Author: Eóin O’Keeffe
2020 is a particularly important year for UN Women. It is the 25th anniversary of the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, adopted at the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women to advance the goals of equality, development and peace for all women and widely regarded as a seminal international landmark for women’s empowerment. It is also the 20th anniversary of the Security Council resolution 1325 on Women and Peace and Security which highlights the central role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, and the 10th anniversary of the establishment of UN Women itself.
UN Women wish to celebrate all of these events, to continue to focus on addressing the gaps that have not effectively been closed and to build on the lessons that have been learnt over the last ten years. However, this must now all be done in the challenging context of COVID-19.
Implications of COVID-19
There is a clear gender dimension to COVID-19, as there is with all pandemics. Women disproportionately suffer the long-term socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19 as many women work in lower-paid and informal employment. Ms Mlambo-Ngcuka believes this disproportionate effect also exacerbates the underlying inequalities in societies.
A ‘shadow pandemic’ of violence against women has also emerged as a result of lockdown measures around the world. When households are placed under increased strain that comes from security, health and in particular, money worries, levels of domestic violence can spike. During this pandemic, domestic violence has gone up by as much as 80% in some countries. UN Women has called on governments to declare services which shelter and protect women as essential, so that they are provided at all times throughout this pandemic.
UN Women has also called on all governments to step up their prevention of gender-based violence as the threat of a global recession looms. A global recession, which many have predicted, would see a sustained spike of violence against women. Simultaneously, unemployment and a loss of income for women would make it far more difficult for them to escape abusive situations.
A global recession could see the limited gains made on women’s rights and empowerment reversed. These gains are essential to fulfilling the goals of the Sustainable Development Goals. Any short- and long-term recovery plans must place gender equality and the prevention of gender-based violence at the very centre.
Areas of Concern
- Deepening Inequalities
- Past health crises have shown lasting negative effects on women’s work and economic security. Often, men’s economic activity can return to pre-crisis level at a much faster rate than that of women.
- Insecure employment
- Women are overrepresented in the hardest-hit sectors such as tourism, hospitality, retail, agriculture and the garment industries. Most employed women work in the informal economy with few workers rights and social protection.
- Care Crisis
- Women are at the frontline of healthcare around the world, making up to 70% of the paid global healthcare workforce. Despite this they are underpaid and underrepresented in decision making. Further to this, women are disproportionately forced to care for family members who cannot be looked after in hospitals. According to Ms Mlambo-Ngcuka, women are the shock absorbers of failing healthcare systems around the world.
Ms Mlambo-Ngcuka has called on governments to recognise these issues as long-term concerns that were present before they were exacerbated by COVID-19 and to set minimum standards to prevent further exacerbation.
Response to COVID-19
In order to prevent women and girls falling further behind and to create a strong, gender-focused response to COVID-19, UN Women is calling on governments to adopt the following short-term and long-term measures:
- Economic relief and recovery measures that are developed in consultation with women and their organisations.
- Expanded social protection to cover all working women, including in the informal economy.
- Support for hard-hit sectors that employ a large share of women.
- Support for women-led enterprises, including through gender-responsive procurement.
- Collecting sex-disaggregated data to assess the economic impacts of COVID-19 on women in formal and informal economies and to inform response and recovery plans. UN Women’s Women Count portal is making these data on COVID-19 impacts and responses available as they are produced.
- Invest in gender-responsive social protection and care systems.
- It is essential that governments address women’s socio-economic vulnerabilities to global shocks such as the pandemic. Women’s resilience to future shocks has been consistently weakened due to the lack of universal gender-responsive social protection and care systems.
- Governments must investment in care infrastructure, including affordable, quality childcare and long-term care services for the sick and elderly. These measures are necessary to drive gender-responsive economic recovery efforts and will greatly increase women’s capacity to join the labour market and create jobs.
- Undertake gender-responsive fiscal stimulus measures.
- In order to recover from this pandemic, sizeable fiscal stimulus packages are essential. It is essential that gender concerns are embedded in any stimulus package, prioritising sectors in which women predominantly work, including health, hospitality and tourism. These stimulus packages must also address areas that are of concern for women including employment, social protection and public services.
- Ideally, central banks would influence credit availability to targeted sectors and groups such as women entrepreneurs and farmers.
COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerabilities of the world’s health and economic systems which in turn has exposed the vulnerabilities of women around the world. It has increased violence against women and had a disproportionate effect on their employment status. Any collective response to the pandemic must be gender focused, must build more sustainable economies which reduce inequalities and build resilience to future shocks. Prioritising measures to guarantee women’s basic economic and social rights has never been more urgent.