UN Headquarters and UN Women offices around the world are either closed or have stringent restrictions on staff access. But the UN continues working 100 per cent and more as we react to COVID-19, something we were prepared for. An important task for UN Women at this time is following the political and economic response to the virus.
We see, as so often, that women carry countries’ well-being on their shoulders. Right now, they are working day and night holding societies together. They do this through health care, maternal care, elderly care, online teaching, child care, in pharmacies, in grocery stores and as social workers. In some countries everything in that list is remunerated work, although often less well-paid than traditionally male professions. But in others, women’s care work comes without a salary.
It is UN Women’s job to support governments in upholding the rights of women and girls. This is no less, and perhaps even more true, in times of crisis. Governments are responding, and are doing so under huge pressures to act fast. However, we also know that decisions and policies are better with a gender perspective. In fact, gender-blind decisions and policies are not only worse but also usually fail. That is why we cooperate with decision-makers in the response to the situation, not only to achieve better outcomes for women and girls but to achieve better outcomes for everyone.
The rapid changes in daily life we are all experiencing have different impacts on women and men. Whole families suddenly find themselves full-time in small spaces, under economic stress, with children’s education moving online. In these circumstances, the gender-dynamics we live with every day can lead to greatly different outcomes and experiences for different people with the strains this is placing on everyone.
So I ask these 10 questions to those who lead governments, municipalities, parliaments and other decision makers:
First, we know from Ebola, Zika and other situations where movement has been restricted for whatever reason that violence against women is likely to increase. It’s a potentially dangerous situation for women with violent partners to stay at home full-time. What are you doing to ensure women have access to resources, hotlines and shelters?
Second, how are you targeting your economic response and whose interests are these responses serving? Men’s incomes are higher than women’s in general. Men are over-represented in permanent or long-term work and under-represented in insecure work. So there are huge inequalities in terms of access to security like health insurance, unemployment benefits and other social protection. Men are also over-represented in political decision-making in the world. Have you considered how women’s voices and interests are reflected in the decision making processes and outcomes you are leading? Are you guided by women politicians and decision-makers? Have employers and trade unions representing female-dominated labor market sectors had a say? Were women’s organisations, women shelters or NGOs consulted? What about women who work in the informal sector?
Third, women are poorer than men and have less economic power. If you are thinking about cash transfers, will these target individuals rather than households in order to mitigate women’s economic dependence on men?
Fourth, are you preparing targeted interventions for single parents, the majority of whom are women, when economies slow down or even come to a halt?
Fifth, we know that elderly women and men are at high health risk right now. But women are the majority of the elderly around the world, especially the over 80s. Yet, they tend to have lower pensions, if any, and less possibility to buy care or other services. Does your administration know the situation of your elderly? Do you know whether they are left alone or have support? If they live alone and are told not to go out, do you have plans in place to ensure that someone provides for them? Do you know that the information that everyone is depending on right now has even reached them?
Sixth, when elderly-care exists, it’s often women who provide it. This may be as through paid work or simply through their support to their family members. What are you doing to ensure that they have protection against transmission? Are you making sure they are being paid? Is it enough?
Seventh, in many countries, fewer women than men have health care insurance. What are you doing to ensure that their rights to testing and health care are protected?
Eighth, during crisis, people need reliable access to food. Women are over-represented in low-paid food production work, including in agriculture and grocery stores. What are you doing to protect their situation, including their working conditions, salaries and access to land?
Ninth, in some places schools are closing. Those with the resources may be moving to online or remote teaching. What have you done to ensure that girls are not finding themselves caring for younger siblings or grandparents while boys continue to study?
Tenth, what are you doing to ensure that maternal-care continues under safe circumstances for staff and mothers? The burdens on health systems are straining them to breaking point. So how are you protecting women’s health, including the health of mothers, in that context?
UN Women will continue its daily dialogue with governments, municipalities and civil society all around the world to support women and girls rights. This crisis will test us, but we will overcome it better, faster, and perhaps even build back better, if we keep our focus on gender-equitable responses while we address COVID-19 and beyond.