Gender and COVID-19: economic impacts in northern Karen State, Myanmar27 September 2020
Despite a relatively low – but increasing – number of positive cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in Myanmar, the pandemic is having a substantial impact on the livelihoods of men and women around the country. We spoke to our partner Karen Women’s Empowerment Group (KWEG)* about the economic experiences of women and men in northern Kayin (Karen) State during COVID-19, and the potential longer-term impacts of the virus.
On 23 March, Myanmar confirmed its first COVID-19 cases. By early April strict public safety measures had been imposed by Myanmar government officials and by ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) in the areas they administer to contain the spread of the virus. So far, the official number of positive cases in Myanmar remains relatively low, with 198** officially registered deaths at the time of publication – but incidents of local transmission have been steadily climbing since August. From the first days of the pandemic, however, the knock-on impacts of the virus have been considerable. Community-wide lockdowns, widespread quarantining, curfews, international border closures for goods and people, and domestic travel restrictions have led to increased unemployment, income and food insecurity, gender-based violence, needs-based petty theft and social anxieties across Myanmar.
When looking at the economic impact of COVID-19, it is hard to understate the importance of gender dynamics and social exclusion. According to KWEG, who work to support the growth and development of women, children, village-based self-help groups and women-led organisations in Karen State, the different ways in which men and women are impacted by the pandemic are shaped by gender inequality – unequal roles, responsibilities and expectations.
Impacts on daily life
The livelihoods of communities in northern Karen State are largely driven by agricultural work and remittances from migrant labour. In the monsoon season, during which the COVID-19 crisis is unfolding, communities often rely on trading seasonal crops, collecting and selling edible plants, and cutting timber.
Lockdown measures have weakened local markets, interrupted transport routes and driven down crop prices due to declining market access. Instead of selling crops for income, many families are using their harvests to barter with neighbours for goods they need. Day labourers working in farms outside their home villages have been unable to travel, and farm owners have prioritised hiring people in their immediate area. This has pushed some residents, especially young people, to seek work in more dangerous occupations; for example, men have turned to transporting timber along fast-moving, swollen waterways.
Migrant workers have also been impacted – 50 per cent of men and 42 per cent of women surveyed in a recent assessment of 1,300 returning Myanmar nationals have lost their jobs due to COVID-19; less than 10 per cent were receiving the same amount in remittances as before the pandemic; and 60 per cent said they are in debt, two-thirds of whom said their debt has worsened since the pandemic. Community members told KWEG that joblessness was increasing alcohol and substance abuse, which in turn has fuelled violence in the home and community, and that families were taking on more dangerous jobs to make ends meet. This has been confirmed by KWEG, who documented rising intimate partner violence during the pandemic – exacerbated by income insecurity – along with more fighting between family members, neighbours, and young people from neighbouring villages.
In areas where both Myanmar government officials and authorities from EAOs have introduced different forms of governance rules, people have to navigate overlapping and sometimes contradictory COVID-19 restrictions. This has worsened people’s access to jobs, farms and markets during critical harvest periods and heightened fears of being detained or charged, as waves of arrests related to COVID-19 public safety violations have hit border areas and towns.
A triple burden for women
While COVID-19 impacts both men and women, the women who spoke with KWEG described several changes to their daily lives, spanning the triple burden of domestic work, community (social) work, and income-generating work – as well as increased anxiety about their own health and family well-being.
Women’s already high load of care and domestic labour responsibilities has increased as family members are now at home 24 hours a day, and women are responsible for additional health and hygiene practices to prevent COVID-19 infection.
Women are not only caring for their families but are supporting the needs of the wider community. By choice or sometimes due to obligatory social expectations, women mobilise resources for community needs, lead public health awareness campaigns, volunteer for charity efforts, and support neighbours and extended family members who are grappling with income insecurity. KWEG has observed how simple acts of providing food for families mitigate the risks of hunger and food insecurity that can heighten conditions for increased domestic violence and violence in communities. Women are taking on leadership roles in COVID-19 response activities at home and at the community level, and women-led organisations are advocating for women’s inclusion in higher-level response planning.
For working women and women-headed households, unemployment and pay cuts have demanded new, alternative income sources, from foraging for bamboo shoots and sewing face masks to sell locally, to taking loans to cover financial gaps. For households that previously relied solely on men’s wages, women and children are now seeking informal jobs to supplement the family income. KWEG staff described the rising debt in these villages, along with an increase of petty theft driven by economic need, which impacts women’s safety and assets.
Women-led initiatives and recommendations
To respond to the immediate needs created by COVID-19, KWEG and other women-led organisations in northern Karen State have distributed public health awareness materials, face masks, soap and hand sanitiser, and continued to promote community-led public safety initiatives with authorities to mitigate risks related to theft and food insecurity. KWEG has also coordinated with the local General Administration Department to provide supplies to nearby quarantine centres and supported legal assistance for survivors of gender-based violence during the pandemic.
However, supporting families economically beyond this initial response has proved challenging, as restrictions on movement have severely limited the ability of organisations to assess wider community needs in order to develop better approaches. KWEG is pushing for greater coordination between international organisations that have been collecting data on social and economic impacts and local organisations that have existing relationships with communities, to help shape and implement longer-term approaches.
KWEG is also calling for international organisations and donors to contribute cash transfers as the first step to providing relief for hard-hit families and communities. These cash grants must be flexible to ensure they support both economic development and meet immediate humanitarian needs. At the same time, the details and conditions of cash transfer programmes must be communicated clearly and effectively to make sure that families understand they are temporary, and avoid building dependencies in areas that could experience a second shock when the transfers stop.
Community and women’s organisations are calling for government-led initiatives, including food distribution and cash transfers to ‘at-risk’ households, to increase transparency around who is selected to receive support, and to prioritise women and women-headed households for unconditional cash transfers and loan programmes. Economic recovery plans (from both the Myanmar government and EAOs) should also weigh up how public spending, like rural cash-for-work initiatives, is benefitting women and girls.
With current governmental and EAO-led pandemic response teams made up almost entirely of men, women’s experiences and priorities are often being left out of the conversation. The knowledge that women’s organisations – like KWEG – have of localised social and economic impacts should be used to design and implement gender-responsive COVID-19 plans using sex-disaggregated data. Women-led organisations are also well suited to leading the design and implementation of recovery plans, as they have already been the first responders to COVID-19 informally at home and community levels. KWEG calls for efforts to go beyond helping women, to including them and their expertise in the longer-term response planning. This crucial to ensure a recovery process that doesn’t widen gender-based inequalities.
* The perspectives shared in this blog are based on conversations with KWEG staff and their consultations with communities and village leaders, particularly those in mixed governance areas of northern Karen State.
** See World Health Organization: https://covid19.who.int/region/searo/country/mm
 IOM (2020), ‘IOM Myanmar. COVID-19 Response. Situation Report 11. 6 August 2020’
 Primarily this refers to Myanmar’s COVID-19 Economic Relief Plan (CERP).
 Lambrecht et al. (2020), ‘A Gender-Transformative Response to COVID-19 in Myanmar’, IFPRI, May
Illustration: Adriana Bellet/Saferworld