Women’s economic resilience under fire: three under-the-radar ways the pandemic risks reversing Canada’s gender equality progress

COVID-19’s impact on women and nonbinary people threatens their chance at recovery

Why It Matters

If unaddressed, the pandemic’s compounding effects on women and nonbinary people’s safety, health, and economic independence will force them to play catch-up with Canada’s recovery plans.

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This journalism is made possible by the Future of Good editorial fellowship on women’s economic resilience, supported by Scotiabank. See our editorial ethics and standards here.

As COVID numbers rapidly climbed at the end of 2021 and beginning of this year, Ottawa’s emergency transitional home Harmony House had no choice but to limit their domestic violence counselling to Zoom and watch the waiting room fill up. 

Ray Eskritt, director of Harmony House says the organization’s waitlist has skyrocketed as people in the city — and across the country —  have sought their help. 

“I’m glad that women are able to reach out. I’m glad they’re able to get away — that’s the most important thing,” Eskritt says. “I want to help everybody, [but the waitlist] just keeps growing again. But I mean, we knew that was going to happen.”

Trauma-informed care is a lot more difficult when survivors can’t be in the same room as their counsellors. For some survivors, memories of being photographed against their will and online harassment don’t help the case for webcams. But survivors still need somewhere to turn for help –– even if it is to someone behind a screen. 

A steep rise in gendered violence, particularly against women living in rural areas and women with disabilities, has been one of the more well-known ways the pandemic has been disproportionately difficult for women — mentally, socially, and financially. Many Canadians are also aware of how women-dominated fields like hospitality and childcare have seen more layoffs and closures than others. 

But what they may not know are these three, more under-the-radar, pandemic-heightened barriers to women’s economic resilience.


Sexual health services have become less accessible and more expensive 


Carleton University student Sydney Weaver has cerebral palsy and needs assistance transferring into her wheelchair, but had to work to convince doctors and healthcare practitioners to allow her parents to accompany her to appointments. Because of capacity limits, Weaver had to advocate for herself three times over the course of the pandemic, telling practitioners: “You understand I need this? This isn’t something I can live without.”

Sexual health services, too, have become less accessible — and access to sexual health services was already a contentious issue for women and gender-diverse people. 

According to the United Nations Partnership on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNPRPD), women and gender-diverse people already faced discrimination and stigma from practitioners when accessing sexual and reproductive health services, but these hurdles increased with the pandemic. 

While abortion services may be legal in Canada, the pandemic has shown they’re not necessarily available to everyone who needs them. For instance, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia governments do not cover costs of surgical abortion services outside hospitals — and hospitals are filling up with COVID-19 cases. Meanwhile, Alberta, Manitoba, Northwest Territories, Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan, and Yukon do not have abortion providers in rural communities, despite 19 to 39 percent of their population living rurally. 

For some pregnant people, travelling to abortion care centres means risking contracting the coronavirus. If they do decide to make the trip, extra costs become a burden, depending on if the service is fully or partially covered by their province or territory (not to mention travel costs). Many abortion providers require an escort to be with the pregnant person post operation, so a partner, family member, or friend must take time off work and cover travelling expenses, too. Abortions past 23 weeks are not always available in Canada and are often referred to clinics in the United States, another hit to travelling costs. 

Meanwhile, writes researcher Jessica Shaw in this paper, “being pregnant and raising children reduces women’s capacity for political, social, and economic participation and immediately places them in a lower socioeconomic status.” And considering women with low income are more likely to have unplanned pregnancies and women who don’t have access to abortion services are more likely to live in poverty, any barrier to reproductive healthcare services is a barrier to economic resilience. 


Women are becoming (even bigger) human trafficking targets


COVID-19 has dropped women’s labour force participation rate to its lowest level in 30 years. With less access to work opportunities, education, and property ownership, women’s experiences — compared to men’s — make them vulnerable to trafficking recruitment. Tie in the social and economic disruption the pandemic has caused, and women and gender diverse people are at an ever greater risk.

Not surprisingly, then, during the pandemic, the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking has an increase in calls — yet 22 percent of services available to human trafficking survivors are not in service or aren’t accepting referrals

In Canada, 95 percent of human trafficking survivors are women and girls. Precarious work, poverty, insecure housing, and being street-involved are all factors that lead to being human trafficking targets. According to the Pan-Canadian Women’s Housing and Homelessness Survey, “Homelessness begins early in life for a majority of women and gender diverse people, and is often followed by a chronic, chaotic churn of precarious housing and homelessness situations.” 

This increases women’s risk of being trafficked. Why? In part, women are more likely to have to rely on high-risk supports to ensure shelter –– like staying in exploitative relationships or exchanging sex for shelter. Traffickers take advantage of people taking greater risks to provide for themselves and their families. 

What’s more, Indigenous women and girls are disproportionately affected by human trafficking in Canada — violence against missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls has been linked to sex trafficking. According to the Native Women’s Association of Canada, less access to social supports and services, the effects of institutional racism leading to poverty, higher rates of unemployment, and precarious living conditions are all factors contributing to this — all of which have been heightened by the pandemic.

While human trafficking support services are key to helping survivors, women and gender diverse people need more income, work opportunities, and shelter of their own to stop them from falling through the cracks in the first place — and to build their economic resilience. 


Mental health issues are on the rise among women, young and elderly


The risk of developing anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder is higher among women to start with — and the pandemic has skyrocketed it.

Take eating disorders, which have the highest death rate of all mental illnesses, as an example. The fixation on avoiding weight gain during lockdown paired with isolation, increased anxiety and depression, and food insecurity have boosted eating disorder rates. According to a study led by pediatrician Holly Agostino, hospitalizations for anorexia nervosa increased throughout the first wave of the pandemic. The higher the COVID infections rate, the more eating disorder hospitalizations Canadian provinces experienced.

Mental illness threatens economic resilience, too.

People struggling with mental illness are less likely to be employed (70 to 90 percent of people with severe mental illness are unemployed). And it’s a cycle: the effects of poverty can trigger or increase mental illness, in turn making it harder to maintain a job. Meanwhile, in March 2020, women accounted for 62.5 percent of job losses, and by November 2021, they accounted for 59.6 percent of job losses

But these ripple effects don’t impact all women equally. While gender contributes to the risk of mental illness, so does race. Black, Indigenous and people of colour have been affected physically and mentally through the pandemic, by their higher rate of infection, death, and job loss. The Asian community has faced racism, from harassment to suspicion and anger about the coronavirus. 

As research shows racism worsens during public health crises, rates of poor mental health among racialized Canadians and women can no longer be ignored. Black, Indigenous, women of colour, and nonbinary people dealing with both of these experiences affecting their mental health are dealt the short end of the stick. Without adequate help, the decline of their mental health, followed by underemployment and the inability to provide for themselves, threatens to set their economic resilience back decades.

And until all women and gender-diverse people — including those struggling with precarious housing, mental illness, and access to reproductive care — are included in recovery efforts, economic resilience for all is impossible.