Op-ed: Build back better: women at the centre of decision-making

By UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka on the occasion of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2020: 'Delivering A Common Future: Connecting, Innovating, Transforming’


Originally published in the Commonwealth Heads of Government Interim Report

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our world and our world view, deepening pre-existing inequalities, and exposing vulnerabilities in social, political, and economic systems. Across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection, the negative impacts of COVID-19 are exacerbated for women and girls simply by virtue of their sex. These impacts risk reversing limited gains made on women’s rights and empowerment in the past decades. At the same time, women are on the front lines of response, as heads of state and government, legislators, healthcare workers, carers at home and community leaders and mobilisers, amongst other roles. Women leaders are in several countries excelling in COVID-19 response, providing powerful examples of how women’s leadership and participation can provide more effective, inclusive, and fair policies, plans and budgets to address the pandemic. This is the time to ensure that gender equality concerns are fully embedded in our short-term responses and longer-term recovery to build the more equal and resilient societies that we will need coming out of this crisis.

Until now, women have been sidelined from many decision-making structures. Recent analysis[1] tells us that men are 75 per cent of parliamentarians, 73 per cent of managerial decision-makers, 72 per cent of executives of global health organizations, 76 per cent of the people who we see, hear or read about in our mainstream news media, and almost all (87 per cent) of the people in peace negotiations. These figures show us that we have created a world where women are squeezed into just 25 per cent - one quarter - of the space, both in decision-making rooms, and in the stories that we tell about our lives.

Today, women are heads of state and government in only 21 countries, including four in the Commonwealth (Bangladesh, New Zealand, Singapore, Trinidad and Tobago), but several have been recognized as providers of global best practice in response to COVID-19, such as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand. Globally only 21.26 per cent of ministers are women.[2] Women mayors too have been highly visible and recognized for their professionalism and compassion.[3] In the health sector also, women are increasingly being recognized for their effectiveness. For example, the Minster of Health of the Indian state Kerala has been hailed as the reason that a state of 35 million people has only lost four people to the virus.[4] Health care needs more women leaders. Less than 20 per cent of the world’s health ministers are women, yet overall women make up 70 per cent of healthcare workers, operating on the front lines to deliver essential services.

Power imbalances and false stereotypes of what women can and cannot do have gone on for far too long. They have created reinforcing feedback loops to the point where people have come to believe that girls and women really are less able to lead than men and boys – despite all the evidence to the contrary. Until recently globally, 53 per cent of men and 43 per cent of women believed that men make better political leaders than women. [5] The world we want has equality in power and presence. To build that better world effectively, we need women at the centre of decision-making, and critical changes in the way we run our lives, such as more equitable and sustainable sharing of the burden of care at home.

This requires strategic public investment, including equipping front line health workers; delivery of social protection measures that extend to informal workers, recognizing women’s special circumstances and care work; gender impact analyses of fiscal stimulus and targeted financial support to businesses in feminized sectors and women-led enterprises; and high quality, accessible services to prevent and respond to gender-based violence. In the immediate future, gender equality concerns should be embedded in the design of national policy responses to COVID-19 as well as in the national fiscal stimulus packages that countries are rolling out in response to the pandemic and ensuing economic crisis. It is vital to ensure that the small allocations that went to support gender equality in the past are not further reduced and that overstretched health services do not divert resources away from essential services women need, such as support for survivors of violence, pre- and post-natal health care and sexual and reproductive health.

Commonwealth countries can lead the way: supporting women’s leadership and participation and ensuring that women’s needs are addressed in response and recovery efforts. They can include women in emergency response groups/task teams and operation centres, and support women’s organizations. Previous health crises such as the Ebola and Zika epidemics demonstrated the critical role of women’s organizations in reaching marginalized populations – including women with disabilities, women living with HIV, migrant and refugee women, and others – through risk communication and prevention efforts. Yet, although women’s organizations and community groups shoulder much of the response in local communities, too often they are left out of state or international organization-led decision-making. In 2018, humanitarian aid agencies consulted with women’s organizations in the planning of their response strategies in only 54 per cent of cases.[6]

The picture is the same in previous disaster preparedness and recovery plans, where women’s needs and interests were rarely included, and tended to be developed with little or no sex- or gender-disaggregated data and little input from national gender equality representatives or women’s organizations.[7] As a result, issues such as gender-based violence (GBV), which affects one in three women over their lifetime, receive minimal funding. In 2018, funding for GBV was only 0.3% of total humanitarian funding in the countries studied.[8]

Women are radically impatient for change. There has been a surge in women’s activism around the globe as they see that incremental change has not worked. Younger women do not want to go through the experiences of their elders and the elders are tired of waiting. Energized by young feminists at the helm, social movements are proposing new alternatives for conducting the world differently. Commonwealth leaders can learn from the ways in which these movements work across silos. Many of them see the fight for gender equality as inseparable from broader struggles for economic, environmental and social justice. We don’t want the same world back again. It is critical now to ensure that women lead and participate fully in decision-making on COVID-19 response and recovery.


[1] Report of the UN Secretary-General. Follow-up to and progress in the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the outcome of the twenty-third special session. Document E/CN.6/2020/3, December 2019.

[2] Data as of 1 Jan. 2020. IPU-UN Women Map of Women in Politics 2020 https://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2020/03/women-in-politics-map-2020 

[3] They are sharing their experiences on responding to the outbreak in online forums such as Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan on 31 March 2020 https://www.cityleadership.harvard.edu/jenny-durkan-qa and Mayors of Freetown, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, and Melbourne Sally Capp https://www.c40.org/press_releases/mayors-covid19-webinar

[4] Laura Spinney, “The Coronavirus slayer! How Kerala’s rock star health minister helped saved it from Covid-19,” The Guardian, 14 May 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/14/the-coronavirus-slayer-how-keralas-rock-star-health-minister-helped-save-it-from-covid-19

[5] UN Women 2020, Rights in review https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2020/gender-equality-womens-rights-in-review-en.pdf?la=en&vs=934

[6] IASC Interim Guidance, Gender Alert for COVID-19 Outbreak, March 2020, p.4 https://interagencystandingcommittee.org/system/files/2020-03/IASC%20Interim%20Guidance%20on%20COVID-19%20-%20Gender%20Alert.pdf

[7] UN Women and UNDP, Gender and Disaster Risk Reduction in Europe and Central Asia: A Workshop Guide for Facilitators, 2018. However, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-2030), Article 36 (a) (i) notes that “Women’s participation is critical for effectively managing disaster risk and designing, resourcing and implementing gender sensitive disaster risk reduction policies, plans and programs; and adequate capacity building measures need to be taken to empower women for preparedness as well as built their capacity for alternative livelihood in post-disaster situations.”

[8] Funding for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and Girls in Humanitarian Programming, March 2020, UN Women, UNFPA.