Why today’s polycrisis increases the importance of delivering gender equity


By Roshni Menon, Senior Program Officer, Pathfinders (CIC NYU)

(UN Photo)

The world is in a state of ‘polycrisis,’ where multiple economic, social, and political shocks have converged, perpetuating uncertainty and discord around the world. I recently wrote about how the phenomenon of multiple crises happening at the same time is driving and deepening existing inequalities in societies, demanding, in turn, new and innovative policy approaches to global development and solidarity-building. At the same time, some estimates indicate that democracy worldwide has been backsliding for sixteen consecutive years. In the face of these daunting challenges and on International Women’s Day, we need to ask: how have women and women’s rights fared in a quickly changing world, and how have our responses to current crises supported gender dimensions of recovery and resilience to future shocks?

Unfortunately, the verdict is not positive on both fronts. Gender equality concerns are being compromised the world over. Backsliding on women’s rights and threats to previous gender equality policy achievements have been seen in a wide variety of contexts. From a multilateral perspective, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) this past year saw just 22 women speakers representing the 193 member states. Meanwhile, in the UN Security Council (UNSC), efforts to strengthen the women, peace and security (WPS) agenda on the 20th anniversary of the passing of the seminal UNSC resolution 1325 were almost subsumed by attempts to water down language around previous agreements on women’s human rights, the prevention of conflict-related sexual violence, and women’s full, equal, and meaningful participation in all aspects of peace and security. Similarly, a 2022 UN Second Committee Resolution on Women in Development was deemed not acceptable by a minority of member states, with sticking points ranging from gender-responsive climate action and violence against women and girls, to women and girls’ access to health services, in particular universal access to sexual and reproductive health rights.

At the national level, the scenario seems even more bleak: the COVID-19 pandemic — a worldwide health crisis — and associated spikes in violence against women, as well as general backlash against women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights have intensified across countries. In January 2023, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, warned about, “systematic countering of women’s rights and gender equality,” around the world. The situation is made still worse by rising opposition to gender equality amongst far-right political actors, which is connected to growing trends of democratic backsliding around the world.

In fact, all conflicts and crises multiply women’s risk of physical, emotional, and sexual violence. The pandemic was witness to this: risk factors, such as economic stress, were exacerbated by service closures and stay-at-home orders, which increased exposure to potential abusers. And importantly, 90 percent of the world’s 67 million women domestic workers continue to lack access to any form of social protection — a basic requirement for anyone to be protected from the vagaries of continuing and cascading global uncertainty, insecurity, and crises. Additional exogenous shocks, such as extreme climate-related events, are further increasing inequalities and fueling tensions. For example, droughts and desertification are, as with all crises and conflict, directly leading to increased incidences of gender-based violence. In addition to violence against women, a UN Women policy paper found alarming rises in transactional sex for food and survival, sexual exploitation, and the persistence of early, child, and forced marriage due to worsening living conditions associated with conflict and humanitarian crises.

These trends — a backsliding of both women’s rights and democratic ideals, combined with rising levels of inequality that have in turn intensified, reinforced, and amplified the multiple and overlapping crises the world is currently facing — do not bode well for gender dimensions of recovery and resilience to future disasters. More generally, they risk undermining decades of progress on women’s rights, without a sharp change in policies, priorities, and outlook.

So, what are possible ways forward to ensure women’s lives are not disproportionately harmed in an era of crises? Clearly, today’s interlocking and cascading crises demand that inequalities, including gender disparities, be addressed as part and parcel of systemic efforts to tackle all these pressures at the same time. For women, four key policy areas are crucial:

  1. Address the massive lack of social protection for women by ensuring that cash transfers that protect against poverty and inequality are designed to promote women’s opportunities. This includes deliberate efforts to make women equal (and sometimes the default) recipients of cash transfer schemes, instead of the head of households, as well as designing capacity-building and outreach initiatives, including bridging the digital gender divide, that specifically give women the skills, resources, and capabilities necessary to manage their affairs (including their own accounts) both during times of crises and beyond.
  2. Implement increasing levels of formalization of women’s work, as well as higher wages. The gender wage gap is already well known and is often a result of discrimination where men and women do the same job. Additionally, many women tend to work in industries such as care work (i.e., as childcare workers, domestic workers, and as home health aides) — all of which pay below average wages. Women dominated fields are also less likely to have benefits, such as health insurance coverage and retirement plans. This devaluation of women’s labor must end and efforts made to ensure women derive the same benefits for the same jobs as men. Additionally, legislation must redress occupational and industrial segregation, as well as discrimination and other factors that drive down women’s wages and benefits.
  3. Systematically prevent and reduce the risk of violence against women and girls. This entails designing targeted programs that incorporate efforts to change harmful norms and opportunities for community dialogue, as well as constructing physical safe spaces. Economic incentives — i.e., cash plus social protections programs — may also reduce the risk of violence against women. Finally, strong monitoring and evaluation systems must be put in place to cement a zero-tolerance outlook.
  4. Ensure more women are in positions of power and decision-making. As some commentators have argued, gender parity in governance structures on its own is no guarantee that, “structures and cultures that allow power and privilege to advantage men and disadvantage women will automatically change.However, women’s participation and inclusion in policy and decision-making roles is a prerequisite for change and acts as a levee against worsening gender inequality. Persistent gender gaps also limit out-of-the-box thinking and solutions, and defy basic notions of fairness. The alternative would translate to no fundamental change to the status quo, thereby perpetuating inequality, injustice, and conflict.

While the Secretary-General recently warned that, “the increasingly distant goal of gender equality will take another three centuries to achieve,” crisis itself can sometimes be a catalyst to break with the status quo and level up into a better future. Therefore, the international community cannot be remiss in ensuring gender dimensions of crises management, recovery, and resilience are taken into account when tackling the immediate problem of global polycrisis — all while continuing to protect existing women’s rights, and pushing for gender equality and women’s empowerment over the longer-term.