• According to a World Health Organization survey of 104 countries, women make up about 70 per cent of health and social workers worldwide, placing them at greater risk while caring for patients.
• In our responses to the pandemic, we must not be gender blind or else women will bear an economic cost substantially higher than men which will lead to further widening the gender gap estimated to close in 257 years at the current trajectory.
With each passing day, the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects are becoming more apparent and alarming.
We are all adapting to new ways of living: learning what it means to maintain social distance, working from home, home-schooling children and communicating. While the pandemic may appear like a shared experience, its impact reveals the different realities of men and women.
For many women and girls around the world, the pandemic presents additional challenges to their survival and quest for equality. In recent days, we have observed that many of the impacts of the pandemic are hitting women disproportionately hard from concerns to their health and safety, to additional care burden and increased exposure to domestic violence.
According to a World Health Organization survey of 104 countries, women make up about 70 per cent of health and social workers worldwide, placing them at greater risk while caring for patients.
Added to this, women workers face elevated levels of stress as they worry about endangering their own families when they return home at the end of their shifts. Yet despite these enormous sacrifices, their jobs tend to be undervalued and underpaid.
The report further reveals that one in three women worldwide experiences physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. The risk of gender-based violence escalates in times of crisis - such as natural disasters and wars. With 90 countries on lockdown, 4 billion people are now sheltering at home. Kenya has already reported an increase of 36% of reported cases of sexual violence in the first two weeks of the pandemic breaking.
Sounding an alarm bell on this shadow pandemic, the UN Secretary-General, Mr Antonio Guterres, has urged all governments to make the prevention and redress of violence against women a key component of their national response plans for COVID-19. Mr Guterres called on governments to put women’s safety first as they take actions through increasing investment in online services and civil society organizations.
Lowering vulnerability to infection among Kenyans will also require a re-look at economic issues facing a vast majority of women who make up 70 per cent of low wage earners relying on informal sector jobs that provide little social security.
In our responses to the pandemic, we must not be gender blind or else women will bear an economic cost substantially higher than men which will lead to further widening the gender gap estimated to close in 257 years at the current trajectory. Yet, the benefits of women’s inclusion and participation in economic life and decision making are clear.
The crisis has been an acid test for what effective leadership looks like in the face of a global crisis. It is worth noting that a good number of countries with the best response to COVID-19 have one thing in common- all have women leading them. Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, New Zealand and Taiwan are ahead of the curve in beating coronavirus and they have set a precedent on how to manage a pandemic with a decline in recorded new cases, whilst many countries are experiencing a rise in cases of COVID-19.
Government measures to cushion citizens from the impact of the pandemic have been swift and multi-faceted. Decision-makers at the front lines can further support women during this crisis by ensuring structures such as stimulus packages are designed around the reality of women's work and needs. The short-term and medium-term recovery strategies should also include women’s economic resilience within this and future shocks.
The Private Sector, on the other hand, needs to rise to the occasion and join hands with the government and other actors to offer immediate relief as well as support for long-term recovery.
Companies that have already implemented family-friendly workplace policies and flexible arrangements for working parents have a ‘head-start’ during this crisis. They can also ensure that suppliers that rely heavily on female labour receive payment for existing orders promptly while providing leniency to women entrepreneurs.
With decision-making bodies still being predominantly male, how can we ensure that women’s voices are reflected when policy measures are adopted?
The United Nations Global Compact is supporting gender-inclusive leadership, response and recovery to COVID-19 through women empowerment initiatives such as the Target Gender Equality which underscores the need for women’s full participation and representation in decision-making roles.
By responding to women’s needs and supporting women’s leadership, companies can speed global progress in addressing the pandemic and other future crisis.
The propensity to recover from this crisis hinges on how we include everyone equally.
If more women take part in formulating a new social and economic order, chances are it will be more responsive to the needs of all and make us all more resilient to future shocks.
The writer is the Executive Director of Global Compact Network Kenya. She can be reached at [email protected].