Symptoms Of A Sick Society: How The Covid-19 Crisis Is Re-Igniting The Global Fight Against Gender Inequality


‘‘The 21st century must be the century of women’s equality,’’ U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres declared in his speech in February at The New School University in New York. The Secretary-General called on both men and women everywhere to join the fight against gender inequality, which he described as an ‘‘abuse of power that is damaging our communities, our economies, our environment, our relationships, and our health.’’ The Secretary-General emphasized that gender inequality is a systemic problem and tackling it must involve a dissembling of power structures that perpetuate misogyny in its various forms. Mr. Guterres stated that ‘‘we must urgently transform and redistribute power, if we are to safeguard our future and our planet.’’

Mr. Guterres’ assertion that women’s equality is needed to ‘‘safeguard our planet’’ is all the more pressing in light of the COVID-19 crisis, which is shaping up to be the greatest threat the world has faced in recent times. The consequences of the Corona pandemic and national responses to it show us how crises, from armed conflicts to natural disasters, affect women and men in different ways. The scale and breadth of gender inequality has been starkly exposed during this crisis, as women are being affected disproportionately by the social and economic impacts of the measures implemented by many affected countries.

According to a recent report by U.N. Women, women make up 70 per cent of frontline workers in the health and social-work sectors, including nurses, midwives, cleaners, and laundry workers. This means women are risking their health and security as they lead the fight against the virus in these industries, which are proving to be the backbone of societies across the world during the pandemic. The report also reminds us that levels of domestic violence and sexual exploitation increase when households are placed under the strains of security, health, and money problems; not to mention cramped and confined living conditions. Tragically, cases of domestic violence have recently tripled in some countries practising social distancing.

The U.N. has provided a clear indication of the measures that governments need to take to combat the economic and physical insecurity that women are facing during this crisis. U.N. Women Deputy Executive Director Åsa Regnér recently released a ‘checklist’ for the COVID-19 response to advise governments on their handling of the crisis. Ms. Regnér points out that women are overrepresented and underpaid in industries such as health care, maternal care, elderly care, online teaching, childcare, in pharmacies, in grocery stores, and social workers. On top of this, the report also highlights that women are more likely to be employed in insecure work, and there are already significant inequalities in terms of access to security like health insurance, unemployment benefits, and other social protection programs for women. Regnér also urges governments to ensure that access to resources, hotlines, and shelters remain open for women at risk of domestic violence. In light of this report, there is a clear need for a gendered perspective in responses to the crisis, which must consider the health and security of the women on the frontline and address the existing inequalities that already disadvantage women in every society.

Evidently, economic inequalities and gender-based violence are so deeply entrenched in the power structures upon which our societies are built, that they risk going unacknowledged until they are heightened by crises such as the current pandemic. Twenty-five years ago, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was signed ‘‘to advance the goals of equality, development and peace for all women everywhere in the interest of all humanity.’’ Since the plan was put into action, the U.N. and its Member States has done a great deal to increase gender equality across the world. For instance, according to a recent progress report on the Beijing Declaration, more girls are in school than ever before, and 274 reforms were made in support of gender equality across the globe.

However, at an event in February this year to mark the 25th anniversary of the landmark agenda, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet warned against complacency in regard to gender equality. While acknowledging that the gains made towards equality have been ‘‘revolutionary,’’ the High Commissioner stated that much more needs to be done to ensure that the commitments made by Member States 25 years ago are fulfilled. Indeed, the progress report reveals that women aged 25-34 are 25% more likely to be in extreme poverty than men. Furthermore, women are still paid 16% less than men, and on average do three times as much unpaid care and domestic work as men. This indicates that women are more likely to experience long-term economic instability, which is heightened by the current crisis. Although remunerations for women and men have been implemented by many governments to make up for loss of work during the lockdown, due to the slow and limited progress across the board towards closing the gender pay gap, female workers are still faced with greater insecurity than their male counterparts.

The progress report also highlights that more needs to be done to tackle the global issue of gender-based violence. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, U.N. Under-Secretary-General and the Executive Director of U.N. Women, emphasized in her response to COVID-19 that violence against women and girls is already ‘‘an epidemic in all societies,’’ with an average of 137 women being killed by a member of their family each day. Although violence against women will no doubt intensify due to the anxieties caused by the virus and the necessary isolation measures, it is clear that the root cause of gender-based violence lies in unbalanced power relations and deeply entrenched misogyny that pervades all of our societies.

The crucial role that women are undertaking in the fight against the virus is being acknowledged by governments across the world, and the U.N. is pressing nations to protect the safety of women workers and to ensure that their individual needs are being met. In addition, the increase in domestic violence cases is rightly receiving media attention, with charities in many countries calling for government action to support victims. However, what COVID-19 has shown us is that the fight for women’s equality ought to be, as the U.N. Secretary-General stated, at the forefront of policy-making at all times, not just when the effects of inequality are heightened during crises.

COVID-19 is a threat to public health, but it has also triggered a global social and economic crisis; one which we are facing with inspiring solidarity and resilience. In a statement on the 20th March, Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuko suggested that coronavirus is providing us with an ‘‘opportunity for radical, positive action’’ to tackle long-standing inequalities. This is a time of ‘‘reckoning,’’ Mlambo-Ngcuko said, for our values as international citizens. It is an ‘‘opportunity to build back better, stronger, resilient, and equal societies.’’ Now is the time to treat the inequalities women experience on a daily basis, all over the world, as symptomatic of a global crisis that requires immediate action. The U.N. and its Member States need to drastically increase their commitments to achieving gender equality by acting as urgently and with the same level of solidarity as their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The international community needs to collectively acknowledge women’s rights as human rights; only then may we work towards finding the antidote to gender inequality, and work towards a future of hope for women and men across the world.

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