One year of COVID-19 has exposed and deepened inequities of all kinds, including those that cut across gender lines. Women, particularly those from marginalized groups, have borne the brunt of the crisis: with growing care burdens, fewer working hours and alarming increases in gender-based violence, COVID-19 has created lasting social and economic harm for women and, by extension, the communities they live in.
As men working in international development UNDP, we think there’s a difference between believing in gender equality and actively advancing the cause. Let us be clear. We cannot – we will not – turn a blind eye to the harmful effects of gender-based discrimination, particularly as they worsen during the current crisis.
This means we must be conscious of the power imbalances, even in the spaces in which we work, and make room for people of all genders to lead and engage in decision-making processes. Gender is inextricably linked to how power and privilege are distributed and maintained, influencing health, well-being and more. It is incumbent on all of us, particularly in positions of authority, to push for long-term systemic change. This requires challenging entrenched power dynamics and antiquated gender constructs that obstruct the fundamental human rights of all people – men, women, and non-binary.
The economic and social impacts of crises are never gender-neutral, and COVID-19 is no exception. According to UN Women, pandemic-induced economic hardship will push more women into extreme poverty than men, widening the gender poverty gap. School closures have also interrupted girls’ education, in some cases leading to higher rates of early pregnancies and child marriage. Even before the pandemic began, one in three women experienced physical or sexual violence, a problem that has intensified both for women and other marginalized groups as COVID-19 has continued to spread. Compounding these issues is the COVID-19-accelerated digitalization of many day-to-day transactions, which has widened gender inequalities in areas such as internet access, digital skills, and online rights.
Importantly, gender identity also intersects with other social and political identities, like ethnicity, socioeconomic status, disability, age, geographic location, and sexual orientation. We must update the current definition of gender equity to be inclusive of those from marginalized groups, who often bear the burden of stigma and discrimination. For example, transgender women are often at an increased risk of violence, economic vulnerability and legal and social exclusion. Sex workers also face increased violence and economic instability, particularly during the pandemic. In many countries, women who use drugs face barriers to access gender-responsive services and are more likely to acquire HIV.
Too few laws and policies include the gender-sensitive measures needed to address these concerns. Unfortunately, women are also being left out of key decisions affecting the global COVID-19 response and eventual recovery. According to UNDP and UN Women’s COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker, only 12 percent of countries have adequate measures to tackle the disproportionate economic and social impact COVID-19 has had on women. Meanwhile, just five percent of global health leaders are women from low- and middle-income countries.
COVID-19 presents an opportunity to change this, and for that change to be led and implemented by those who have been most deeply affected. First and foremost, making space for women in global health leadership is a responsibility, for which we should all be held accountable. Equal power sharing can help us better address global challenges, from COVID-19, to democratic backsliding, to climate change. Inclusive leadership and participation brings more diverse perspectives to decision-making bodies and processes, which can lead to better public policies and institutional practices that are crafted with an eye toward gender equity.
In addition to leadership and decision-making on the global scale, there is a need to bring the gender equity lens to law at a country level. Alongside reforming laws, policies and regulations that discriminate against women, we need better legislation to tackle gender norms related to outdated concepts of masculinity, such as those that may encourage boys and men to take health risks, perpetrate violence, and not seek help or health care. This also includes strengthening access to justice, better reporting and monitoring, and building institutions’ capacity to respond to incidents related to gender-based violence.
The time is now to challenge the status quo on gender in law and in our communities, and to ensure women’s full and effective participation in decision-making in all aspects of public life, particularly those from marginalized groups. Achieving an equal future in a post-COVID-19 world requires bold action from all of us.