While men are more likely to die from COVID-19, women are facing the full blow of the socio-economic fallout from the ongoing pandemic as well as seeing a reversal in equality gains made over the last two decades, says an all-women panel of international thought leaders, who met virtually during a discussion convened by IPS.
“The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Women and Girls” took place on Tuesday, Jul. 14, with the aim to bring to the fore the dangers of neglecting gender dimensions in COVID-19 response and recovery plans.
The panel included gender and development experts with a wide range of expertise:
Catherine Bertini, a distinguished fellow of global food and agriculture at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, professor emeritus at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University and former executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP);
Yasmine Sherif, the director of Education Cannot Wait (ECW) – a global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crisis established by the World Humanitarian Summit. Sherif, a lawyer specialising in in International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law, has 30 years of experience with the U.N. and international NGOs;
Saima Wazed Hossain, advisor to the director-general of World Health Organisation on mental health and autism, the chairperson of the Bangladesh National Advisory Committee for Autism and Neurodevelopment Disorders as well as the chairperson for the Shuchona Foundation;
Josefina Stubbs, senior manager multilateral relations in Enel Green Power, Italy and former assistant secretary-general and vice president strategy and knowledge at U.N. International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD); and
Susan Papp, the managing director of policy and advocacy at Women Deliver and an award-winning advocate and policy expert.
Women eat last
“In COVID-19, the disproportionate impact to women and girls is magnified many times over because of their roles as caregivers, as mothers, as cooks. And ultimately as the people who are holding families together,” Bertini said during the discussion.
She noted that in 1995 she had given a speech titled “Women eat last”, saying that she was told by WFP deputy executive director Amir Abudalla that a recent report on the Rohingya and food assistance had the same conclusion; “Women eat last.”
“What have we been doing for 25 years if this is still a tagline for what is happening in the world, especially for women in crisis?” she asked.
The State of Food Security And Nutrition in the World 2020 report jointly launched by United Nations agencies this week stated at least 83 million to 132 million more people may go hungry this year because of COVID-19.
Increased gender-based violence and income inequality
Papp, from Women Deliver, said the pandemic was compounding inequalities across the board.
“It is revealing fractures in our systems that are becoming too big to ignore,” Papp told IPS after the webinar.
“The pandemic is showing us how women are facing heightened levels of gender-based violence (GBV). It is also showing us how insufficient our social protection systems are with respect to sick leave, parental leave, child care, health care, and unemployment subsides,” Papp said.
Sherif, of Education Cannot Wait, said that the closure of schools and other educational settings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has deprived young girls of a protective environment.
“The risks of all forms of violence that girls and young women face outside of emergencies are multiplied in humanitarian contexts. The COVID-19 pandemic is rapidly becoming a protection crisis with surging levels of violence against women and girls, including child marriages,” Sherif told IPS before the webinar.
“Social isolation measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 have increased the risk of intimate partner violence and other forms of GBV as girls and young women are confined with abusers,” she added.
During the panel discussion, Stubbs said that not only will COVID-19 roll back progress made for women and girls in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) over the last two decades in areas such as health, education, employment, micro-, small and medium enterprises, social protection and social cohesion, but that it will be harder to regain those losses.
“But we are seeing in the case of Latin America is that indeed the pandemic is exacerbating [the existing] economic inequality. It has made care work at home much more burdensome for women, 45 percent who live as single-headed households, and of course the issue of gender violence,” she said, explaining that more than 35 percent of Latin Americans live in and under poverty.
As women experience a greater caregiving burden compared to men, they are at even greater risk of getting infected with the contagious disease. Further, women now have to contend with additional responsibilities of being homemakers and teachers, and the pressure could impact negatively on their mental health.
Sherif decried the impact of COVID-19 on education as the most vulnerable, poor children are less likely to return to school after a crisis. She said that many girls, especially adolescents, may never return to school.
A Kenya government health survey has revealed that an estimated 4,000 school-going adolescents have fallen pregnant during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Access to sexual and reproductive health has been significantly curtailed by the pandemic, with experts calling for a prioritisation of maternal and child health for women in crisis.
