Stronger partnerships and investment needed to support women’s recovery from COVID-19 in the Global South

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka calls on governments to ensure gender-responsive national plans to build back better after COVID-19


A virtual ministerial roundtable meeting organized by UN Women on 5 August 2020 brought to the forefront the need to safeguard women’s rights and put in place deliberate measures to advance gender equality, as part of COVID-19 response and recovery interventions.

The event, titled Ensuring Progress Towards SDG 5 Amid the COVID-19 pandemic – from Response to Recovery: Experiences from China and Global Partners, was part of a South-South Cooperation initiative, which refers to a framework that enables exchange of ideas, experiences, and opportunities between entrepreneurs, communities, and experts from the Global South. More than 85 participants, including government representatives from China, Tanzania, Jordan, Pakistani, Nigeria, Liberia, Mali, Uganda, Egypt and Myanmar, shared how they are addressing gender-related issues during the pandemic and through recovery programmes in their countries.

The lessons emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic show that while the virus may not discriminate, its economic, social and health impacts are different for men and women and achieving gender equality cannot be placed on the backburner.

The participants shared how some countries have put in place measures such as gender-responsive policy mechanisms, upscaling emergency support for the most vulnerable and the ‘new poor’; governments have acted decisively to end gender-based violence, including sexual violence; and improved data analytics and digital technology have helped deliver services with efficiency and greater speed. If these measures are integrated as longer-term strategies, they can transform and improve disaster preparedness and protection against future shocks.

To contain COVID-19, the Government of China has applied a ‘whole society intervention approach’ and demonstrated its political will to advance gender equality through the inclusion of women across key sectors. This contributed to the country’s success in containing the pandemic.

Ms. Huang Xiaowei, Vice President and First Member of the Secretariat of the All China Women’s Federation (ACWF), and Vice Chairperson of the National Working Committee on Children and Women under the State Council of China, also proposed that, “While we are taking actions to combat the pandemic and drive for social economic recovery, we must place greater consideration on women’s need, listen to their voices, and take effective measures to safeguard their rights and interests; we must emphasize women’s participation and contribution, focus on the active roles [that] women play, and give conscientious attention to the lives and development of women.”

The lessons from China’s experience show that when gender-sensitive mechanisms addressing the needs of women and girls are put in place across all sectors, lives can be saved, and livelihoods protected. However, in many countries in Africa, Asia Pacific, the Arab States and the Middle East, progress is still uneven and uncertain.

The participants reflected that in DRC, Liberia and Sierra Leone, women were still trying to recover from the effects of the Ebola virus when the coronavirus struck. The pandemic has also worsened situations in conflict-affected countries, including Yemen, Libya, Palestine and Syria, and increased the need for resources in countries suffering from food insecurity and rising rate of HIV and AIDS.

“We have seen that, in many pandemics, women never recover from the impact and their pain, and as a result, the effects become a lifetime experience. History should not repeat itself, and that is why partnerships like this one are so critical to ensure that gender-responsive measures are institutionalized in the national response and recovery plans in all countries. We need to strengthen collaborative efforts in safeguarding the interests of women and girls, and to help countries get back on track in achieving SDG 5 on gender equality and the empowerment of all women,” said UN Women Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka in her keynote address.

A UN Women situation report on the “The impact of COVID-19 on gender quality in the Arab region” shows that in the Arab region, the pandemic is expected to result in the loss of 1.7 million jobs, and this includes over 700,000 jobs held by women.

In Pakistan, Dr. Sania Nishtar, the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Poverty Alleviation and Social Protection, said only 10 days after the COVID-19 outbreak, the government launched its largest emergency operation that has so far reached 14 million vulnerable families, including female-headed households, with unconditional cash transfers. The world’s fifth largest nation has also improved its social protection programmes targeting women and girls to protect livelihoods and ensure that girls remained in school.

Lessons from Myanmar reflected the importance of creating longer-term solutions and sustainable employment opportunities for women. “The pandemic has robbed many women of their livelihoods in the garment, tourism, agriculture and domestic sectors.,” said Dr. Wah Wah Maung, Director General of the Pension Department of the Ministry of Planning, Finance and Industry in Myanmar. “As many were not formally employed, they did not have insurances or any other form of protection.” The Government of Myanmar is working with partners to provide interest-free loans to women-owned enterprises, and to provide unconditional cash and food to vulnerable families, including female-headed households.

“Sectors of our populations, especially those most marginalized because of insecurity, instability and inequalities, are the ones absorbing the worst impacts. Yet, the same people, and in particular women, are being called upon to protect and care for families, children, the elderly and the sick, as essential workers and within households,” reminded Ms. Roberta Clarke, Officer in Charge for UN Women East and Southern Africa.

As countries around the world battle the pandemic and its multi-dimensional impacts, UN Women continues to work with governments and civil society partners to support gender-responsive fiscal stimulus packages, livelihood protection, rapid needs assessments of women on the ground, prevention of violence against women and promotion of equal sharing of care work, among other initiatives.