel Women’s Network director Dana Meitav.

“Domestic violence against women also went up because of the lockdowns and the emotional and economic pressure, and from data that reached the Israel Women’s Network, it emerges that while the calls to domestic violence hotlines doubled, police only opened 20 percent more files. Moving backward on gender equality harms the whole country, not just women, who are 51 percent of the population.”

Attorney Maha Shehadeh, director of the hotline for Women Lawyers for Social Justice in Haifa, said that during the pandemic there was a sharp rise in the number of calls to the organization, reflecting the wide range of harm done to women.

“Whereas before the calls were from weaker women earning low wages, during this period there were calls for help from a lot of women previously considered ‘privileged,’ with high status at work, like accountants, high-tech employees and lawyers, who were made unemployed and weakened by the coronavirus,” she said.

“The state shut down the education system and took for granted that mothers would stay at home with their children, without concern for their livelihood and rights during this period, leaving them dependent on their employers’ goodwill to get unemployment. Women who couldn’t work because the children were at home were forced to take unpaid leave at their own initiative, or to quit and thus not only lose their jobs, but also their basic right to unemployment payments.”

According to Shehadeh, the switch to remote working became another tool to harm women by increasing the burden on them. They continued to do their professional work in the same space in which they were caring for their children and the needs of the household. “The blurring between the work space and personal, private and family space created pressure on women and undermined their livelihoods, welfare and their children,” she said.

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