The coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll on young women like me, but we are fighting back

Kira Charlton
·4-min read
<p>The effect of the pandemic on mental health has been a big concern</p> (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The effect of the pandemic on mental health has been a big concern

(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

As a young woman and passionate advocate for equality, I have witnessed first-hand the toll that the coronavirus pandemic has had on our work, careers, finances and mental health.

Despite large-scale job losses, hours of unpaid work and uncertain futures, young women have shown a resilience and risen to the multiple challenges this tough year has thrown at them. But at what cost?

Our research and polling of 4,000 young women found that many of them have been paying a price in this pandemic. Almost a quarter had been furloughed, and the findings indicated that an estimated 750,000 young women have had to go to work despite fears for their safety.

Young women told us they felt very frustrated by the fact their male colleagues were less likely to have been furloughed than them, which they saw as unfair and sexist. One young woman who was furloughed told me: “Male applicants got the jobs ... I did feel as though men got more of a chance to actually go back to work and women were kind of pushed to the side.”

Before the crisis started, women carried out 60 per cent more unpaid work on average than men, a figure I expect has only increased since March. One young woman with children spoke for many of us when she said of her time in lockdown: “I was mother, teacher, maid, chef… everything”.

With limited childcare available, which is often eye-wateringly expensive, it’s hardly surprising that 51 per cent of young mothers said they were unable to apply for a job or turned it down, or they left a job because they could not cover childcare costs.

Sexism and sexual harassment were also common themes in our research. Almost a quarter of women knew cases of sexual harassment at work that have been reported and not dealt with properly. We found that this was particularly common in the hospitality industry. Women are losing trust in the system, and a third say they wouldn’t even know how to report sexual harassment at work.

Combine that with a pandemic, when they worry about having adequate PPE and are afraid to speak out in case they lose their job at a time when unemployment across the country is growing.

It is not exactly surprising then that our findings indicate that approximately 3 million young women are worried about their mental health, and are frustrated about the lack of access to mental health and support services. Young women without digital access also said they were particularly isolated, with many struggling to get any support at all during lockdown.

Taking all of this into account, it’s not hard to understand why 61 per cent of young women said they felt ignored by politicians, a figure that rose to 72 per cent for those with a disability or long-term health condition.

But one thing I was so happy to see is that activism among young women is on the rise. A majority – 66 per cent of 18-24 year-old women – now identify as feminist. Young women were significantly more likely than young men to sign a petition as well as engage with and share campaigns on social media.

These findings were particularly close to my heart as I recently got stuck into activism with my own campaign to end sexual violence in my home town, incidents of which have been on the rise since the pandemic started. The Epsom Women and Girls Network’s campaign against sexual violence has been on the front page of the local newspaper; we have local councillors and businesses on board and have created an alliance with Surrey Police.

I feel it is my responsibility to shine a light on the injustices that young women face on a daily basis, and these survey findings make me proud that so many young women share this goal and vision.

My conversations with my peers have left me with mixed emotions about our future. I not only heard their pain and stress but I felt it too. Unless the government takes serious action to listen and acknowledge young women and their experiences, things won’t change. Young women must be put at the forefront of recovery planning. An equal society improves things for everyone, not just women.

Here are some things I am sure about, though. I am positive and confident in young women’s resilience and strength to carry on and keep fighting. We are talented, hardworking, resourceful and courageous. It’s high time we received that recognition.

Kira Charlton is a peer researcher for Young Women’s Trust, a charity campaigning for economic justice for women aged 18-30

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