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Speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Annual full-day discussion on the human rights of womenPanel 2: COVID-19 and women’s rights

14 July 2020

44th session of the Human Rights Council
  Opening statement by Peggy Hicks, Thematic Engagement, Special Procedures and Right to Development Division, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

14 July 2020

Excellencies, friends,

For months, the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging our societies, our governments and ourselves. And it continues to gather pace. With uneven impacts.

Women and girls are at higher risk, not due to any inherent vulnerability, but rather due to pre-existing discrimination and inequality.

Indeed, COVID-19 has been a magnifying lens on the many negative impacts of gender inequality.

Like in past health emergencies, the current crisis has been accompanied by a surge in gender-based violence. Many have referred to this as a pandemic within the pandemic.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that, if the restrictive measures last six months, there will be 31 million additional cases of gender-based violence globally.  If the measures continue, there will be an additional 15 million cases every three months.

Due to movement restrictions and the overload on health systems, there is also a risk that sexual and reproductive health services will be reduced and less accessible. Any reduction in availability or access leads to an increase in maternal and newborn mortality, unmet need for contraception, and higher numbers of unsafe abortions and sexually transmitted infections.

With 60% of the world’s student population having been affected by closures, girls have been at a higher risk of disruption of their education, child marriages, unintended pregnancies and gender-based violence.

Women also feel a disproportional impact of the economic crisis, due to lack of access to financial and productive resources, precarious forms of employment and their concentration in informal sector. In developing countries, for instance, 70% of women’s employment is in the informal economy.

On top of that, women are often excluded from decision-making, including by being underrepresented in the majority COVID-19 national response leadership teams.

And truth be told, the pandemic and its responses do not equally affect all women and girls.

Those who face intersecting forms of discrimination are the ones facing the most severe impacts. For example, women and girls living in poverty, or irregular immigration status, have much less means to protect themselves from the infection, as well as from economic shocks.


Fortunately, we already have effective strategies to build back better while advancing gender equality. They are the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Beijing Platform for Action and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

What we need now is to accelerate their implementation in a truly comprehensive manner.

And we need to build on opportunities that the pandemic is bringing about.

  • The disproportionate burden of care-work on women and girls has been made evident, which may accelerate efforts to value this work and to redistribute it.
  • In some countries, responses to gender-based violence have been prioritized and made more easily accessible.
  • Some States are making efforts to expand access to sexual and reproductive health services and goods which will have long-lasting effect on the enjoyment of women and girls’ right to health.
  • There have been calls for feminist recovery plans, striving for universal social protection, including universal health care, and demanding fairer and gender-responsive taxation, instead of continued application of austerity and conditionality.
  • The crisis has also shown the power of women’s leadership – with more effective COVID-19 response in many places where women are in charge.

We must seize this opportunity to transform societies.

And we must stand together.

We will only overcome this historic challenge through solidarity, coordination and multilateralism. Always with the equal participation of women and girls.

We must support the work of feminist movements, grassroots women organizations and women human rights defenders. Many of these groups and individuals have been at the forefront of monitoring the impact of the pandemic on women and girls and of providing essential services, despite extremely limited resources and support.

The Secretary-General has stressed the critical importance of tackling gender equality, including in his recently launched Call to Action on Human Rights and in his policy briefs and guidance on COVID-19, which  reaffirmed the UN`s commitment to promote the realization of women’s human rights during the pandemic and in the recovery phase.

Our Office has produced the guidance on how to protect women’s rights during the crisis and has been supporting Member States, civil society organizations and human rights defenders in their responses to the pandemic.

We stand by to provide further support.

I trust this panel will provide an opportunity for sharing promising practices and strategies to build back better with gender equality and full respect for the rights of all women and girls.

Thank you