Papp said that as stresses to health and economic systems were compounded due to COVID-19 response and recovery, sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) cannot take a back seat and that conservative voices should not be allowed to diminish women’s rights.
Women now have to contend with additional responsibilities of being homemakers and teachers. In the absence of gender sensitive, gender responsive measures to the ongoing global crisis women and girls will emerge from the pandemic even further behind than they were pre-COVID-19. Credit: Miriam Gathigah/IPS
Education is key
But in looking for solutions, Sherif said education should never be under-prioritised in a crisis and financial contributions were needed to provide for continuing education.
“And when you look at countries affected by conflict and crisis, with half of the population being women, the only way to arise out of that crisis once and for all, and the only way, if you really want to empower women or any human being, is a good education,” she told panelists, making note that it needed to be quality education that went beyond primary school.
“That is the only way to liberate a woman from the yoke of oppression,” Sherif said.
Hashtags to curb GBV
Stubbs said that even though GBV is exacerbated during a crisis, a number of civil society organisations in Latin America were working very hard and using innovative models to protect women during the lockdowns. Hashtags have also had an impact.
“The use of technology has been absolutely essential. There is wide connectivity around Latin America and some hashtags in Mexico, Ecuador, Argentina and Colombia have made an enormous difference. Because women cannot go out, or because their cases cannot be followed, because the judiciary system is closed, … but social media has played a very important role,” she explained to panelists and viewers.
Referring to the phrase, ‘Building Back Better,’ Stubbs said this needed to include women, “making sure that women where not left even further behind than where we were before the crisis hit”.
“Bringing women into the economic reconstruction of their countries in a model that is more inclusive is going to be absolutely essential for sustainable development,” she said, adding that women’s small and medium enterprises needed to get more access to credit, technical assistance, than they had previously and that the working rights of women in the informal industry needed to be respected.
The former IFAD assistant secretary-general also said that women will play a fundamental role in producing food that is distributed in countries.
“Yet, women again do no have enough access to land, they do not have access to technological packages, the do not have access to credit. In the new “Building Back Better” we need to make sure that some have access to those [instruments], because their contribution to food security at home, and for the whole country will be absolutely fundamental,” she said.
Policies and practices for protection
Wazed Hossain, who is also the daughter of Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, told IPS that women’s contribution to the economy cannot be under-estimated and that their protection during this crisis must be a priority.
She made reference to the ready-made garments industry in Bangladesh and emphasised that women’s participation pushed the country to become a leading producer in the world.
“To reduce their vulnerabilities, there needs to be policies and practices in place that help to protect their physical, financial, and mental well-being. As with many other sectors, COVID-19 has highlighted the shortcomings in our policies and practices, but it is also an opportunity to look at the measures that need to be in place to ensure the various rights and protections workers deserve,” she told IPS before the webinar.
Wazed Hossain explained to viewers and panelists that Bangladesh had seen a truly significant impact in keeping women at the centre of the country’s economic and social activities.
“In the last two decades the system that has been in place, the priorities that has been given to girls’ education, girls’ healthcare, all of that has come in tremendous use during this crisis,” she explained.
She said when it came to health care, community-based health centres were kept active during the lockdown.
“That was one of the first decisions. Again, it is a woman making that decision,” she said referring to the prime minister. Other priorities for the country during the lockdown also included, “food security for the women, food security for the children, ensuring that relief funds went directly to women”.
Schools also play a role in the emergency food response. When asked how to apply a gender lens to this, Bertini said that in the context of ‘Building Back Better’ for women, responses needed to be more inclusive and more women were needed in leadership, “If schools aren’t back in place, one of the things we have to absolutely be sure we do, is feed children…one thing the community can do is be sure there is an opportunity to feed children.”
She said when schools reopened, the existence of feeding schemes could bring girls back to school.
Experts have further emphasised that a gender lens will guarantee that the needs and realities of everyone confronted by the virus are reflected in established responses.
Sherif cautioned, “Without a gender lens, 50 percent of the world population affected by the pandemic could be left behind.”
In opening the webinar, IPS senior vice president Farhana Haque Rahman acknowledged the “enormous wealth of experience and knowledge” of panel participants, stating that viewers wanted to hear about “concrete actions that will accelerate positive change for women and children”.