Now that International Women’s Day is commemorated in the midst of a pandemic that affects the entire world, a stark reality is clearly emerging: the Covid-19 crisis has the face of a woman.
The pandemic is exacerbating the already deep inequalities faced by women and girls, erasing years of progress towards gender equality.
Women are more likely to work in the sectors most affected by the pandemic. The majority of essential frontline workers are women, many of them from groups marginalized on the basis of race or ethnic origin and at the bottom of the income scale.
Women are 24% more vulnerable to losing their job and suffering a steeper drop in income. The already high wage gap between men and women has widened, also in the health sector.
Unpaid care work has increased dramatically due to lockdown orders and school and childcare center closures. Millions of girls may never go back to school. Mothers, especially single mothers, have suffered great adversity and anxiety.
The pandemic has also unleashed a parallel epidemic of violence against women around the world, with a skyrocketing increase in domestic abuse, trafficking, sexual exploitation and child marriage.
Meanwhile, while women make up the majority of healthcare professionals, according to a recent study, only 3.5% of Covid-19 response task teams were made up of the same number of men as women. In the news coverage of the pandemic worldwide, only one in five specialized sources was a woman. All this exclusion constitutes an emergency in itself. The world needs new momentum to advance women’s leadership and equal participation. It is clear that all of us will benefit from this.
Women in leadership positions have demonstrated their ability and effectiveness in responding to Covid-19. In the past year, countries led by women have had lower transmission rates and are often better positioned for recovery. Women’s organizations have filled critical gaps by providing critical information and services, especially at the community level.
Generally, when women lead governments, we see greater investment in social protection and greater progress in the fight against poverty. When there are women in parliaments, countries adopt more rigorous policies in the area of climate change. If women are present in the peace negotiations, the agreements are more durable.
However, women represent only a quarter of national legislators worldwide, a third of members of local governments, and only a fifth of government ministers. If the current trajectory is maintained, gender parity will not be reached in national legislative bodies before 2063. Reaching parity among heads of government would take well over a century.
Achieving a better future depends on us addressing this power imbalance. Women have the same right to speak with authority about decisions that affect their lives. I am proud that we have achieved gender parity in leadership positions in the United Nations.
Recovery from the pandemic is our opportunity to chart a new path: one of equality. Specific support and encouragement measures should be targeted at women and girls, inter alia by increasing investment in care infrastructure. If the formal economy works, it is only because it is subsidized by the unpaid care work that women do. As we recover from this crisis, we must chart a path that leads to an inclusive, green and resilient future. I call on leaders around the world to take six key types of action:
—First, to ensure equal representation —from the governing boards of companies to parliaments, from higher education to public institutions— adopting special measures and quotas.
—Second, invest substantially in the care economy and social protection, and redefine gross domestic product so that work at home is visible and accounted for.
—Third, eliminate barriers to the full inclusion of women in the economy, among other things, through access to the labor market, property rights, and specific credit and investment facilities for women.
—Fourth, repeal all discriminatory laws in all areas, from the world of work to land rights, through personal status and protection against violence.
—Fifth, all countries should approve an emergency response plan to address violence against women and girls and accompany it with funding, policies and political will to end this scourge.
– Sixth, change the mindset, promote public awareness and denounce systemic bias.
The world has a chance to leave behind generations of entrenched and systemic discrimination. It is time to build a future of equality.
* Secretary General of the United Nations