Op-ed: Achieving equality for women: COVID-19 and beyond

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


Originally published on sdg-action.org

More than 25 years after the landmark Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, true and lasting equality for women remains in view but not yet in our grasp. Though we have seen important gains, such as decreases in maternal mortality and improvements in girls’ education, overall progress has been too slow and too piecemeal. The COVID-19 crisis has also shown us that progress can be frighteningly reversed.

The pandemic has rapidly exacerbated existing gender inequities. Violence against women has risen, and women have suffered higher adverse economic impacts and job losses. This has been caused both by increased unpaid caregiving and the fact that women work in more insecure, low-paid and informal job settings. COVID-19-related school closures have heightened the effects of the gender digital divide and have put nearly 10 million more girls at risk of child marriage this decade. All of this is posing a direct challenge to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Shifting course

Despite these almost ubiquitous challenges, there are positive solutions that we can apply to steer our societies and economies out of the disastrous impact of COVID-19 and into constructive change. These solutions require recognition of some previously underestimated underlying barriers, which the pandemic stressors have brought to light.

Governments’ decisive commitment to gender-responsive stimulus packages that truly respond to women’s needs will be critical. Several governments have already taken unprecedented measures, such as strengthening access to healthcare and providing cash transfers, paid sick leave and unemployment benefits. Yet while some of these measures will benefit women, far too few are being designed or implemented with women’s rights or needs in mind. As the UN Development Programme/UN Women COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker shows, only 18% of the global social protection and jobs response so far have targeted either women’s economic security or addressed the rise in unpaid care work. Current forecasts are that without a change in course, an additional 47 million women will be pushed into extreme poverty this year, overturning decades of progress. This would be a stunning reversal for the SDGs, but this kind of backsliding is not a foregone conclusion: with bold policies to boost women’s economic empowerment, we can shift course and accelerate progress instead.

Generation Equality

We look to governments and to those who have power, resources, and influence to become the champions of what we call Generation Equality. We need new Commitment Makers to shape a future that dismantles the barriers to women’s progress by working across generations and sectors and on priority issues. I invite all countries, businesses, civil-society organizations, young people and allies to join Generation Equality’s Global Acceleration Plan. The plan convenes collective action through “Action Coalitions” which are centred around six themes:

  • gender-based violence
  • economic justice and rights
  • bodily autonomy and sexual and reproductive health and rights
  • feminist action for climate justice
  • technology and innovation for gender equality
  • feminist movements and leadership

The targets that support the themes are intended to guide action and investment for the next five years. For example, the pandemic has confirmed that care for children and other family members is essential, life-sustaining work and there is a need for investments in both public and private quality care services. It also requires the creation of new, well-paid, and safe care jobs that recognize, reduce, and redistribute the current unpaid care work in homes, and that reward care workers and guarantee their labor rights. In turn, such changes need an enabling legal and policy environment.

Canada has recently promised significant fiscal resources to achieve affordable childcare for all, by specifically committing to improving the pay and conditions of care-sector workers. The United States’ Biden administration has recognized that care is infrastructure, alongside roads and bridges, and has pledged investments of USD 400 billion. Every country should have and implement gender-responsive macroeconomic plans, budget reforms and stimulus packages, including quality public social protection floors and systems so that the number of women and girls living in poverty is significantly reduced. Now is the moment for other leaders to follow suit to support the care economy and champion women’s economic justice and rights to the rest of the world.

A pandemic of inequities

Even before the pandemic, women’s employment was often concentrated in the most vulnerable informal jobs. During the pandemic, women have lost their jobs at a faster rate than men. This has had particularly devastating consequences for the economic autonomy of women with care responsibilities. Labor market vulnerabilities are even worse for the most excluded, including women with disabilities, migrant and refugee women, and small farmers.

In recent studies, lost income and employment, food insecurity, and substance abuse has been linked to increased risk of men’s violence against women and girls, exacerbating the prevalence of domestic and other forms of violence. Young women aged between 15 and 24 years are often the worst affected. There are well-grounded fears that other forms of violence, such as female genital mutilation and child marriage, are also on the increase.

I urge all stakeholders to join the Global Acceleration Plan to:

  • Tackle gender-based violence and commit to ratify international and regional conventions
  • Scale up implementation and financing of evidence-driven prevention strategies
  • Scale up implementation and financing of survivor-centred, comprehensive, quality, accessible and affordable services for survivors
  • Support women’s rights organizations, activists and movements, including those working to address gender-based violence against women and girls in all their diversity

Generation Equality also includes a Compact on Women, Peace and Security and Humanitarian Action. This calls for the acceleration of full, equal and meaningful participation of women in security institutions, among other key leadership, protection, and financing goals. While progress has been achieved, particularly in civilian leadership where women now comprise 41 per cent, a UN Women analysis estimates that at current rates it will take 30 years to reach gender parity for military troops in the UN. I invite Member States, regional bodies, civil society organizations and networks, young women peacebuilders, and those working in humanitarian and crisis settings and the private sector to join the Global Compact. I invite them to support the sustainable deployment and meaningful participation of uniformed women peacekeepers, so that security institutions become representative, responsive and accountable to all.

We need bold, transformative action

There is hope if we change course. But hope is not a strategy. At a critical moment in this Decade of Action, these and the other elements of the plan will help us rethink, renew and revolutionize how we organize our societies and economies.

Progress will also depend on generating much-needed financial resources, especially for developing countries. There have been significant calls to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to issue special drawing rights. These will provide emergency funds for developing countries to pay off unsustainable debt, fund vaccines or invest in social protection for their people. Meanwhile, a new global minimum tax rate proposed by the UN would help to stem the tide of tax evasion and avoidance. It would ensure that everyone makes a fair contribution to the kind of world we want for the next generation.

Crises of the magnitude we face today call for big, bold ideas and extraordinary levels of global solidarity and cooperation to implement them. The Generation Equality Action Coalitions bring together the broad range of actors needed to drive progress forward. Together, we must aim towards a more sustainable and just future, in order to ensure prosperity for all and realize the 2030 Agenda.