Op-ed: Where is the economic stimulus for women?

By UN Women Deputy Executive Director Anita Bhatia


Originally published by Post Opinión – The Washington Post

The pandemic has been especially crushing for women and, if no action is taken soon, the progress made over the past twenty-five years towards gender equality will be lost. This is the sobering conclusion reached by “Rapid Gender Assessments” recently carried out by UN Women and its institutional partners around the world. Sadly, much of this was to be expected. This crisis has simultaneously hit women in the three areas where gender inequities are most severe and most persistent: income, health, and security. Feminized sectors and jobs, from hospitality and care work to informal and part-time work, have been badly affected. Public spending on gynecological and reproductive services is being crowded out or delayed by the fight against the virus. And violence against women has increased exponentially in the midst of lockdowns.

Governments have responded to the economic effects of COVID-19 with fiscal and monetary stimuli. Their response has been quick and massive—over ten trillion dollars and counting. It had to be. But that response has largely ignored the needs of women. Only one in eight countries has measures in place to protect women against the socio-economic impacts of the virus. This is ironic, because applying a gender lens to the stimulus would not just be good for equal rights. It would also make the economic recovery faster and stronger for everyone.

Fortunately, it is not too late to exploit the synergies between restarting economic growth and progress in gender equality. Next week, the world’s ministers of finance and central bankers will attend—this time virtually—the annual meetings of the IMF and the World Bank. Reality is sending them a message: on-going and future efforts to revive the economy, whether fiscal, monetary, legal or regulatory, can and should be decided with women in mind—and in the room. 

What exactly needs to be done? In the short-term, fiscal stimuli—whether tax holidays, cash transfers, or soft-loans—should give priority to sectors where women are over-represented, notably care work. Ditto for firm sizes, knowing that women dominate the segment of micro and small enterprises. On the spending side, the provision of reproductive and gynecological services should be restored without delay. While not as big an expense as treating COVID19 patients, it is as crucial. And, for all the attention given to revenues and expenditures, the financing of fiscal deficits could also be a major way to foster gender equality: over the next couple of years, governments will scramble to refinance the enormous debt they accumulated during the pandemic. It will then be high time to issue “gender bonds”, both as a signal of commitment to the rights of women and as a way to tap the cohort of asset managers interested in investments that promote environmental, social, and governance causes. That cohort is estimated to manage a financial portfolio worth some 80 trillion dollars and directing even a small portion of that to gender equality could have disproportionately positive impacts.

The policy agenda for medium-term recovery needs attention too. This crisis is an opportunity to advance on long-pending reforms. Five stand out. First, adjusting public procurement rules to the needs and capabilities of female-led businesses. Second, closing the digital divide between women and men, as more jobs move online. Third, making childcare and early childhood education affordable for all. Fourth, ensuring statistical systems and data serve women. And fifth, the scourge of gender-based violence needs to end, once and for all.

Naturally, whether in the short- or the medium-term, the choice of policies depends on national contexts. A country’s starting point matters. What seems feasible in one place may be impossible in another. Politics and institutional capacity play a major role. To help governments tailor their responses to local realities, UN Women has launched a set of quantitative, regulatory and policy indicators to assess the gender effects of economic stimuli. These indicators, which cover a range of issues from livelihoods and social protection to housing and central banking, constitute a powerful tool to guide decisions. Several countries are already using it. The hope is that, soon, all will.

It is time for not only governments, but for international institutions, to take decisive action in favor of women, before progress achieved in the last decades is lost.