Empowering women in the post-pandemic era | Daily News


Empowering women in the post-pandemic era

The COVID-19 pandemic has in the past six months turned our world upside down. Beyond the virus itself, the response has had a disproportionate and devastating social and economic impact on women and girls.

COVID-19 is deepening existing inequalities, including gender inequality. Already we are seeing a reversal in decades of limited and fragile progress on gender equality and women’s rights. And without a concerned response, we risk losing a generation or more of gains.

Since the start, women have been on the frontlines of the response, as healthcare workers, teachers, essential staff and as carers in their families and communities.

Between 70 and 90 per cent of healthcare workers are women, but their salaries and conditions often fail to reflect the lifesaving roles they occupy. Personal Protective Equipment is often made to fit a standard man, which means women care workers may be at greater risk of infection, and fewer than 30 percent of decision-making roles in the health sector are occupied by women. 70 to 90 percent of healthcare workers doing the work, with only 30 percent in decision-making roles.

In the broader economy, the majority of women around the world are employed informally. Many have been thrown into financial insecurity by the pandemic, without regular income and lacking any social safety net.

The pandemic has exposed the crisis in unpaid care work, which has increased exponentially as a result of school closures and the needs of older people and falls disproportionately on women. Before the start of the pandemic it was clear that care work – unpaid in the home and underpaid in the formal economy – has long been a contributing factor to gender inequality.

Now, the pandemic has exposed the extent of its impact on physical and mental health, education and labour force participation.

There are also disturbing reports from around the world of skyrocketing levels of gender-based violence, as many women are effectively confined with their abusers, while resources and support services are redirected.

In short, the pandemic is exposing and exacerbating the considerable hurdles women face in achieving their rights and fulfilling their potential.

Progress lost may take years, even generations, to recover. We know from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa that when teenage girls leave school, they may never return.

Today, millions of teenage girls around the world are out of school, and there are alarming reports of an increase in teenage pregnancies in some countries. Each of these issues is a crisis within a crisis.

Protecting the rights of women and girls during this time is a top priority for the United Nations. We issued a policy brief in early April, calling on governments to take concrete action to put women and girls – their inclusion, representation, rights, social and economic outcomes and protection – at the centre of all efforts to tackle and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first phase is the health response.

While statistics indicate that women and girls are at lower risk from the COVID-19 virus itself, they are suffering because of the redirection of health funding and services. It is simply counter-productive, for example, to deprioritize maternal and reproductive health services. Governments must take a holistic view of the health impact of this pandemic. All women have a right to quality, affordable sexual and reproductive health services. Governments have a responsibility to make sure women and girls can access these services, even during a crisis.

In the longer term, we need health systems that meet the needs and realities of all, including women and girls. This means prioritizing and funding primary health care and Universal Health Coverage.

We are also urging governments to prioritize protecting women from gender-based violence in their national COVID-19 plans. At the start of the pandemic, after my call for a global ceasefire, I issued an appeal for an end to all violence everywhere – from war zones to people’s homes – so that we can face this pandemic together, in solidarity.

I was heartened by the response; more than 140 governments committed to taking action to designate women’s shelters as essential, and to continue and expand online services. The United Nations stands ready to support these efforts around the world. The second phase of the response is mitigating the social and economic impact of the crisis. That starts with putting money into the hands of women who work in both the formal and informal economies. Cash transfers, credits and loans should be targeted at women, to mitigate the immediate impact of job losses and increased caring responsibilities.

As governments inject stimulus and other funds to get their economies back to work, they must expand social safety nets and recognize the value of invisible and unpaid care work. This will address the vulnerabilities women experience, ensure women’s central role in economic life and in the long term, contribute to sustainable development and more inclusive and resilient economies.

The third phase of the response is building a better future.

The pandemic is only demonstrating what we all know: that millennia of patriarchy have resulted in a male-dominated world with a male-dominated culture which damages everyone – women, men, girls and boys.

It is clear that we cannot go back to the failed policies that have resulted in the fragility we see around us – in healthcare systems, in social protection, in access to justice. This is the time to rebuild more equal, inclusive, and resilient societies. Our roadmap is the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The pandemic has shown us who is doing the work that really matters: nurses, teachers, care workers. As we recover, we need to remember this. It is time to end the inequities of unpaid care work and create new economic models that work for everyone.

Benefits like health insurance, paid sick leave, paid child and family care and paid parental leave are not luxuries; they are vital to the functioning of our societies. Extending those inevitably has a gender dimension, because so much of the work women do is underpaid and undervalued.

We must also emerge from this crisis with women’s equal leadership and representation.

The past months have seen a growing recognition in the media and through academic research highlighting what we have known anecdotally for years: that women leaders are extremely effective. Women Heads of State, Ministers of Health, health workers and community leaders are winning widespread recognition for their empathy, compassion, communication and evidence-based decision-making.

Their actions are showing the value of inclusivity. It stands to reason: doubling the resources, capacity and expertise we put into decision-making benefits everyone.

And yet less than eight percent of Heads of State, less than 25 percent of Parliamentarians, and less than 30 percent of decision-makers on health care are women. Bias and discrimination are harming us all. And again, this is essentially a question of power. I am proud that we achieved gender parity at the beginning of 2020 with 90 women and 90 men as full-time senior leaders, two years ahead of the target date I had set. We have a roadmap in place for gender parity at all levels of the United Nations in the coming years, and I will push hard for its implementation.

Organizations and companies that include equal numbers of women at all levels are more effective, efficient and resilient to sudden shocks.

This is also why I have made temporary special measures a signature issue of my Call to Action on Human Rights. Unless we use quotas and temporary special measures to remove the biases and obstacles to women’s equal participation, women will never realize their full rights, and societies will never reap the benefits of equality and inclusion.

This year is an important one for gender equality, marking the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration, the 20th anniversary of Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, and the first year of the Decade of Action on the Sustainable Development Goals.

We remain determined to advance women’s priorities and to ensure their equal rights and participation in the peace and security agenda, on climate change, on building inclusive economies, and on reducing and eliminating the digital divide so that women have an equal role in designing the technologies of the future.

I want to reassure women everywhere, that the United Nations stands with you and is working for you every day, around the world. As we mark our 75th anniversary, we need your voices and engagement more than ever.

The United Nations is changing, and we count on you to be part of that change. At a time of growing nationalism and populism, the forces ranged against global solidarity can seem overwhelming. But if we are to meet today’s global challenges, from the climate crisis to growing inequality and the digital divide, we must join together, rejecting sexist and ageist stereotypes that prevent women – and men – from realizing our full humanity.

The writer is the Secretary General of the United Nations. 

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