Is it shocking to hear that most of the world’s nations are doing too little to protect women and girls from the fallout of the coronavirus-crisis?
It should be. And yet, as new data on COVID’s social and economic impact was released this week by UN Women, the reaction was less horror, more resigned sigh.
It did, after all, follow the revelation that there is now not a single country on the planet on track to achieve gender equality by 2030. Not. A. Single. One. By this point, the stuttering halt of decades of feminist progress feels a little inevitable.
But should it?
Progress in reverse
UN Women and UNDP’s COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker was designed to monitor measures being put in place to protect women’s progress in the midst of the pandemic. Through three gender-based lenses – tackling violence, supporting unpaid care, and strengthening economic security – researchers analysed more than 2,500 measures across 206 countries and territories.
It should have been a huge undertaking. And yet, those collating examples of good work found there was little to log. A fifth of the nations analysed had no gender-sensitive measures in place whatsoever. Just 25 countries had implemented programmes to cover all three areas of concern.
What’s even more worrying than these figures is just how lenient the criteria were. The researchers weren’t looking for full gender equality, just for evidence that work to protect women and girls was underway in some shape or form as part of countries’ corona response – the provision of shelters, helplines or judicial responses to counter the surge in violence against women and girls, for example. Financial programmes directly targeted at women. Access to childcare services or paid family and sick leave. These shouldn’t be high bars in a civilised society.
“It’s clear that the COVID-19 pandemic is hitting women hard – as victims of domestic violence locked down with their abusers, as unpaid caregivers in families and communities, and as workers in jobs that lack social protection,” explains UN Women’s executive director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. “The Global Tracker supports governments in making the right policy decisions by sharing good practices and monitoring progress.”
And yet, the social protection, care crisis and jobs response, UN Women says, “has been largely blind to women’s needs”. Just 85 countries have made any moves to explicitly strengthen women’s economic security, and less than a third have taken action to support unpaid care, or strengthen services for children, the elderly or the disabled.
As a result, it projects the poverty rate among women will increase by 9.1 per cent because of the pandemic and its fallout. Meanwhile, the McKinsey Global Institute says that women’s jobs are currently 1.8 times more vulnerable than men’s – though if action on gender equality was taken now, $13 trillion could be added to global GDP over the next decade.
“The Covid-19 crisis provides an opportunity for countries to transform existing economic models towards a renewed social contract that prioritises social justice and gender equality,” said Achim Steiner of UNDP.
Instead, the majority of countries which actually recognised the need for gender-based responses, 135 nations in total, focussed their efforts on responding to violence against women and girls (VAWG). While 71 per cent of all measures highlighted were making positive steps forward in this sector of response, less than a quarter of nations analysed treated VAWG-related services as integral, researchers warned, “with very few adequately funding these measures”.
In this context, it is easy to see why a host of organisations are now highlighting concerns that, when it comes to women, progress towards Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is now in grave danger of moving into reverse.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the formation of UN Women, and the 75th birthday of the UN itself. It should have been a year for celebration. And yet: “COVID-19 threatens to undo the gains made on gender equality in the past 25 years,” Mlambo-Ngcuka says. “Women’s economic security is in jeopardy, gender poverty gaps are widening, gender-based violence is resurgent, and girls’ education and maternal health are threatened.”
The UN believes that, by 2021, there will be 118 women in poverty for every 100 poor men globally, with that gap now set to widen by 2030. Given that is the year that was previously set as a goal by which to aim for complete gender equality, Mlambo-Ngcuka notes, this would be a stunning about turn.
Some good work is still ongoing. Europe accounts for almost 32 per cent of all violence measures and 49 per cent of all unpaid care initiatives, while the American continent is leading the way on strengthening women’s economic security, closely followed by Africa. More country-specific proposals worth celebrating are included below.
But the overall message is clear. The idea that feminism has achieved its aims? It wasn’t true before coronavirus arrived. And it certainly isn’t true now.
Reasons to be cheerful
For all the doom and gloom, some countries are making sincere efforts towards equality with measures well worth emulating. Here are just a few of the positive initiatives highlighted by the UN this week…
Bosnia-Herzegovina has developed a plan to support community organisations running shelters for women at risk of violence.
In both Colombia and Sweden, financial resources have or will be made available to support gender-based violence survivors.
Argentina has increased monthly child allowance payments in response to the care crisis created by the pandemic.
Australia and Costa Rica have ensured that childcare services remain open during lockdown measures.
Austria, Cyprus and Italy have granted additional family leave allowances to working parents affected by the pandemic.
Canada, Spain and the Republic of Korea have introduced cash benefits for parents who are affected by school and day care closures.
Togo, Georgia and Morocco are providing cash transfers or grants to women entrepreneurs and, critically, informal traders.