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Impact of COVID-19 on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in East and Southern Africa

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New report sounds the alarm on the impact of COVID-19 on gender equality in East and Southern Africa

The pandemic has had far-reaching effects, particularly for women and girls, and will delay the realization of most gender-related SDG targets

A new UN study shows that the COVID-19 pandemic has had far-reaching and diverse effects on women and girls in East and Southern Africa, and will set back global efforts to achieve most gender-related SDG targets, especially those relating to SDG 3 and SDG 5.

These findings are in a report entitled Impact of COVID-19 on Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment in East and Southern Africa. Launched on 10 March, the report analyzes data from gender assessments undertaken between September and December 2020, on dimensions ranging from livelihoods and education to health and gender-based violence.

Commissioned by UN Women through its global gender data programme Women Count, in partnership with UNFPA, the 28-country study reveals the opportunities and constraints for gender equality in post-COVID-19 recovery. The report makes concrete recommendations for advancing gender equality and influencing policies and programmes in the COVID-19 and post-pandemic eras.

According to the study, more than 60 per cent of women and men in Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, and South Africa experienced a complete loss or decline in personal incomes due to the pandemic, deepening already high poverty rates in many countries and entrenching the gender disparity of women being more likely than men to live in extreme poverty.

“Even though there are differential socio-economic impacts on women and men during the pandemic, with men in some cases being more affected than women, the emerging evidence suggests that the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities between women and men in the different socio-economic groups,” said UN Women East and Southern Africa Officer in Charge Ms. Roberta Clarke.

The reductions in income have also deepened food insecurity; in Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Africa, nearly one in five people reported not having food for a day or more.

Education did not fare much better, as 124 million learners across the region were affected by school closures during lockdown. Ethiopia had 25 million learners affected - the largest number, followed by South Africa with 15 million, and Kenya and the United Republic of Tanzania with 14 million learners affected each. For Uganda, Kenya, Eswatini, and Mozambique, full re-opening for all grades only took place in early 2021.

Health and health-seeking behavior came into the spotlight, with women more likely to be ill and less likely to have medical insurance than men in all countries except Malawi, where the reverse was true.

Child healthcare services, maternal care for pregnant women, services relating to chronic illnesses, and sexual and reproductive health care, including family planning and HIV prevention services, were negatively affected by the pandemic. In Kenya, nearly 60 per cent of women and more than 50 per cent of men could not access health-care services for their children. In South Africa and Mozambique, less than 20 per cent of women accessed family planning and other reproductive health services during the pandemic, with some staying away out of fear of contracting the virus. Maternal and child health is one of the areas most likely to regress.

An additional hardship for women and girls has been limited or no access to menstrual health and hygiene. The pandemic also has a mental health and psychosocial dimension, with more than 60 per cent of women in Ethiopia and Kenya reporting mental and emotional stress.

There are just nine years left to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes SDG target 3.7, on universal access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services – including family planning, information and education – and the integration of reproductive health into national strategies and programmes.

“The pandemic has a strong gender dimension, with women at the frontline as health and care responders, at the same time experiencing the knock-on impact on a number of fronts, including their sexual and reproductive health. We have seen communities that have resorted to negative coping mechanisms such as child, early and forced marriages. We have also seen escalating levels of domestic violence and abuse. The consequences being a denial of women and young girls’ health, rights and socio-economic prospects. By denying their prospects and potential, you deny society the opportunity to prosper,” said Dr. Julitta Onabanjo, Regional Director of UNFPA in East and Southern Africa.

Many countries indicated a marked increase in the incidence of gender-based violence since the onset of the pandemic. Early data from UNFPA on the impact of COVID-19 shows a drastic 775 per cent increase in calls to the national hotline in Kenya during the pandemic.

The pandemic offers us an opportunity to build forward differently and, most importantly, better. We must collectively ensure that women have a seat at the table to design COVID-19 recovery efforts and interventions, while ensuring that women's and girls’ needs and demands are at the centre of these efforts.