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Where are the women? The Conspicuous Absence of Women in COVID-19 Response Teams and Plans, and Why We Need Them [EN/PT]

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The COVID-19 global crisis is disproportionately affecting women and girls. As the majority of frontline workers, women are highly exposed to the disease. Lockdowns implemented to curb the spread of the virus have also increased instances of gender-based violence (GBV), particularly domestic and intimate partner violence, curbed access to essential sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services, and seriously affected women’s livelihoods and economic opportunities.

This makes it all the more important that women’s voices are equally included in the decision-making spaces and processes where responses are formed. Women’s participation is necessary at every level and in every arena, from national crisis committees to the local communities on the frontlines of humanitarian responses. Without women’s equal leadership and participation, COVID-19 responses will be less effective at meeting the needs of women and girls, and this will have short- and long-term consequences for entire communities.

The gendered nature of the crisis has gained unprecedented media attention in some parts of the world, and new research has demonstrated that women leaders have been more successful than their male counterparts at reducing COVID-19 transmission in their countries. These discussions are welcome, but must be extended to consider women’s leadership at levels beyond head of state, and whether COVID19 responses are meeting the needs of women and girls.

Through a survey of 30 countries and based on CARE’s experience and evidence base, this report provides an initial analysis of:

  • The extent to which women and men have equal voice in national COVID-19 decision-making bodies;
  • Whether national-level responses are addressing the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women and girls through funding or policy commitments for GBV, SRH services, or womenspecific economic assistance;
  • Whether countries with higher levels of women’s political leadership have been more likely to respond in ways that account for gender differences;
  • Whether female frontline humanitarian responders, including women’s rights and women-led organizations, are being supported to lead the response in their communities.

CARE found that:

  • The majority of national-level committees established to respond to COVID-19 do not have equal female-male representation. Of the countries surveyed who had established such committees, 74% had fewer than one-third female membership, and only one committee was fully equal. On average, women made up 24% of the committees;
  • In seven countries—nearly 25% of the sample—CARE could not find evidence that the government had made funding or policy commitments for GBV, SRH services, or womenspecific economic assistance;
  • 54% of countries have taken no action on GBV that CARE could find, and 33% do not appear to have addressed SRH in their response, despite clear evidence of the impact of the crisis on these issues;
  • 76% of the countries surveyed have made at least one policy commitment that supports women, but one policy cannot account for the tremendous implications of the pandemic on gender equality;
  • Countries that have more women in leadership, as measured by the Council on Foreign Relations Women’s Power Index, are more likely to deliver COVID-19 responses that consider the effects of the crisis on women and girls. On average, the higher the country’s score on the index, the more likely it was to craft a gendered response;
  • Governments with lower levels of women’s leadership are at risk of creating COVID-19 response plans that do not consider the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women and girls, and of failing to implement policies that support them. In many contexts, a lack of genderbalanced leadership could worsen the effects of the crisis for women and girls and their families and communities. There is also a risk that gender equality gains could be lost during the COVID-19 crisis;
  • Local women’s rights and women-led organizations and leaders are not being included in decision making around the humanitarian response, or receiving their fair share of funding.

Despite substantial barriers, women do lead—as activists, individuals, leaders, volunteers, and members of women-led groups and networks. Around the world, women are already responding to crises caused by conflict and climate change, and CARE’s experience and evidence base show that when they are able to participate equally, humanitarian responses are more effective and inclusive.

However, initial findings suggest that the COVID-19 humanitarian response is neither localized nor woman-led. Although Grand Bargain signatories committed to ensuring that 25% of humanitarian funding reaches local and national actors as directly as possible, less than 0.1% of COVID-19 funding currently tracked has done so. CARE’s Rapid Gender Analyses have demonstrated that women are consistently left out of response decision making at the local and community levels, and that the crisis is only raising barriers to their participation. This endangers response efficacy and prevents women from influencing and making the decisions that most affect them. Women’s leadership is needed to ensure that responses do not have significant gaps that put the lives, livelihoods, and the well-being of half—if not more—of those affected by the crisis at risk.

To address the lack of women in COVID-19 leadership positions and response plans, CARE advocates for urgent action in two key areas:

  1. Increase women’s leadership at all levels of COVID-19 response structures;
  2. Increase funding for women’s rights and women-led organizations that are responding to the crisis.

Specifically, CARE recommends that urgent action is taken to address the following:

National Governments Should:

  • Promote women’s meaningful participation in decision making, from the local to the national level, by applying a gender equality quota to COVID-19-related decision-making bodies and processes, and furthering women’s active and meaningful participation in these;
  • Work with diverse local women-led and women’s rights organizations, movements, and leaders to identify the barriers to women’s participation and leadership in decision-making structures, and determine actions to address and dismantle those barriers;
  • Create gender-balanced COVID-19 response mechanisms at all levels and support women’s participation by accounting for gender-specific barriers to decision-making spaces.

International Donors and UN Agencies Should:

  • Actively champion women’s leadership in COVID-19 responses in humanitarian settings. For example, ensure that local women’s rights and women-led organizations have meaningful representation in relevant COVID-19 response coordination bodies;
  • Recognize that women are on the frontlines of health and humanitarian action and support their leadership. This includes making available fast, flexible funds to partners such as local women’s rights organizations, women-led organizations, and female first responders;
  • Urgently work to meet the Grand Bargain commitment to channel 25% of humanitarian funding directly to local and national actors, prioritizing women-led and women’s rights organizations, including in the UN COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response appeal.

International NGOs Should:

  • Work with diverse women’s rights and women-led organizations, movements and leaders to identify the barriers and possible solutions to their participation and leadership in decisionmaking structures;
  • Support, with collective advocacy and funding, women’s groups and civil society leaders and their organizations who are calling for their national governments to implement more genderequitable, effective responses to COVID-19;
  • Increase partnerships with women’s rights and women-led organizations, in the spirit of advancing UN Sustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality and women’s and girls’ empowerment and meeting Grand Bargain and Charter for Change commitments.