Evidence shows that disease outbreak affects women and men differently, that pandemics exacerbate inequalities for girls and women, who are also often the hardest hit, and that women play an outsize role responding to crises, including as frontline healthcare and social workers, caregivers at home, and as mobilizers in their communities.
That’s why the world must put a gender lens on the response to COVID-19, to ensure the unique needs of girls and women are addressed, and their unique expertise is leveraged. This includes positioning girls, women, young people, and underrepresented populations front and center in the emergency responses, in social and economic recovery efforts, in the equitable distribution of vaccines, and in how we strengthen our health systems for the long term. And we must safeguard the progress we’ve made towards gender equality, including hard won gains for maternal, sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Women Deliver recommends the following actions be included as part of COVID-19 response and recovery efforts to build a stronger, more gender-equal world:
1. Apply best practices and a gender lens to all COVID-19 related efforts.All policies, programs, and investments, including stimulus and recovery packages, and vaccine distribution plans must be designed with a gender lens, so they don’t overlook or have unintended consequences for girls, women, and gender equality. This approach should include proven best practices such as gender-responsive analysis, budgeting, and auditing processes and a gender marker for tracking.
2. Leverage sex- and age-disaggregated data to inform and shape policies and investments.Available data indicate that women make up slightly more than half of confirmed cases of COVID-19 globally. Still, the data we have about the gendered-impacts of the pandemic remain incomplete or missing in many countries. To fully understand how the pandemic is impacting women and men differently, decision-makers and stakeholders need more sex- and age-disaggregated data. This data must be collected, analyzed, and used to inform all policies and investments, and must be available quickly and widely to analyze the impact of interventions and drive informed, timely decisions. This information must include those who may often be excluded from national data collection efforts, such as refugees, internally displaced people, migrant workers, and people with non-binary gender identities.
3. Meaningfully engage women and young people through partnerships, funding, and leadership positions.Women, young people, and underrepresented populations must be meaningfully and authentically engaged in decision-making about their own lives and the communities where they live and work. For an inclusive and representative response and recovery, women-focused and youth-led organizations must be funded and included in partnerships, and all COVID-19 decision-making bodies must embrace diverse and inclusive leadership.
4. Protect and support those on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response — the overwhelming majority of whom are women.Women are 70% of the health workforce and are leading on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Front line responders such as health workers and social service providers must be guaranteed protection, support, and fair compensation. This includes safe working conditions, appropriate equipment, equal and emergency/hazard pay, safe housing, and access to services that reflect their needs as individuals, such as mental health services and childcare.
5. Safeguard maternal, sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), the bedrock of gender equality.In past pandemics and crises, emergency response has resulted in de-prioritizing and de-funding essential health and social services for girls and women — directly threatening their health and rights. As the world continues to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, funding and access to SRHR, including modern contraception, safe abortion, maternal health services and safe childbirth, as well as telemedicine, must be prioritized. In settings impacted by both COVID-19 and humanitarian crisis, this includes implementing lifesaving activities that uphold SRHR at the outset of all emergencies.
6. Prioritize gender equality in health systems strengthening.We must rebuild our health systems to ensure they meet the needs and realities of all, including in times of crisis. This includes prioritizing and funding Primary Health Care and Universal Health Coverage grounded in gender equality and human rights, including sexual and reproductive health and rights. Decision makers must examine gender-based differences in health expenditures, disease detection and response, emergency preparedness, research and development, vaccine access and allocation, and the health workforce. And health systems must be strengthened to extend to girls and women living in humanitarian settings and to meet the needs of young people.
7. Uphold and fully fund services to reduce gender-based violence.Data show that gender-based violence like domestic violence is increasing dramatically during the COVID-19 crisis, likely worsened by quarantines and limited mobility that isolate women with their abusers. Legal and support systems to prevent and respond to gender-based violence, including women’s centers, shelters, domestic violence helplines, and legal aid, must continue to operate and expand where needed, and perpetrators must be held accountable. This includes services for those living in displacement settings, such as refugee camps, and preventing and ending sexual violence and exploitation.
8. Maintain equitable access toeducation.Equal access to education is foundational to girls’ and adolescents’ livelihoods and wellbeing, and this pandemic risks reversing years of progress in education equity. School closures can exacerbate gender inequalities, especially for the poorest girls and adolescents who face a greater risk of early and forced marriage and unintended pregnancy during emergencies. Closed schools likely means girls and adolescents are taking on additional responsibilities at home like looking after siblings or caring for sick relatives, which can lead to them falling behind in school work or dropping out. All young people must have resources, tools, and social support to remain engaged in learning during school closures and re-enter the formal education system once the crisis has waned.
9. Protect women’s economic opportunity and livelihood.Millions have lost their jobs and livelihood during the COVID-19 crisis, many of them women who are already hard hit by existing inequalities like unequal pay and less access to financial services. Emergency and stimulus packages as well as long term recovery investments must support and protect women and marginalized people, including forcibly displaced and migrant girls and women who might not be able to access these resources due to their citizenship status. These investments must include robust investment in social policies and safety nets for those in the formal and informal economies, such as paid sick leave, unemployment benefits, paid family and parental leave, cash transfers, food voucher and food distribution programs, and access to emergency healthcare for everyone.
10. Challenge gender norms to encourage a better balance of household duties and care-taking.Women traditionally carry the majority of care and labor responsibilities within families, placing them on the frontlines of COVID-19 response at home. Women’s traditional role as caregivers makes them more susceptible to infection from sick family members, and increased childcare demands make it difficult to balance work and home responsibilities. To challenge traditional gender norms and redistribute unpaid care and household labor, leaders should implement social policies such as paternity leave, social programs to encourage male engagement, educational programs in school to promote gender equality, and should model equal roles in their own lives.