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Why Women’s Rights Must be Central to the UN Security Council’s Response to COVID-19

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As the international community continues to confront the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, it has become clear that many governments and global health institutions are failing to incorporate a gender analysis into their responses to the virus, including in designing public policy and health solutions. Although early evidence suggests that more men than women are dying from the disease, the gendered implications of COVID-19 go much further.

Less than 1% of evidence on outbreaks such as Ebola or the Zika virus analyzed any of their gender dimensions; yet, available analysis demonstrates that women are both more likely to be infected due to their role as primary caregivers or healthcare workers, and less likely to be able to meet their own needs. It is well known that during times of crisis, the rates of documented cases of sexual and gender-based violence increase, which, combined with restrictions to essential services, compound existing risks for women and girls. The crisis will amplify existing gender, racial, economic and political inequalities and impact those most marginalized, including people with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and expression, and sex characteristics, people with disabilities, the elderly, the poor, and the displaced.

In addition, although specific and proportionate emergency measures may be necessary at certain times to combat the crisis, we are today witnessing an alarming pattern of governments exploiting this public health emergency by imposing restrictions, exercising unlimited executive power, and enacting emergency measures that violate human rights, such as freedom of expression and movement. This also includes curtailing access to essential health services, such as safe abortion and family planning, including in the United States. Any efforts to respond to the pandemic must ensure the protection, respect and fulfillment of all human rights, including the protection of civic space, full participation of civil society and all affected communities, and for human rights defenders to carry out their important work.

What are the consequences for conflict-affected communities?

The global impact of COVID-19 will be amplified for women and girls living in countries mired in conflict. Recent research has found that the countries whose populations face the highest risk of an outbreak have six times lower access to healthcare, which will translate into devastating impacts on the marginalized populations within them. Many of these countries are situations on the UN Security Council’s agenda; Somalia, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Iraq, for instance, are some of the countries least prepared to cope with the impact of the pandemic. We already know that the humanitarian crises in these countries disproportionately affect women and girls; COVID-19 is likely to place them at even greater risk. Without dedicated attention to the rights and needs of women and girls, which includes access to essential and life-saving health services like sexual and reproductive health, we can expect rates of maternal mortality to sharply increase as women cannot safely give birth, along with a rise in unwanted pregnancies as they lose access to family planning services. Past experience suggests that without comprehensive and non-discriminatory access to these non-pandemic-specific and essential services, the current crisis could result in more deaths than the pandemic itself.

It has been 40 years since the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was signed, 25 years since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and 20 years since the adoption of Security Council resolution 1325 (2000). Despite building over several decades a robust normative framework to define women’s human rights and the Women, Peace and Security agenda, women still remain excluded from decision-making processes that determine their future. For example, despite women constituting the majority of health and care workers, a recent report showed that more than 70% of CEOs in global organizations active in health are male, and just 5% are women from low- and middle-income countries, a staggering statistic.

The evidence is clear. We know that conflicts disproportionately impact the health, safety, and the human rights of women and girls. We know that the “best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is how well its women are treated.” And we know that women’s participation ensures longer-lasting, more sustainable peace.

Actively supporting women’s leadership in planning responses to the current crisis, and ensuring regular, meaningful and inclusive consultations with civil society are critical not only to devising an effective response to the current pandemic, but to ensuring peace and security long after the end of the current crisis.

The Security Council must act now

The recent call by UN Secretary-General António Guterres for an “immediate global ceasefiref” in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, recognizes the threat this crisis will have on those most at-risk, including women, people with disabilities, children, the displaced, and other marginalized groups. His welcome recognition of the alarming rise in domestic violence and the importance of governments ensuring that “prevention and redress of violence against women…are a key part of their national response plans for COVID-19” must now inform how the Security Council addresses the pandemic and fulfills its obligations to ensure that gender equality and women’s human rights are at the center of its efforts to maintain international peace and security.

