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Women most affected by COVID-19, should participate in recovery efforts

22 July 2020

Masked women and a baby


Quarantines, school closures and other movement restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19 have contributed to the sharp increase of gender-based violence in particular domestic and intimate partner violence, experts said at the Human Rights Council.

This is due, they added, to increased levels of tension in unavoidable closer coexistence, economic stress and the disruption of social and protective networks.

Further, overloaded health systems, reallocation of resources, shortages of medical supplies and disruptions of global supply chains have undermined the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls, including their access to maternal care, contraception and treatments for HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections.

More inequality means greater risk for women and girls

“Women and girls are at higher risk, not due to any inherent vulnerability, but rather due to pre-existing discrimination and inequality. Many have referred to this as a pandemic within the pandemic,” said Peggy Hicks, Director of the Thematic Engagement, Special Procedures and Right to Development Division at UN Human Rights, citing projections from the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) that predict that if the restrictive measures last six months, there will be 31 million more cases of gender-based violence globally.

“Fortunately, we already have effective strategies to build back better while advancing gender equality,” she added. “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.”

Women have been at the frontline of responding to the COVID-19 crisis. Globally, they comprise 70 percent of health workers. They have also been playing key roles in essential services, such as in the food production and supply chain, cleaning and laundry, and care work.

Yet, many women have been working in low-wage conditions, irregular employment and in the informal sector where they have no or limited access to social protection. Women are also over-represented in industries that have been among the hardest hit by the response to COVID-19: hospitality, manufacturing, retail and recreation businesses.

Further, pre-existing gender inequality, such as gender pay gap and gross imbalances in the gender distribution of unpaid care and domestic work, is likely to lead women giving up participating in labour market during the pandemic and beyond.

Inclusivity to “build back better”

Arancha González Laya, Minister for Foreign Affairs, European Union and Cooperation of Spain said that one of her country’s objectives since the beginning of the pandemic has been to guarantee a sustainable and transformative recovery that puts human rights at the centre of “building back better” plans and policies.

“The economic response and recovery policies after the pandemic must specifically address the impact on women,” she said. “The recognition of unpaid care work, the reduction of the pay gap, and fiscal and social protection policies should result in the real economic empowerment of women and avoid further feminization of poverty.”

The experts also pointed out that grassroots women organizations and women human rights defenders have been at the forefront of monitoring the impact of COVID-19 on women and girls.

One such defender was panellists Editar Adhiambo Ochieng, the Founder of the Feminist for Peace Rights and Justice Centre. The women’s rights activist from the Kibera informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya, said that while the pandemic has hit the whole world, it also has had ripple effects for women and girls in informal settlements, including daily cases of young girl and teenage girls being raped or defiled by their relatives and neighbors.

“We helped create safe spaces for women, as most of the women in Kibera are domestic workers and some of them have lost their jobs. Just staying home has been difficult because they have experienced increasing levels of domestic violence and, as breadwinners, they are now unable to provide for their families,” she said.

The Centre has been talking to women and girls about sexual and gender-based violence and reproductive health; and has been providing contraceptives to women.

Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of the UNFPA, pointed out that gender inequality permeates the health system and women’s specific needs, including on the COVID frontlines, are not being sufficiently provided for. She also urged States to “vigorously uphold women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights during COVID-19.”

“COVID-19 affects everyone, but not everyone equally. UNFPA projects the pandemic could result in millions more cases of gender-based violence and with disruption in family planning, millions more unintended pregnancies,” Kanem said.

Because of the pandemic, overloaded health systems, reallocation of resources, shortages of medical supplies and disruptions of global supply chains have undermined the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls, including their access to maternal care, contraception and treatments for HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections. Further, girls face heightened risks of exposure to harmful practices, such as child marriage, because of the disruption in support systems for children.

“Already we see setbacks in efforts aimed at preventing child marriage and female genital mutilation, as girls are no longer in school and therefore more vulnerable to be married off or mutilated, against their will. We do not have to let this happen,” Kanem said.

Rebalancing structural power

The COVID-19 crisis has impacted women in a multitude of ways, according to Jayati Ghosh, Professor of Economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. It has affected women as paid workers and unpaid workers within homes and communities; women nationals and migrants women; and for women in developing countries, it has also affected their access to food and access to healthcare, including reproductive health.

She added that the pandemic has “reinforced relational inequalities and the power structures that enable patriarchal oppression within households and communities.”

“In most countries, women workers have been more likely to lose their jobs or face reductions in incomes than men during the period of lockdown. More women also dropped out of the labour force because of childcare and other domestic responsibilities as schools were shut,” Ghosh said.

“This decline in women’s paid employment is likely to have a longer-term impact, because job losses in a recession typically lead to lower wages and less secure employment in future.”

Ghosh called for a “Global New Deal” that would focus on care economy and on addressing and reducing inequalities.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, said that although women leaders had been lauded for their responses to the pandemic, around the world, women continued to face barriers to political leadership.

“They have “flattened the curve” and set new standards of leadership with transparency, public engagement and science-based decision making. They acknowledged fears and took difficult decisions. They are now crisis response role models, who will inspire generations of women to come,” she said.

Mlambo-Ngcuka further stressed how important women’s leadership in the COVID-19 response was, given how the pandemic has deepened gender inequality. “Women’s involvement is crucial in all stages of legislative, policy and budgetary decision-making processes. This may require temporary special measures, such as those frequently recommended by the [Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women] and in the Beijing Platform for Action,” she said.

“A handful of women heads of state and government are showing the world how to find sustainable solutions to the pandemic. We must follow their example and ensure that more women can join them as leaders and role models, during and beyond the pandemic,” Mlambo-Ngcuka added.

22 July 2020