Why do we still need to talk about gender equality in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic?

By Alia El-Yassir, UN Women Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia


With COVID-19 cases rising sharply worldwide, we all feel the fallout. The pandemic has profoundly disrupted all aspects of our lives. Cutting an ever-widening swath of death and illness, it has challenged our societies, overwhelmed health care systems and destabilized our economies, with more repercussions likely to come.

We are all at the mercy of the insidious spread of the virus. But so far, many responses stop short of addressing the specific risks linked to being a woman or girl. This is despite substantial global evidence that gender inequalities make disease outbreaks worse, and that failing to pay attention to this in turn aggravates inequalities.

Three issues pose particular concerns for many women and girls affected by lockdowns.

First, the profound economic disruption from closing borders and businesses hits women particularly hard. A disproportionate share of women’s work is in low-paying and informal jobs, leaving them poorly prepared to cope with lost wages. Further, the closure of schools has increased the burden of unpaid care work at home, which is mostly borne by women and girls. On average globally, women do three times more unpaid care work than men. Where health care systems are stretched and care responsibilities are “downloaded” onto women, they face not only greater workloads but also more pronounced risks of catching the virus from tending to those already ill, including children and the elderly.

Second, women globally constitute 70 per cent of workers in the health and social sectors[1], putting them at higher risk as they battle on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response. In showing up to work day after day, they are far more vulnerable to catching the virus, as demonstrated in Spain, where medical professionals comprise 14 percent of COVID-19 cases[2]. There is increasing concern as countries run out of supplies of essential protective equipment, including masks and gowns. There is also a profound psychological impact as care workers continue to witness death and loss on a daily basis and are being forced sometimes to make unenviable decisions about who gets the needed medical attention and who doesn’t.

Third, self-isolation and quarantine put additional stress and strain on families, increasing the chance of domestic and sexual violence. In China, domestic violence cases surged threefold when millions of people were quarantined. Even once quarantines end, lasting economic fallout can expose women to sexual exploitation, as happened from the 2013-2016 Ebola outbreak.

Given all these issues, we, as UN Women, are taking immediate action. We want to make the gender dimensions of the pandemic visible and integral to all response and recovery efforts. We must make sure that women who are from marginalized and vulnerable segments of society, such as women with disabilities, those who are older, or live in poorer or rural areas, or are refugees, irregular migrants or internally displaced, are not left behind.

Towards that end, we are mobilizing partners across Europe and Central Asia, from governments to grassroots organizations. We are focusing on prevention and response strategies to find and close gender gaps. We’re conducting a series of assessments to identify and generate evidence of how the pandemic affects women and men differently across our region in order to inform targeted response. And where public budgets are shifting to meet expanded healthcare and other needs, we are calling for spending choices to be fully gender-responsive and reflect gender equality priorities. We are also mobilizing companies to contribute to the response and ensure that women, including those from their workforce, stay healthy and safe.

Extending immediate support to women survivors of violence is a top priority for us. UN Women is working closely with partners in countries across the region to provide immediate supplies for shelters and safe houses protecting women survivors of violence. We are ramping up our communications efforts that target women who may be experiencing violence during lock-down and social distancing measures, to raise their awareness of options and ways to call for support. We are working hand-in-hand with civil society activists at the grassroots level to develop resources for addressing gender-based violence and making sure that the most excluded and discriminated against groups of women have access to the help they need.

We are just at the beginning. Much more work lies ahead. Women and girls must fully participate in decisions and responses to the pandemic. They must have information that they can access and understand. We must make sure that referral pathways work for women and girls. Health workers must have access to the protective equipment they need while they are carrying the burden of front-line response. Health systems, even where faced with difficult choices, must sustain services meeting women’s reproductive health needs and rights, including for maternal care and contraception. Unpaid care work and socioeconomic burdens that will hurt women most must be factored into response. 

The virus has already taught us that delayed action is at our own peril. Now is the time to make sure that current challenges do not multiply into much bigger ones down the road. We may be reeling from the pandemic, but we are also coming together to build back strong and resilient societies. This will only happen if all women and girls have equal and adequate protections for their health and well-being and are at the heart of decisions that determine the future we aspire to.

[1] WHO (2019). Gender equity in the health workforce: Analysis of 104 Countries

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/24/world/europe/coronavirus-europe-covid-19.html