From insights to action: Gender equality in the wake of COVID-19

Originally published



A once-in-a-century pandemic

COVID-19 continues its rampage, with more than 25 million confirmed cases globally and more than 846,000 deaths as of August 2020. Measures to slow its spread are keeping people home and halting vital daily activities. More than 1 billion children and youth are out of school, resulting in learning deficits for students, particularly those from poor households. Around 94 per cent of the world’s workers live in countries with some type of work closures.

With the global economy expected to contract by 5 per cent in 2020 and without measures to shield the most vulnerable, the number of people living in extreme poverty will increase by 96 million in 2021. The virus is continuing its dangerous upward trend globally, and the worst may yet be to come, unless urgent action is taken to understand and address its widespread impact.

The pandemic has widened gender and economic inequalities

The impacts of crises are never gender neutral, and COVID-19 is no exception. While men reportedly have a higher fatality rate, women and girls are especially hurt by the resulting economic and social fallout. Impacts on women and girls have worsened across the board. Women are losing their livelihoods faster because they are more exposed to hard-hit economic sectors. According to a new analysis commissioned by UN Women and UNDP, by 2021 around 435 million women and girls will be living on less than $1.90 a day — including 47 million pushed into poverty as a result of COVID-19.

The impacts are not just economic. The shift of funds to pandemic response is hampering women’s access to sexual and reproductive health. Violence against women reports have increased around the world, as widespread stay-at-home orders force women to shelter in place with their abusers, often with tragic consequences. More people at home also means that the burden of unpaid care and domestic work has increased for women and girls, literally driving some to the breaking point. Women and girls in communities already reeling from institutionalized poverty, racism and other forms of discrimination are particularly at risk: They face higher rates of COVID-19 transmission and fatalities and are most exposed to the secondary impacts, including loss of earnings and livelihood.

More data are needed to understand the full impact of COVID-19

As the COVID-19 pandemic lays bare gender and other enduring fault lines of inequality, the limited availability of data is leaving many questions unanswered. The disaggregation of data on cases, fatalities and economic and social impact by sex, age and other key characteristics – such as ethnicity and race, migratory status, disability and wealth – is vital to understanding the pandemic’s differential impacts. Most countries, however, are not regularly releasing data disaggregated by multiple dimensions, or on the differential effects of ongoing responses. It is critical that governments start collecting and promoting open access to timely and quality disaggregated data.

Without gender-responsive policies, the crisis risks derailing hard-won gains

COVID-19 is exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems. It is forcing a shift in priorities and funding across public and private sectors, with far-reaching effects on the well-being of women and girls. Action must be taken now to stop this backsliding. Women must be the architects as well as the beneficiaries of efforts to build back stronger and better in response to these highly visible fault lines. In countries with women at the helm, confirmed deaths from COVID-19 are six times lower, partly due to these leaders’ faster response to the pandemic and greater emphasis on social and environmental well-being over time.

Too few women, however, are managing response and recovery efforts. Social and economic policies and programmes to confront the fallout of this crisis must be inclusive and transformative, addressing women’s leadership and labour, both outside and within the home. Placing women and girls at the centre of preparedness, response and recovery could finally bring the genuine change that women’s rights groups have long advocated for.