Paying attention to women’s needs and leadership will strengthen COVID-19 response

A week since The World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 as a pandemic and robust measures around the world attempt to contain its spread, social impact of the Novel Coronavirus is hitting women hard.

Globally, women make up 70 per cent of workers in the health and social sector, and they do three times as much unpaid care work at home as men. 

“The majority of health workers are women and that puts them at highest risk. Most of them are also parents and care givers to family members. They continue to carry the burden of care, which is already disproportionally high in normal times. This puts women under considerable stress,” said UN Women Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.

“In addition, the majority of women work in the informal economy, where health insurance is likely to be non-existent or inadequate, and income is not secure. Because they are not well targeted for bail outs they are financially on their own. This is not simply a health issue for many women; it goes to the heart of gender equality.”

Recent experience of other disease outbreaks, such as the Ebola and Zika, have shown that such outbreaks divert resources away from services that women need, even as their burden of care increases and their paid livelihoods suffer losses.

For instance, when health services are overstretched, women’s access to pre- and post-natal health care and contraceptives dwindle. There are rising concerns of this happening as a result of COVID-19.

In addition, the specific needs of women health workers are often overlooked. “In Asia, emerging findings from the health response showed that menstrual hygiene products for women health workers were initially lacking as part of personal protective gear,” said Mohammad Naciri, UN Women’s Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific.

When households are placed under strain and in contexts of family violence, as strategies for self-isolation and quarantine are employed, the risk of such violence tend to increase. Reports from some impacted communities are showing that COVID-19 is driving similar trends right now.

The evidence is also mounting that the economic impacts of COVID-19 will hit women harder, as more women work in low-paying, insecure and informal jobs. Disruptions, including movement restrictions, are likely to compromise women’s ability to make a living and meet their families’ basic needs, as was seen in the Ebola crisis

“UN Women is working with partners to make sure the gender-differential impact of COVID-19 is taken into account in the response strategies at country, regional and global levels,” said Sarah E Hendriks, Director of Policy, Program and Intergovernmental Division at UN Women.

“This includes supporting gender analysis and sex-disaggregated data collection, so that women’s needs and realities do not fall through the cracks, even as we are trying to get more data and knowledge about COVID-19. We are also focusing on programs that build women’s economic resilience for this and future shocks, so that they have the resources they need for themselves and their families.”

In China, for instance, UN Women is focusing on economic recovery solutions to support small and medium businesses owned by women, to mitigate the negative economic impact of the outbreak. It is has also supported outreach campaigns to promote women’s leadership and contributions in the COVID-19 response, reaching more than 32 million people.

As more countries and areas enact closure of schools and childcare facilities to contain the spread of COVID-19, women’s ability to engage in paid work faces extra barriers. Globally women continue to be paid 16 per cent less than men on average, and the pay gap rises to 35 per cent in some countries. In times of crisis like this, women often face the unfair and sometimes impossible choice of giving up paid work to care for children at home.

UN Women is working closely with WHO and other UN agencies and UN Country Teams to strengthen coordinated response to the outbreak. It’s also leveraging existing networks of women-led organisations to advance women’s voice and decision-making in COVID-19 preparedness and response.

“Making sure that crisis and risk communication targets and reaches women, persons living with disabilities and marginalised groups, is critically important right now,” said Paivi Kaarina Kannisto, UN Women’s Chief of Peace and Security.

“In Liberia and Sierra Leone, UN Women’s community mobilisation campaigns focused on disseminating messaging on Ebola prevention, case management and anti-stigmatisation. Through awareness raising, community outreach and training, the programs utilised local women speaking to other women via different media, including radio and text messaging. This helped to ensure that life-saving information shared was relatable and delivered by a trustworthy source. The approach of integrating a gender-focused response that relied on local women’s networks had a significant impact on the successful regional containment of the Ebola crisis.”

UN Women has issued a set of recommendations, placing women’s needs and leadership at the heart of effective response to COVID-19:

  • Ensure availability of sex-disaggregated data, including on differing rates of infection, differential economic impacts, differential care burden, and incidence of domestic violence and sexual abuse;
  • Embed gender dimensions and gender experts within response plans and budget resources to build gender expertise into response teams;
  • Provide priority support to women on the frontlines of the response, for instance, by improving access to women-friendly personal protective equipment and menstrual hygiene products for healthcare workers and caregivers, and flexible working arrangements for women with a burden of care;
  • Ensure equal voice for women in decision making in the response and long-term impact planning;
  • Ensure that public health messages properly target women including those most marginalised;
  • Develop mitigation strategies that specifically target the economic impact of the outbreak on women and build women’s resilience;
  • Protect essential health services for women and girls, including sexual and reproductive health services; and
  • Prioritise services for prevention and response to gender-based violence in communities affected by COVID-19.
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