Women & COVID: Crisis or Opportunity?

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has spread around the world with over 5 million cases reported to date. However, with a large segment of the world’s population affected, women are being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic yet continue to be excluded from critical decision-making forums. This article will highlight the roles women are playing in response to the pandemic, how we’re uniquely impacted by the crisis, and what we as women professionals can do to improve our condition in the wake of the pandemic.

“I feel like an octopus with eight tentacles because I am the centre person in my family — they trust me”

Despite women being active at the frontlines, there is a lack of representation of female leadership in the COVID response globally. For example, just five women are on the WHO’s twenty-one-member COVID response board. According to Anika Kstic, Country Director for Plan International in Sudan, “it’s completely devastating that we do not have women making decisions in the COVID response.” The immediate impact of this exclusion is impacting work on the frontlines of the COVID response. Ann Lee, CEO of CORE, an NGO operating COVID testing facilities across the US, noted that women are effective in the collaboration necessary towards a successful response, noting that leadership ‘[does not] have to be harsh, [rather] you need to make people want to do the things you want them to do.”

“It was only a matter of time before domestic violence cases shot up, everybody’s focus is on treating COVID-19 patients, and basic services for women are sidelined”

In addition to disproportionate job losses, women also face heightened dangers in the home. The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a statement addressing the issue of the rise in domestic violence cases citing that, “…cases of domestic violence have surged and doubled”, with economic and social pressures contributing to the spike in domestic violence. Domestic violence cases shot up by 36% in France and tripled in China in the month of February alone. As Ms. Krstic notes, “it was only a matter of time before domestic violence cases shot up, everybody’s focus is on treating COVID-19 patients, and basic services for women are sidelined”.

The Way Forward
Given the challenges women face vis-a-vis safety in the workplace and home, and their economic fragility in the wake of the pandemic’s attendant socio-economic impacts, immediate improvements are needed. The Humanitarian Women’s Network (HWN) compiled best practices ongoing in the field to propose four concrete ways for humanitarian professionals to alleviate the challenges faced by women and improve the overall COVID response writ large.

  1. Provide Workplace Protection: the World Economic Forum cites this as including adequate equipment, equal and emergency/hazard pay, safe housing options to female frontline workers, and access to services that reflect their needs as individuals, such as mental health and child care services.
  2. Ensure for Female Leadership: representation matters. The New York Times speaks to the need for more female leadership in order to diversify the views and experiences of women. Women-led response teams increase the likelihood of effective solutions for and by women.
  3. Include Cash Transfers: the World Bank advises the implementation of social protection systems that include providing economic support such as cash transfers to women in the informal sector. The Bank reports that this method reduces the likelihood of violence in households.
  4. Prioritize Gender-Based Violence (GBV) Support: make shelters and counselling available for women responders and beneficiaries; here is a guide on how to support victims and survivors of GBV in more detail.

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