Gender equality needed to address COVID-19 in conflict and peace

UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz
UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz

If we do not change the face of politics, if we continue to ignore the lessons of decades of women’s activism, if we continue to spend our resources on weapons rather than on social services, we will have a harder time recovering from this pandemic, preventing the next one, or overcoming the climate crisis. It is an easy choice to make.

The day before UN Women turned 10 years old this month, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) finally adopted a resolution on the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a short and much-awaited resolution, and most of the headlines that day focused on the calls for a global ceasefire and a humanitarian pause. But we had our sights on the final paragraph of the resolution, because it said the three things that we had been repeating since the virus started to spread – that: 

  • COVID-19 will have a disproportionately negative impact on women and girls; 
  • women are playing a crucial role in the response; and 
  • we must put women in positions of leadership and decision-making so that they can make an even bigger difference.

The UNSC has said these things many times before over the past 20 years. At the turn of the century, it embraced longstanding claims by the women’s movement about women’s leadership and conflict resolution and translated them into global norms, however ignored. But in a crisis that so vividly and immediately clarified what types of services we should be considering and treating as essential, from healthcare to childcare, these words rang truer than ever before. 

If we do not change the face of politics, if we ignore the lessons of decades of women’s activism, we will have a harder time recovering from this pandemic, preventing the next one, or overcoming the climate crisis. It is an easy choice to make @phumzileunwomen #C19ConflictMonitor

As soon as the lockdowns went into effect, governments and civil society organisations started reporting an alarming spike in domestic violence. Early on in the epidemic, I issued a statement reflecting a shadow pandemic of violence against women. A typical report in those early weeks would signal an increase of up to 40% or 50% in hotline calls. The UN Population Fund warned that the disruption of supply chains, travel restrictions and the diversion of women’s health resources to other services could result in 50 million more women without access to contraceptives. In some countries with high maternal mortality, especially in Africa, this diversion could result in more excess deaths from childbirth than from COVID-19. Experts correctly predicted that women would suffer the brunt of the economic losses, as so many of them work in the informal sector or hold more precarious contracts in the formal sector. And one of the brightest accomplishments as a global community in the last two decades – the closing of the gender gap in school enrolment – was suddenly at risk of being reversed. These gender equality-related developments affect long-term prospects for peace and stability.

In conflict-affected countries, the prospects are worse. Conflicts have not taken a break during the pandemic. Armed groups have not even stopped attacking healthcare facilities and staff. And it is especially in these places, where healthcare delivery falls victim to the cruel and twisted logic of war, that women’s organisations turned overnight from activists and peacebuilders into frontline responders, making soaps and masks, teaching prevention and countering misinformation. The Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund, which UN Women manages, opened a special window to support these efforts in 25 countries. In just a few days, the fund received close to 5 000 proposals from local civil society organisations. Many of them are at risk of disappearing if they are not funded. 

Wherever we could, we redirected funding to mobilise cash, essential supplies and food for women and girls. In refugee camps for Syrians in Jordan, UN Women used the World Food Programme’s blockchain technology to switch our cash-for-work programmes into cash assistance. In other countries, we used our existing programmes to support women farmers and women traders by purchasing food from them and distributing it to vulnerable families. We had to adapt quickly to quarantine measures to find new ways and protocols to continue helping the victims of domestic abuse, as cases surged in both frequency and severity. We worked to influence the rescue packages and the measures put in place by governments and the workplace policies developed by corporations. In South Africa, for example, UN Women is working with the government to assess how women in the informal sector are included in supply chain databases and socio-economic rescue initiatives, and we collaborated with Google and MTN to assist 4 500 women-owned businesses to apply for and access government stimulus funding. 

More than 70% of healthcare workers are women, and women shoulder most of the unpaid care burden. Many of the most successful examples of management of this crisis have come from women leaders. And yet, more than 90% of world leaders are men. Three quarters of all ministers of health globally are men. As governments put together taskforces and national committees to stop the virus or protect people from economic ruin, those taskforces are also filled with men. As with every crisis, women can be seen everywhere providing essential work in communities, but are rarely seen making the big decisions that shape the future of our countries. And herein lies one of the most important lessons we should all learn, before it is too late.

Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is under-secretary-general and executive director of UN Women.

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