Op-ed: Women working on the front line

By UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka


Originally published in G7 USA: The 2020 Virtual Year

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a crisis reaching far beyond health, challenging fundamental aspects of the ways we have previously arranged our social and economic structures. It has amplified existing gender inequalities across and within our societies, exposing millions of women to increased risk of infection, violence, economic devastation and poverty, and threatening to reverse hard-won progress for gender equality. Women earn less, save less, hold less secure jobs and are more likely to work in the informal sector with fewer social protections. The decline in projected poverty rates for women has reversed and now points to an increase of 9.1 per cent due to the pandemic and its fallout. I call on the G7 leaders to explicitly recognise this and ensure that their COVID-19 response intentionally, strongly and permanently redresses these long-standing inequalities.

The economic issue

By 2021, around 435 million women and girls will be living in extreme poverty on less than $1.90 a day — including 47 million pushed into poverty as a result of COVID-19. Closures and mitigation measures have stopped women from earning, especially affecting the 740 million women globally with informal and precarious jobs that largely underpin the formal economy. Overall, women’s employment is 19 per cent more at risk than men’s, and while the pandemic will impact global poverty generally, women of reproductive age are disproportionately affected. Fiscal stimulus programmes must be targeted to women, for example, by expanding the reach and benefit levels of social assistance programmes such as cash transfers and social pensions. Women in the informal economy must be supported to access cash transfers or unemployment compensation, especially those without access to banking. Bailouts and support measures should include micro and small businesses, where women entrepreneurs are relatively more represented, with tax breaks for women-owned businesses and support for women’s businesses in supply chains.

Unpaid care

Already, before the pandemic added teaching and nursing to women’s home care duties, women were doing on average triple the care work of men with little time for earning. With school and work closures forcing so many families to stay home, the unpaid role of women in sustaining care and domestic work has never been so apparent. Immediate steps are needed to prevent reversal of the gender equality progress achieved in recent decades, particularly regarding women’s participation in the labour force. G7 leaders can direct childcare programmes and economic stimulus packages towards recognising unpaid care work as vital to the formal economy, and address the gross gender imbalances in its distribution.

Threats to health

Globally, women make up 70% of the front-line workforce in the health and social sector. They are the doctors, nurses, midwives, cleaners and laundry workers, working in the eye of the storm to care for the sick and keep communities safe, often in the lowest-paying jobs. Poor and marginalized communities are more vulnerable to COVID-19 yet have less access to care. With health systems stretched to breaking point, all women, especially those already marginalised, risk being unable to access critical medical care, including sexual and reproductive services and mental health care. G7 leaders must take account of these differential factors, prioritise the needs and protection of female health and social workers, and protect all essential health services, including for pre- and ante-natal care and family planning.

Digital gender divide

Care must be taken that the digital divide does not compound existing inequalities as government services and education move to online platforms. Almost half the world’s population is still offline, with girls, women and other marginalised groups among the least likely to have access to technology. Essential cash transfer programmes implemented in times of crisis cannot reach women with no online access when those payments come as digital transactions. Girls cannot complete their schooling if they have no internet. Affordable access to the internet must underpin digital solutions.

Violence against women

In countries around the world, government authorities, women’s rights activists and civil society partners have indicated increasing reports of domestic violence during the crisis, and increased demand for emergency shelter. Violence in public spaces and cyberviolence targeting women and girls are also growing. Disrupted social, police and justice services are exacerbating delays and difficulties in accessing support. The prevention and redress of violence against women must be a key part of governments’ national response plans, including the immediate designation of shelters and helplines for women as essential services with increased resources, sensitisation and maintenance of police and justice services, and stepping up advocacy and awareness campaigns, including targeting men’s domestic roles, such as #HeForSheAtHome.

By taking a strong gender-focused response to the COVID-19 pandemic in every national response plan and every recovery package and budget, G7 leaders have an opportunity to help create the inclusive, equal and more resilient societies we need, not just to mitigate pandemic impact, but to build back better.