From Crisis to Opportunity – Is Achieving an Equal Future in a COVID-19 World Possible?

Students walk in a Mogadishu neighbourhood

On Monday, 8 March, we celebrated the one hundred and eleventh International Women’s Day. For one hundred and eleven years, we have dedicated the 8th of March to celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women and sending out a call to action for accelerating gender equality. A century and a decade since the first International Women’s Day, yet gender inequality and women’s socio-economic empowerment remain unfinished business.

One example which clearly illustrates the persistence of gender inequality is women’s representation in top decision-making positions. For example, as of February 2021, women serve as elected heads of state or government in just 21 countries and 119 nations have never once elected a woman head of state or government. Contextualized with the current count of 193 recognised nations of the globe, one could infer that the world remains uncomfortable at best with women’s leadership. United Nations (UN) Women’s Executive Director Pumzile Mlambo-Nquka in her international women’s day message reminded us that gender parity is 130 years away if the current rate of progress of women serving as elected heads of state or government is anything to go by. 

A century and a decade since the first International Women’s Day, yet gender inequality and women’s socio-economic empowerment remain unfinished business

Notably, this International Women’s Day was celebrated in the context of the continued COVID-19 pandemic which has laid bare the real and fatal impact of our failures to achieve meaningful progress on gender equality. One thing the pandemic has helped us to understand is that in times of crisis, the inequality that women in particular face is exacerbated. Time and time again over this past year, these differentiated impacts have been noted and highlighted; from increased rates of gender-based violence (GBV) and violence against women and girls (VAWG); increased burden of care; exclusion from decision-making processes; and greater livelihood vulnerabilities. 

And these challenges exist, despite numerous lobbying and advocacy campaigns and policy commitments made to gender equality around the globe, but especially on the African continent, including: the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (2003); the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa (2004); and the African Union Gender Policy (2009) and the newly launched African Union (AU) Strategy for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment 2018-2028.

The reality on the ground over the past year shows that the number of policy advances are not enough to secure gender equality. Rather, in many ways, the achievements made so far – largely in policy commitments – have been Band-Aid/quick fix temporary solutions, unable to create real, systemic and meaningful change on the ground. It is of course important to have these policies and laws which articulate gender equality, but they must also be supported by effective, context-specific, women-centred and women-driven actions that can respond to the realities and actual experiences that these policies propose to help.

The pandemic has helped us to understand that in times of crisis, the inequality that women in particular face is exacerbated

For example, during the pandemic, women have been some of the first to lose their jobs – either because of the type of work women mainly find themselves in (the hospitality industry, for example), or because they had to take on the extra burden of care by home-schooling children when schools were shut down or looking after sick family members. Moreover, because a majority of the informal workforce is made up of women, these women were often left without support when they found themselves jobless. 

Now, economic stimulus packages and policies were created to address the job losses and loss of income but what happens to the women who do not have bank accounts? Who do not have a credit score? Who do not meet all the criteria necessary to receive loans, stimulus packages, etc.? 

In December 2020, UN Women and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) created a COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker which “monitors policy measures enacted by governments worldwide to tackle the COVID-19 crisis, and highlights responses that have integrated a gender lens.” Related to women’s socio-economic protection, the tracker found that out of “1,300 social protection and labour market measures taken across 206 countries and territories to address the economic fallout of the pandemic” only “16% are gender-sensitive – meaning they either target women’s economic security or provide support for unpaid care.” Moreover, only 10% of the measures prioritized women’s economic security. The most common measure implemented (seen in 39 countries) to address women’s economic empowerment was cash transfers that prioritized women as recipients. 

Although the women’s movement has been talking about these issues for a century and more, the pandemic has truly and clearly placed the issues front and centre so that no one can deny the existence of gender inequality anymore. And if we are to ensure that we take full advantage of the opportunity COVID-19 offers us to address gender inequality – and we really don’t have a choice – we must ensure that going forward, responses and reconstruction programs are designed and implemented by the women who are the most affected. 

For example, if an economic stimulus program is being created, consult with the women who it is being created for, include these women in the design process, give them leadership opportunities to carry out the stimulus program, so that no one is left behind. A stimulus package developed in a high office in a capital like Pretoria, Dakar, Nairobi, with no consultation will not be successful in addressing the problem because it will inevitably be unable to respond to the reality on the ground. If an economic stimulus program is created for a local community in the Northern Cape and requires recipients to have a bank account, credit credentials and the general qualifying criteria, many women will be left out of the opportunity. 

Going forward, we must seize this opportunity but also determine how we can bridge the gap between the opportunities and the reality on the ground. 

One way to do so is to ensure that women are involved in leadership; participate fully in policy development and implementation; recovery strategies that centre on their lived experiences; and we must assert the opportunities of women’s economic empowerment – one of the sure ways of addressing gender inequality. We must use this moment, which also coincides with the new African Women’s Decade on Financial and Economic Inclusion of African Women 2020-2030, to ensure we act in a way that really makes a difference and to ensure that the current COVID-19 crisis can be turned into an opportunity to realize the theme “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world,” adopted by UN Women for 2021. 

We know it has been a long fight (more than a hundred years) and some days our efforts feel futile. As we reflect on the past year, this International Women’s Day our three wishes for the next decade are the following: 

  1. we hope that we can seize this crisis as an opportunity to ensure that a COVID world and post-COVID world recovery plans are shaped by women’s experiences, knowledge and resources; 
  2. we hope we can achieve a gender equal world for all women and not just a handful; and
  3. we hope we do not need another century and more to realize the goal of true meaningful gender equality.

Pravina Makan-Lakha is an Advisor on Women, Peace and Security at ACCORD and Molly Hamilton is a Women, Peace and Security Programme Officer at ACCORD.

Article by:

Pravina Makan-Lakha
Pravina Makan-Lakha
Advisor on Women, Peace and Security at ACCORD

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