Op-ed: Can we turn the tide on gender equality

by UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and OECD Chief of Staff and Sherpa to the G20 Gabriela Ilian Ramos

Date: Thursday, April 9, 2020

Originally published by Reuters.com

In an unequal world, a health crisis like the one we face today hurts women disproportionately. We call on leaders to act now to include strong gender dimensions in the response. 

Look around and you will see that women form the bulk of the frontline troops in the war against the COVID-19 pandemic. They care for the sick, elderly, families and children. Globally, women make up 70 per cent of medical and support staff and 85 per cent of nurses in hospitals, and half of the doctors in the OECD countries are women. Women are saving millions of lives while exposing themselves to greater risk of infection. Furthermore, 90 per cent of long-term care activities and up to 10 times as much unpaid household work is done by women globally. With school and day-care centre closures, the COVID-19 crisis will only amplify the pressure of unpaid care and domestic work on women. Yet these essential contributions often go unrecognized and unrewarded, meaning that women might end up suffering the most while saving the world.

Health, social and economic issues are interconnected. Women are potentially more exposed to material hardships associated with the economic fallout from COVID-19. A significant rise in unemployment and underemployment is forecasted globally. Many women – 740 million of whom work in the informal economy with jobs that offer little to no social protection – now face severe economic insecurity and few options. In Mexico, for example, 99 per cent of the country’s largely female domestic workers are not enrolled in any social security programme. Some industries, like the garment manufacturing industry in Bangladesh where women constitute 85% of the workforce, will also be hit hard and quickly by these multiple shocks with increased risk of job-loss. The situation is even more distressing for older women, as twice as many women as men aged over 65 live alone in G20 countries, often without any adequate pension.

The message is simple. COVID-19 is affecting everybody, but it is affecting women more. The responses need to consider this asymmetric impact. Otherwise, we risk making the same mistake as we did in the 2008 financial crisis when our response did not focus on the most vulnerable in our society; people like the single mothers who will have higher risk of falling below the poverty line after the confinement. 

Take the situation of Small-to-Medium Enterprises (SMEs). These businesses are suffering and need economic life support, but those SMEs headed by women have less financial leverage to deal with the crisis and relying more on self-financing.

The COVID-19 response needs to listen to women’s concerns and ideas. Even with their high representation in the health sector, women are extremely under-represented in leadership positions.

On top of this, confinement policies to contain the pandemic are also exacerbating gender-based violence.Even in normal times, an unacceptably high one-in-three women around the world have suffered domestic violence and 38 per cent of all murders of women are committed by their partners. With confinement, we have seen an increase of more than 30 per cent in calls to helplines in some countries as lockdowns for 4 billion people build pressure. Yet, this is likely just the tip of the iceberg, as on average globally less than 40 per cent of women who experience violence seek help of any sort or report the crime. Violence against women was already a fearsome and costly epidemic in all societies, estimated at US$1.5 trillion. That figure is expected now to rise as cases soar, and continue in the aftermath of the pandemic, creating a cascading impact on our economy.

The pandemic has shaken our economies and societies and laid bare much that needs to change. We should not be coming out of this crisis without any lessons learnt. Rather, we must see this as an opportunity to fix the unequal situation that women have been living with for decades. We call on leaders to apply a clear gender lens to reduce the inequalities that exist in our societies as they implement both short- and longer-term measures to counter the economic and social impact of COVID-19.

We urge all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the crisis. That means designating as essential services all actors supporting women affected by gender-based violence, with immediate effect. We need more emergency helplines and shelters for women to escape from their aggressors. We need child-care centres and elderly support that will allow many female health professionals to continue working to save our lives. We could also consider expanding support to small businesses and the self-employed. And we must design measures to avoid deepening educational and social inequalities, both within countries and between advanced and emerging economies. 

Let’s not wait for the COVID-19 crisis to broaden these inequalities and hit women harder. We can certainly turn the tide on gender equality and “bounce forward” from the crisis, but we need to see action now!