Skip to content

In the shadows of the COVID-19 response: Informal workers and the rise of Gender-Based Violence

In this blog Lara Quarterman, Yara Asi and Sharmishtha Nanda, part of our Gender and COVID-19 Working Group, discuss the links between informal work, COVID-19 and Gender-Based Violence (GBV).

The informal economy is made up of the economic activities, enterprises, jobs, and workers that are not regulated or protected by the State. 61% of the world’s workers are informally employed and the majority of the workforce in developing countries and emerging economies work in sectors outside of the formal economy. Their occupations include domestic work, sex work, street vending, waste picking, and casual work in the transport, agricultural, hospitality, mining, and construction industries. The majority of employment in sub-Saharan Africa (89.2%) and southern Asia (87.8%) is within the informal economy.

In 2019, the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted the ILO Violence and Harassment Convention (No. 190) and Recommendation (No. 206), which prohibit GBV and harassment in both the formal and informal economies.  However, despite their contribution to the economies of all countries, the lives of informal workers are still afflicted by discrimination and exclusion that is rooted in structural violence such as racism, xenophobia, and gender inequality.

Due to the nature of many informal work environments, including the lack of recognition of their employment status by the State, the risk of GBV can be higher than in formal workplaces.  The isolated nature of domestic work, discrimination and stigmatisation against sex workers, harassment by law enforcement of street vendors, and workplaces dominated by men (such as construction sites) can heighten the risk of violence and harassment for women as well as people with diverse sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sexual characteristics (SOGIESC).

COVID-19 and informal workers

COVID-19 has highlighted the economic and social precarity workers in the informal economy, particularly women and those doing informal care work within their families and communities. Measures to contain the global pandemic have had disproportionate negative impacts on informal workers.  The ILO has found that informal workers have been three times more likely to lose their job during the pandemic than their formally employed counterparts

Abiding by quarantine or stay at home orders means loss of livelihood for many informal workers and social protection systems, including social insurance schemes, are often inaccessible, leaving them without income. Without access to places of employment and accompanying social networks, informal workers have also lost support networks and the agency and empowerment that many workers draw from employment. 

There is considerable risk of contracting COVID-19 for those living or working in overcrowded conditions, such as migrant workers or those working in street markets, workers coming into contact with contaminated waste, such as waste pickers, and those engaged in care work, including domestic workers.

Stigma and discrimination can create barriers to accessing emergency assistance.  For example, a study by Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) found that less than half of informal workers in cities surveyed received cash or food assistance in the COVID-19 response.

COVID-19 and GBV

Breaking lockdown rules to work or to report GBV and access services or support can lead to criminalisation and penalties, particularly for migrant workers without regular immigration status, sex workers whose occupation is illegal, and street vendors whose work is done in public spaces. 

While evidence on the experiences of GBV of informal workers during COVID-19 is sparse, emerging data shows that GBV appears to be increasing overall and that losing income and employment during the pandemic has increased the risk of violence against women and children. There continue to be calls for GBV services to be available and accessible during COVID-19, including making adaptations to GBV response systems to ensure they are still able to meet survivors’ needs during the pandemic, and ensuring that GBV is considered and informal workers are included in COVID-19 recovery plans.

Responses to GBV experienced by informal workers during COVID-19

Advocacy groups that have been working with informal workers for decades coordinated quickly as part of pandemic responses within their communities to fill gaps left by public efforts.

For example, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) provided information about the specific pandemic-related challenges faced by sex workers, including information about the spikes in discrimination and violence faced by sex workers.  The International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) put together a COVID-19 Solidarity Fund to provide food, personal protective equipment, shelters, and needs assessments for their affiliates, in part to reduce their dependence on exploitive situations. Service-providing organisations are also piloting innovative practices; an NGO in Nigeria, for example, installed private phone booths in pre-existing safe spaces for women to allow them to call GBV case workers.

However, such organisations are limited by their dependence on donated funds for their efforts.  While in many countries, formal workplaces are often regulated and compelled to offer at least some level of protection, informal workers do not typically have a manager or supervisor that is accountable to any larger entity.

Actions to protect women from violence are necessary at the national and global levels, as outlined in international agreements such as the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1993). These actions to address all forms of GBV must not discriminate based on the type of work those at risk are doing.