Although 59 states now support Secretary-General Guterres’s call for a global ceasefire and the UN General Assembly passed a resolution on COVID-19 calling for “full respect for human rights” and emphasizing that “there is no place for any form of discrimination,” the Security Council has yet to act. Instead, we have witnessed a divided and hamstrung Security Council, where there is a risk that the opportunity to protect and advance women’s rights and gender equality will be squandered yet again.

As Secretary-General Guterres recently stated, “women’s rights and freedoms are essential to strong, resilient societies.” The Security Council must act on this recognition and reaffirm that preventing violence against women requires ensuring women’s autonomy and recognition of the full scope of their human rights. Security Council members must recognize that to defeat COVID-19 and rebuild a better, more equitable world, the Security Council must assert its collective leadership and call upon Member States and the UN to take concrete steps to enable women and girls to lead and contribute to the solutions to the crisis, not merely seek to protect them from violence. For the Security Council to fulfil its responsibility as the primary body responsible for the maintenance of peace and security, to save lives and to avert catastrophe, it must act now.

As the Security Council formulates its response to COVID-19, we urge it to explicitly address the gendered impact of the pandemic and prioritize the following issues:

  • Require women’s full, equal and meaningful participation and leadership: Recommend that all COVID-19 decision-making bodies are inclusive, gender-balanced, and include dedicated gender expertise. All response design, implementation and evaluation should involve local civil society, particularly women-led organizations and those working on human rights.

  • Require rights-based and age-, gender-, and disability-sensitive pandemic responses: COVID-19 responses must be grounded in data disaggregated by gender, age, and disability and intersectional analysis that recognizes the gendered impact of the crisis. Where this data does not yet exist, the Security Council must request it to inform its own response to the pandemic.

  • Prevent and respond to gender-based violence: Take necessary measures to prevent, address, and document all forms of gender-based violence, particularly intimate partner violence and other forms of domestic violence, recognizing that violence against women, girls and other marginalized groups will increase due to the need for voluntary quarantines, social distancing, curfews, and closure of non-essential services. Member States and donors must strengthen and fill gaps in the provision of local gender-based violence survivor-centered referral systems and services.

  • Protect civilians and ensure principled humanitarian access to all people in need: Demand cessation of attacks against civilians, healthcare workers and humanitarian actors, which violate international humanitarian, criminal and human rights law and Security Council resolution 2286 (2016). Support the Secretary-General’s call that national authorities designate humanitarian workers as essential, given their direct and indispensable role in delivering life-saving assistance.

  • Maintain essential health services: Urge Member States and the UN system to maintain and prioritize non-discriminatory and comprehensive access to essential health services, including sexual and reproductive health in line with the Minimum Initial Services Package in accordance with international humanitarian and human rights law, as well as psychosocial support and other mental health services.

  • Defend civil society space: Call on all Member States to uphold international human rights and humanitarian law and refrain from enacting indefinite or disproportionate emergency measures that limit or entirely curtail the right to movement, assembly, and information, or impose undue restrictions on civic space or the work of civil society and human rights defenders, including women’s rights organizations, as part of pandemic response.

  • Promote community engagement and leadership: Encourage the use of lessons learned from Ebola and cholera responses, which emphasize how critical meaningful community engagement and leadership are to effective public health responses. Community leaders and women-led organizations have access to the most marginalized and at-risk groups, along with established community networks that need to be mobilized to shape the response. Their recognized leadership and trusted status within their communities can help spread key public messages and dispel myths and misinformation that might otherwise undermine the response.

In this important year marking the twentieth anniversary of SCR 1325 (2000), the UN, Security Council, and Member States must show outspoken leadership and renewed support for gender equality and the women, peace and security agenda – asserting their clear and unequivocal recognition that defending the human rights of women and girls, and supporting their full, equal, and meaningful participation, is as critical to addressing the current pandemic as it is to ensuring peace.