Addressing the economic fallout of COVID-19: Pathways and policy options for a gender-responsive recovery

By Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director, UN Women


Originally published in "G20 Saudi Arabia: The 2020 Riyadh Summit"

With markets destabilized, supply chains disrupted, businesses forced to close or scale back operations, and millions without jobs and livelihoods, the economic and social impacts of COVID-19 are likely to reverberate for years to come. However, although women are especially affected, losing their jobs and incomes at an alarming rate, they are also a key to rapid and sustainable recovery. Analysis and intentional response through targeted gender responsive investments, economic stimulus packages and recovery plans are fundamental strategies for sustainable recovery, with women front and centre.

The potential consequences of inaction- or wrongly prioritized action – will affect poverty levels across the world. Already the pandemic threatens to erase decades of progress on gender equality and women’s empowerment. Now, new estimates are that by next year, an additional 47 million women and girls will have been pushed into extreme poverty as a result of the pandemic, reaching a total of 435 million women and girls living on less than USD 1.90 a day, while gender gaps in extreme poverty will widen even further. By 2030, there could be 121 women in poverty for every 100 poor men globally, with the worst affected being young women between the ages of 25-34- the age when many are raising families.

Women’s unpaid care in families and communities has for too long been taken for granted. In some countries, women do 11 times more of it than men. This ‘invisible’ work contributes at least US$10.8 trillion a year to the global economy, and societies and economies have depended on it. During the pandemic, as women continue to bridge the gap where schools, childcare and other services are shut down or scaled back, they bear the brunt of lost or reduced paid work.

The global recession has increased unemployment, financial strain and insecurity. The associated loss of income makes it even harder for women to escape abusive relationships at a time when intimate partner violence is on clearly on the rise in a shadow pandemic of increased violence of all types. But this negative slide is not inevitable. Leaders at the Riyadh Summit have the opportunity to step up urgently with dedicated measures to contain the damage, provide appropriate services, and crucially, to drive forward inclusive decision-making and governance that ensures women’s active participation and leadership.

Many governments have already taken unprecedented measures, strengthening access to health care, rolling out cash transfers, providing paid sick leave and unemployment benefits. However, while some of these measures will benefit women, few are being designed or implemented specifically with their rights or needs in mind. In fact, as the UNDP/UN Women COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker shows, only 18% of the global social protection and jobs response to date has been gender-sensitive, either targeting women’s economic security or addressing the rise in unpaid care work.

There are notable exceptions, both within and outside of the G20. Argentina, for example, put in place far-reaching social protection measures, raising the monthly amount of pre-existing cash transfer programmes that prioritize women and extending paid leave to vulnerable groups, such as domestic workers. Countries such as, Egypt, Georgia, Morocco and Togo, have launched new emergency measures aimed at supporting women entrepreneurs and informal traders with cash transfers, grants and subsidized credits. And Australia and Costa Rica both ensured that childcare services remained open during lockdown to provide continued support to essential and other workers with young children. Overall, however, the response remains woefully inadequate, particularly in low-income countries where fiscal space is limited.

It is urgent to embed gender equality and women’s empowerment more firmly in plans for long-term recovery and transformation in order to build in ways that are both environmentally and socially sustainable. This includes putting gender equality at the centre of transitions towards more sustainable consumption and production patterns, making sure we grow the right sectors and support women to take advantage of the job opportunities they offer. It also includes the expansion of gender-responsive social protection systems, including to the 740 million women informal workers – small-scale farmers, market traders and domestic workers – too poor to make regular social security contributions, but not considered poor enough to qualify for social assistance.

Finally, we need sustained investments in the care economy. As countries seek economic recovery and transformation, there is huge potential to create quality care jobs – in health, education and social care – which not only contribute to nurturing the next generation, but are also the ultimate ‘green jobs’. Child and elder care services can help women to access quality paid employment. Furthermore, ensuring a well-trained and remunerated health workforce is a critical part of responding to COVID-19 and to building future resilience to health pandemics.

The women of the world are more than ready for their governments to bring change through strong fiscal stimulus packages, comprehensive social protection plans, and real action on ending violence against women and girls. We urge G20 leaders to take this opportunity to rebuild better, creating sustainable economies and reducing inequalities between and within countries. Through collective response we can advance the 2030 Agenda, by investing in sustainable and inclusive economies and by guaranteeing women’s rights, livelihoods and resilience.