COVID-19 is far more than a public health crisis. It’s time we start treating it that way.
Predicted: The COVID-19 pandemic would cause global economic turmoil.
Predictable: The COVID-19 pandemic would upend decades of progress in gender equality.
It is well-documented that large-scale crises nearly always exacerbate existing gender inequities in social, political, and economic systems. The uncertainty they cause serves to deepen structural inequalities, stymieing efforts by women to build better lives for themselves and their families.
While governments everywhere from Laos to Lesotho have scrambled to get emergency economic assistance to their citizens, little has been done to address the pandemic’s oversized and disastrous impact on women and girls.
A Woman’s Face
“Day by day, in this yearlong battle against the pandemic, we have seen how women are impacted twice: first by the virus, and then by its devastating secondary effects … as victims of structural vulnerabilities, and violence, and abuse.”
In a joint statement from the United Nations, all 49 women ambassadors called on governments and global institutions to recognize the “shadow pandemic” affecting millions of women and girls. Women have been hit hardest by the socio-economic fallout from the pandemic, they argued, from shouldering the added, unpaid burdens of childcare and eldercare, to suffering most of its job losses.
“The COVID-19 crisis,” they assert, “has a woman’s face.”
Inequity and its Ripple Effects
It is no secret that women, on the whole, earn less than men, and too often for equal work — a persistent reality in both wealthy and poor countries alike. The pandemic has exploited the ripple effects of this reality, which extend well beyond the weekly grocery bill.
Earning less money means women have less in reserve for a rainy day after the groceries have been bought. With fewer savings, women are less prepared to manage extended crises like COVID-19.
Meanwhile, pandemic-related school closures — which have affected more than one billion children — have forced millions of women to cut back their work hours or quit jobs altogether to care for children at home, decisions that exact a heavy cost — beyond the near-term loss of income.
Studies show that women who leave the workforce, even for a short time, experience greater career stagnation, miss out on professional opportunities, and are more likely to be overlooked for advancement.
In low- and middle-income countries, 92 percent of working women are employed in the informal as home-based workers, unpaid employees in family businesses, and street vendors. These jobs provide little to no security and expose women to greater levels of exploitation and abuse. They were also among the hardest hit by COVID-19-related job losses.
This is not just a problem for women in developing countries, either. One in four women in the European Union have “precarious” employment — part-time, temporary, on-call, and home-based work that is insecure, unprotected, and too often too poorly paid to adequately support a household.
Pulling the Never-Ending Second Shift
Every day, all over the world, women and girls perform countless hours of unpaid work, shouldering the heaviest burden of cooking, cleaning, and caring for family members. By the age of 10, girls spend 50% more time helping in the house than boys. By adulthood, women spend nearly 3 times as many hours per day as men on this unpaid work.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused women’s unpaid work to increase, as family members quarantine at home, unable to work or attend school. More mouths to feed, more clothes to wash, more children to tend to, only increases women’s unpaid workload.
The second shift never ends.
When Staying Home Is Not Safe
“Home Is Where the Heart Is,” reads the folksy adage found on doormats and decorative pillows. Yet for millions of women and girls, home is one of the least safe places to be.
Domestic violence is a pandemic in its own right. About 30 percent of women worldwide — one out of every three — report suffering physical and/or sexual violence at the hands of an intimate partner, according to the World Health Organization. The pandemic has made this worse, by forcing millions of women and girls into lockdown with their abusers.
“Mounting data suggests that domestic abuse is acting like an opportunistic infection,” wrote Amanda Taub for the New York Times, “flourishing in the conditions created by the pandemic.”
From Learning Parity to Learning Poverty
Tremendous progress has been made in girls’ education over the last 30 years, so much so that a “reverse gap” has emerged in many countries, according to the World Bank, where girls now outperform boys in enrollment rates and learning outcomes.
This achievement is a win-win for everyone. When girls receive an education, national GDP rates rise, maternal and infant mortality rates fall, and child marriage rates decline, according to UNICEF. “When you invest in girls and women, they rise and they lift their families, their communities, their economies, and countries along with them,” says U2 front man and human rights activist Bono. “They rise–and they lead.”
Before the pandemic, girls were staying in school longer than ever before. But experts now fear that a “COVID slide” could slow or reverse this progress. The COVID-19 crisis has put many of these gains on life support.
The Data Drought
At the heart of good governance is data-driven decision-making. Policymakers rely on timely, accurate data to help them evaluate societal problems and make informed decisions about the allocation of finite resources. Quality, disaggregated data that includes details about age, gender, ethnicity, and more are essential to good policymaking.
Unfortunately, very few countries are disaggregating their COVID-19 data. This lack of data on the gendered effects of the pandemic leaves many policymakers flying blind when it comes to understanding and addressing the unique needs of women and girls.
Building Back Stronger
There is one data set, however, which cannot be ignored. Countries led by women are managing COVID-19 and its impacts with greater success. The cause is two-fold: Women leaders responded more quickly at the start of the pandemic and did so from a more resilient foundation — built upon social welfare and environmental protection initiatives put in place prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, too few women currently hold such positions.
Getting There from Here
COVID-19 has infected almost 154 million people and killed over 3.2 million. Yet, as harmful as this pandemic has been, a future one could be even worse.
“To build back better and stronger,” wrote the UN ambassadors, “women must be the architects, as well as the recipients, of response efforts.” If governments hope to build more resilient societies, gender must be integrated into COVID-19 recovery plans to ensure they are truly “inclusive and transformative,” according to the ambassadors.
This means creating social protection programs that are gender-responsive and account for the unique needs of women and girls.
This means ending impunity for domestic and sexual violence and making justice accessible to all women.
This means promoting access to decent work opportunities and creating alternatives for women currently forced to choose between family and career.
This means getting girls back into school following the pandemic and ensuring their access to quality educational opportunities.
“It’s time to fight for an inclusive, equal, global recovery,” they pleaded. “We’ve lost enough to COVID already.”
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