16 April 2020

Women and Girls must be at the Heart of COVID-19 Response and Recovery

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a profound impact on health care systems, societies and economies, and women are at the heart of care and response efforts underway. As frontline responders, health professionals representing 70% of the global health workforce, community volunteers, caregivers and more, women are making critical contributions to address the outbreak every day and mitigate its devastating impact. This however also means that women are at risk or exposure to COVID-19, and due to pre-existing systematic inequality, will bear the heaviest brunt of its impact. For example, accompanying the crisis has been a spike in domestic violence reporting, at exactly the same time that services, including rule of law, health and shelters, are being diverted to address the pandemic. 

As the UN Secretary-General has claimed in his appeal for a global ceasefire amid the COVID-19 crisis, including an explicit end to gender-based violence “the most vulnerable — women and children, people with disabilities, the marginalized and the displaced — pay the highest price. They are also at the highest risk of suffering devastating losses from COVID-19”. Every Woman Every Child supports the Secretary-General’s Call to Action to tackle the various health, social and economic dimensions of the COVID-19 crisis. It is, above all, a call to focus on people and those left furthest behind in the response, particularly women and girls. 

 

On 9 April 2020, the UN launched a Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Women’ that shows how COVID-19 could reverse the limited progress that has been made on gender equality and women’s rights – and recommends ways to put women’s leadership and contributions at the heart of resilience and recovery.  This comes at a critical time when this year was intended to mark the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, but instead, with the spread of the pandemic, even the limited gains made in the past decades are at risk of being rolled back. 

The pandemic is exposing vulnerabilities and even failures in health, social, political and economic systems that ought to safeguard women and girls. School closures impacting over half of the world’s student population, the growing burden on local health systems for the delivery of primary care, heightened risk of sexual exploitation and abuse amidst intensifying containment measures and rising economic pressures are all exacerbating gender inequality. 

 

Economically, women are more vulnerable to economic shocks wrought by crises. Nearly 60% of women around the world work in the informal economy, earning less, saving less, and at greater risk of falling into poverty. Women will also bear the heaviest brunt of job losses as the effects of COVID-19 roll through economies. If they exist, social safety nets might be too minimal or exclusionary to help them, especially if they are migrants, refugees or inadequately documented in other ways. No one should be left out in this time of unprecedented crisis.

Although women and girls will be the hardest hit by this pandemic, they will also be the backbone of recovery in communities. All stakeholders, particularly governments driving national responses, must place women and girls – their inclusion, representation, rights, social and economic outcomes, equality and protection – at their centre if they are to have the necessary impacts. 

 

The Policy Brief identifies three cross-cutting priorities, which further reflect the Secretary-General’s recent Call to Action on Human Rights. These include:

  • Ensure women’s equal representation in all COVID-19 response planning and decision-making;
  • Drive transformative change for equality by addressing the care economy, paid and unpaid;
  • Target women and girls in all efforts to address the socio-economic impact of COVID-19.

Shepherding women and girls through this crisis will require multiple sectors to come together to ensure their needs are holistically addressed. It will require collaboration within governments and multilateral cooperation between them, as well as harnessing the power of the private sector to encourage effective public-private partnerships. As the UN Secretary-General’s initiative, Every Woman Every Child is providing a catalytic multi-stakeholder platform to help realize this whole of society approach and is advocating at the highest level to ensure women and girls have a face in the global response.  

 

This particularly includes the continued provision of sexual and reproductive health services, including gender-based violence related services, which are central to health, rights and well-being of women and girls, everywhere. The diversion of attention and critical resources away from these services may result in exacerbated maternal mortality and morbidity, increased rates of adolescent pregnancies, HIV and sexually transmitted diseases. For example, in Latin America and the Caribbean it was estimated that an additional 18 million women will lose regular access to modern contraceptives, given the current context of COVID-19 pandemics. 

The report stresses that every COVID-19 response plan, and every recovery package and budgeting of resources, needs to address the gender impacts of this pandemic. This means including women and women’s organizations at the heart of the COVID-19 response; transforming the inequities of unpaid care work into a new, inclusive care economy that works for everyone; and designing socio-economic plans with an intentional focus on the lives and futures of women and girls. 

Only then, will we be able to build a more just and resilient world to protect the important strides made against the Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health and the Sustainable Development Goals. 

 

Read the Policy brief: The Impact of COVID on Women here.