From increased levels of gender-based violence to greater economic impact from loss of employment, experts say the COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately affecting women and girls globally. Now, a new report sheds light on what may be the systematic reasons behind the disparity and how similar impacts could be avoided in future pandemics.
The report, published earlier this month by the NGO Care International, examined the role of women in leadership and COVID-19 responses in 30 countries. It found that countries with more women in leadership roles — not just as heads of state but at every level, from national crisis committees to local communities — were more likely to deliver COVID-19 responses that considered the effects of the crisis on women and girls.
Canada topped the list with women comprising more than 50 percent of its national COVID-19 response teams. It also was the only country that, according to Care's methodology, took gender fully into account in its response. This included funding and policy commitments for gender-based violence prevention, sexual and reproductive health funding, childcare support, and funding that specifically recognized the economic effect of the pandemic on women.
The report also held up France and Ethiopia, which involved high percentages of women in their response efforts, as leading examples of countries with more inclusive COVID-19 responses. Both countries have made funding or policy commitments toward gender-based violence prevention and sexual reproductive health services.
In contrast, the United States ranked near the bottom of the list, with less than 10 percent of its COVID-19 response teams comprised of women. In fact, a tweet shared in February by Vice President Mike Pence showed the glaring absence of women from the U.S. Coronavirus Taskforce. While the U.S. has announced childcare support, funding to address women effected economically, and grants for women-owned businesses and training, it has not provided national funding or policy commitments around gender-based violence or any funding for sexual and reproductive health.
The U.S. is not alone; bottoming out the list was Brazil, whose national-level committee had the lowest percentage of women at under 4 percent. To date, it has taken few steps to meet women’s needs during the pandemic, according to Care.
Care is not the only organization calling for greater participation of women in pandemic response efforts. Last year, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board – co-convened by the World Bank Group and the World Health Organization – called for more women leaders to be part of preparedness efforts. The report looked specifically at the health sector where women make up 70 percent of the workforce but only comprise 25 percent of senior leadership positions.
A recent opinion piece published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation by members of WomenLift Health’s Global Advisory Board, Geeta Rao Gupta and Jeremy Farrar, emphasized the need to build the systems to support women’s leadership in global health before the next disaster strikes. “We can do this by equipping women with the skills, training and opportunities to rise to the top, and advocating for systemic changes – like closing the pay gap – to change the face of global health leadership.”
Authors of the Care report call for similarly urgent action, namely for governments to promote women’s participation in decision making, from the local to the national level, by applying a gender equality quota to decision-making bodies and processes tasked with taking on the COVID-19 crisis.
While quotas may be a blunt instrument, this would not be the first time they have been used to accelerate a shift toward gender equality. In Germany, for example, the government has set a mandate requiring at least 30 percent of non-executive members at large companies to be female. Since the mandate took effect in 2016, the share of women on supervisory boards of listed companies has risen by 13 percentage points, to 34 percent.
Whatever the means, the Care report shines and important light on the critical need for gender diversity in decision-making bodies.
“Women are bearing a disproportionate burden in this pandemic, yet in far too many countries their voices are silenced,” said Care International’s Secretary General Sofia Sprechmann Sineiro in a press statement. “If world leaders are truly committed to fighting this pandemic they urgently need gender equity. Not just lip service, but real action.”
Image credit: SJ Objio/Unsplash
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