As stock markets tumble, schools and universities stay closed, people stockpile supplies and home becomes a different and crowded space, one thing is clear about the Covid-19 pandemic: this is not just a health issue.
We applaud the efforts of governments who are taking extraordinary measures to stop the spread of infections, and the strong leadership, from grassroots to head of state, providing well targeted response, from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Norway's Prime Minister Erna Solberg addressing national anxieties, to New Zealand's Prime Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern highlighting welfare in her economic measures.
With children out of school, mothers at home may still work, but many have also become teachers and caregivers, with consequences for those previously employed in those roles.
For the 8.5 million women migrant domestic workers, often on insecure contracts, income loss also affects their dependents back at home. Professional women like South Korean mother-of-two Sung So-young are reporting the dilemma of needing to return to the office but are having to forgo that to enable their higher-earning partners' continued work. As schools close in more countries, the number of mothers facing this across the world rises and the consequences accumulate.
By the middle of March, there were 207,855 confirmed cases in 166 countries, areas or territories. Without data that is disaggregated by sex, however, these numbers give us only part of the story of the impact on women and men.
We need far more sex-disaggregated data to tell us how the situation is evolving, including on differing rates of infection, differential economic impacts, differential care burden, and incidence of domestic violence and sexual abuse.
Even without this, experience from previous major epidemics points us to specific strengths and vulnerabilities that we can look out for and be proactive to safeguard. Where governments or businesses put income protection in place, this can ease these dilemmas, sustain incomes and avoid driving households into poverty. This response must also include those in the informal economy, where most women who work outside home make their livelihood. Such social protection is best directed specifically to women.
The 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone and the 2015-2016 Zika epidemic in Latin America provide essential, gendered public health and socioeconomic lessons. Women in those outbreaks were exposed to both health and economic risks, as they are again now, in ways intrinsically connected with their roles in the community and responsibilities as caregivers within the home and family.
For example, both Ebola and Zika infections are potentially catastrophic for pregnant women. Yet during both previous outbreaks, access to family planning services were very limited, and pregnant and lactating women were excluded from vaccination against the viruses.
This underlines the importance of sustained maternal health services to avoid a resurgence of birth-related deaths, and equal access for women to the development and use of all medical products including vaccines once produced.
In Liberia, 85 per cent of daily market traders are women. Their livelihoods and economic security suffered as Ebola-related travel restrictions limited trade and affected perishable goods. Back then, together with the Central Bank of Liberia, we were able to help thousands of women cross-border traders to save and expand their businesses through cash transfers via mobile technology.
This highlights the importance of looking ahead to women’s roles in recovery measures, and to the innovative use of technology to solve problems.
This is a moment for governments to recognise both the enormity of the contribution women make and the precarity of so many. This includes a focus on sectors where women are over-represented and underpaid, such as daily wage earners, small business owners, those working in cleaning, caring, cashiering and catering sectors and in the informal economy.
Globally, women make up 70 per cent of frontline workers in the health and social sector, like nurses, midwives, cleaners and laundry workers. We need mitigation strategies that specifically target both the health and economic impacts of the Covid-19 outbreak on women and that support and build women’s resilience, as we saw in Liberia and elsewhere.
And to make those responses as well designed as possible, women should be fully engaged in their creation, receive aid on priority, and partner in building longer-term solutions.
We are learning more every day from the arc of this pandemic. We have been working closely in China with country leadership as part of the UN collective response. Joint campaigns have reached 1 billion people, with communications that raise awareness through public health information, combat stigma and discrimination, reflect women’s specific needs, promote women’s leadership and contributions and develop recovery plans that link equality, health and the economy.
I am proud that our UN Women team has been there every step of the way, making sure of access to gender responsive information and collaborating with sister agencies like the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, which has been mobilising support for pregnant women and safe conditions for childbirth.
We are also working with women’s organisations all over the world, for example with the Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where women, especially in highly segregated environments, can lack critical information. Here, women have organised themselves into a network that educates women and girls about keeping safe and avoiding infections.
All of us engaged in this effort, whether in the public or private sector, need to take a co-ordinated, people-centred approach to rapidly building health system capacities in both developed and developing countries, making a conscious effort to put women front and centre. For example, creating better access to appropriate personal protective equipment for home-based caregivers, removing obstacles to their work by promoting flexible working arrangements and ensuring supplies of menstrual hygiene products.
These needs are even more important for areas under lockdown or quarantine. So, too, are considerations of gender-based violence that are exacerbated by these conditions, but may not receive the attention they need, in the drive to respond to the pandemic.
Violence against women is already an epidemic in all societies, without exception. Every day, on average, 137 women are killed by a member of their own families. We also know that levels of domestic violence and sexual exploitation spike when households are placed under the increased strains that come from security, health and money worries, and cramped and confined living conditions.
We see this frequently among displaced populations in crowded refugee camps; and reported domestic violence has tripled recently in some countries practising social distancing.
Cyberviolence too has become a routine feature of the internet. And as movement restrictions increase online gaming and use of chat rooms, this is an area for vigilance to protect girls. Girls too can step up their own resistance work in this area and lead with social media solutions. In China, the hashtag #AntiDomesticViolenceDuringEpidemic has taken off, helping to expose violence as a risk during lockdown and linked to online resources.
Covid-19 provides us with an opportunity for radical, positive action to redress long-standing inequalities in multiple areas of women’s lives. There is scope for not just endurance, but recovery and growth. I ask governments and all other service providers including the private sector to take this opportunity to plan their response to Covid-19 as they have never done before, and fully take a gender perspective into account, proactively building gender expertise into response teams and embedding gender dimensions within response plans.
For example, include surge funding for women’s shelters so they can provide for women who need to escape violent relationships. Aim economic support and bail outs specifically at retail sectors, hospitality and small businesses, where women are predominantly employed on precarious contracts, if any, and are most vulnerable to forced cost-saving.
All of this needs funding; organisations responding to Covid-19 need budgeted resources for gender and social inclusion. I urge donors to include this in their support, viewing this as a constant, strongly positive element to include in development budgets and enhancing rather than cutting support to gender equality measures. Organisations serving women need assistance to bolster their response and to prepare for the recovery.
This needs resources that many organisations lack. We appeal to funders to enhance their support for women rather than take an austerity approach. A global, co-ordinated response of the magnitude that followed the financial crisis is needed, constructed with a gender lens and fully inclusive.
This is a time of reckoning for our national and personal values and a recognition of the strength of solidarity for public services and society as a whole. This is an opportunity to build back better, stronger, resilient and equal societies. It is a time for bold prioritisation. Taking the right steps now with an eye to a restored future could bring both relief and hope to the women of the world.
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is the UN under-secretary-general and the executive director of UN Women