As our state comes up for air after two exhausting years of uncertainty and six long, draining COVID lockdowns, we are assessing the damage on our kids, our small businesses and across our communities and the Victorian economy.
We know some parts of our society were more heavily affected than others. With the marking of International Women’s Day this week, I want to reflect on the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on women and girls in our community and the desperate need for targeted support as Victoria recovers and rebuilds.
International Women’s Day is about celebrating women’s achievements, but it’s also a frank reminder we still have a mountain to climb to reach gender equality and equal pay.
The problems persisted even before the pandemic. In 2019, Victoria recorded a gender pay gap of 9.6 per cent. It remained steady at May 2020, but by May 2021, it had risen to 12.2 per cent the biggest increase anywhere in the nation.
In the same period, South Australia decreased its gender pay gap by 1.5 per cent, from 8.5 to 7 per cent. The setback isn’t insignificant and will take years, if not decades, to recover.
The Labor Government’s six COVID lockdowns and two years of yo-yo-ing in and out of restrictions have shattered financial security for many families and business owners.
Sadly, the data shows those carrying the worst of the pandemic’s mental, social and economic devastation are women.
Women working on the front line as nurses, doctors, aged-care workers, pharmacists and allied health professionals wore the dual pressure of high-stress work environments and constant exposure to COVID. Nearly four in five workers in healthcare and social assistance are women.
These professions were among those most exposed to becoming sick with the virus and to the constant uncertainty of mandatory isolation requirements on both themselves and their family. During the pandemic, Victorian women lost their job at nearly five times the rate of men.
Nearly a third of Victorian women relied on Federal Government support through lockdown.
By comparison, a fifth of men found themselves in the same situation. More women than men had their working hours drastically reduced or shifted to full-time work-from home arrangements.
This had a direct impact in the home. Women took on the lion’s share of caregiving when the Labor Government closed schools and childcare centres, juggling the pressures of full-time work alongside delivering their child’s education.
Women’s Mental Health Alliance reports one in 10 women in a relationship reported experiencing domestic violence during the pandemic.
Half of those said the pressures of the pandemic made the violence worse.
Data also shows heightened levels of anxiety, eating disorders and depression among young women. A significant number of them had never experienced problems with their mental health in the past. Without a doubt, two years in and out of lockdown is still taking its toll.
Government has a responsibility to ensure each and every Victorian has the best opportunity to recover and rebuild: mentally, socially and economically.
Targeted measures to ensure women and girls can access mental health support now, not years down the track, will be crucial.
Increased demand for mental health support in the pandemic has exposed the serious shortage of workers and seen women and children at crisis point told they have to wait months to see a psychologist or counsellor.
It’s why it was so disappointing the Labor Government recently blocked the Liberals and Nationals’ reforms to immediately unlock 4000 workers to help meet demand. All that’s needed is small amendments to the Mental Health Act and to government funding criteria.
Other positive plans proposed by the Liberals and Nationals will also help support women to thrive and lead Victoria to recover and rebuild. This includes financial incentives for the recovery of sectors that predominantly employ women, including accommodation and food services, retail trade and tourism.
And a guarantee that under a Liberals and Nationals government, schools will stay open and our kids will stay in the classroom.
These measures are just a start. We know there’s still a long way to recover the progress we’ve lost in the past two years. The pandemic has transformed the lives and livelihoods of virtually every Victorian. The impacts have been devastating, which is why we must focus on delivering positive change to recover and rebuild.