States must ensure that their policies regarding gender, education, transportation, employment, development, migration, and human rights are in alignment and managed in ways that do not further marginalise informal workers. However, many of the workers at greatest risk are not citizens of their host country, which further excludes them from State protections. An example of good practice is in Portugal, where the State provisionally regularised migrant workers’ immigration status during the pandemic, providing them access to healthcare and other social safety net benefits, allowed them to open bank accounts and participate in formal work. Actions such as these can limit the risks of violence faced by informal workers and remove barriers to reporting their experiences of GBV.

States cannot depend on the non-governmental sector to provide all services needed for informal workers facing GBV.  Although resources for combating GBV prior to the pandemic were already limited, some States responded to the emergency situation by implementing new, and largely overdue, policies. For instance, Guatemala’s Public Prosecutor is now able to receive reports of violence through phone calls, WhatsApp, or mail. France finalised an agreement on Shelter and Access to Housing for Victims of Domestic Violence.  Argentina, which already had a Secretary for Policies Against Gender Violence, implemented an initiative in pharmacies that would allow anyone experiencing GBV to say a code word that would discreetly alert employees to call authorities.

Recommendations for improving responses to GBV against informal workers

In order to increase protections for informal against GBV, more action needs to be taken.

States must ratify ILO Convention 190 to protect workers from violence, abuse, and exploitation. This should include investing resources in policy and programming to ensure that all workers are protected against GBV and include specific efforts to address the unique risks faced by informal workers.

Government and non-governmental service providers must adapt GBV services and support to ensure their continuity in COVID-19 and their accessibility to informal workers. Existing GBV services should be enhanced through sustained and long-term funding, including to organisations providing direct support to informal workers, such as sex workers’ networks, domestic workers’ associations, and migrant workers’ organisations. These community-based organisations can be entry points into referral pathways as trusted and recognised entities.

States should engage with labour unions, workers’ rights groups, and representatives of informal workforces to ensure policies and programmes to respond to COVID-19 are inclusive of informal workers and responsive to their needs and risks of GBV.

The diversity of informal workforces must be understood using an intersectoral lens to identify the barriers they face to accessing GBV services. Barriers to accessing services, support and reporting mechanisms must be removed to ensure that workers in the informal economy, especially those whose work is criminalised or those without regular immigration status, can receive holistic care if they experience GBV and are able to pursue pathways to justice, if they choose to do so.

The provision of cash has been found to reduce exposure to GBV in low- and middle-income countries and social protection systems should be accessible to informal workers, either through State-led initiatives or cash-based humanitarian interventions.

Harmful social norms must change to ensure that beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours around gender roles and the treatment of women and girls are based on gender equality. This requires sustained effort and investment to work with men and boys and systems and institutions to be more inclusive and equitable. Norms around masculinity and femininity as well as people with diverse SOGIESC need to be based on equality and recognition of their rights, which will require both legislative change as well as changed attitudes and beliefs within societies.

Discrimination against informal workers, particularly in sectors that are stigmatised such as waste pickers or sex workers, must be addressed through policy change as well as awareness and advocacy to shift attitudes towards those working in these sectors.

There have already been calls for gendered COVID-19 recovery plansandthis should extend to the risks of GBV, including for those in informal employment.  This is particularly important considering the role women have played in the care economy, which has been an essential part of the COVID-19 response and is often undertaken by informal workers.  As parts of the world shift into phases of economic recovery, the contributions of informal workers should not be ignored and measures should be put in place to ensure they are not left behind as countries emerge from the crisis.


Lara Quarterman is an independent consultant on GBV in emergencies and the co-facilitator of the GBV Sub-Group of the Gender and COVID-19 Working Group.

Yara Asi is a Post-doctoral Scholar at the University of Central Florida and a Non-resident Fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC.

Sharmishtha Nanda is a Technical Specialist (Gender, Youth and Development) with the International Center for Research on Women

The authors would like to thank Sushmita Mukherjee for her review and feedback.

Photo credit: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).


Gender Working Group

We meet online every month to discuss key issues, activities, opportunities and ideas for collaboration. We have a long and growing list of resources on gender and public health emergencies.



Gender Working Group

We meet online every month to discuss key issues, activities, opportunities and ideas for collaboration. We have a long and growing list of resources on gender and public health emergencies.