THE EMPOWERMENT of women requires the existence of evolved societies that value diverse voices – a gain from inclusive and equitable policies. While economic development and the growth of a nation are marked by, among other factors, a resilient workforce, good economic planning and visionary leaders, it does not necessarily have to involve ‘evolved’ thinking as far as gender relations are concerned. Many countries are testament to that. But the last year, under a global pandemic, has revealed the downside risks of not planning for crisis with a gendered lens. The question now re-mains: should such gender-neutral thinking still find a place in crisis management and recovery policies? While economic growth and progress give an aggregative push upwards for all, the impacts of a crisis are selective in terms of who bears the brunt of suffering. Nothing reflects this scenario better, on a global scale, than the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on women.
Women comprise the bulk of the world’s frontline health workers – approximately 70 per cent of the global health workforce – and they have been at significant risk of infection. However, women represent just a quarter of senior roles in the industry. Given their predicaments from ill-fitting PPEs to their constant risks of expo-sure and increased workload, women have not occupied the right ‘space’ to make decisions around their own safety and well-being as healthcare and frontline workers. The rise of domestic violence is another well-documented impact of COVID-19. The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), a women’s rights group in Singapore, has reported increases in the number of family violence calls since the country’s lockdown began in April 2020, with a 137 percent in-crease in May 2020. In Indonesia, the Legal Aid Foundation of the Indonesian’s Women’s Association for Justice has had their domestic violence cases at least tripled two weeks after lockdown measures were imposed in Jakarta, the highest they have documented in a similar period.
The UN analysis of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women has identified key areas that leave women and girls most vulnerable, including un-employment and economic and livelihood impacts for the poorest women and girls. In the Asia-Pacific, 68 per cent of em-ployed individuals work in the informal sector, with a higher proportion of women involved. Women tend to be mostly em-ployed in industries such as travel, hospitality, textile manufacturing and retail sales, most of which have been adversely affected by the pandemic. Tens of thousands of female workers are concentrated in the informal sector, including domestic work, working for family members, and as seasonal agricultural workers.
Many were quick to point out that countries headed by female leaders were effective in taking action and doing the necessary in terms of shutdowns and pandemic preparedness. As many would like to claim the positive impacts of female leadership – and there are many positives – it is the openness of societies where such leadership prevails that is crucial, the abilities and strengths of these leaders not-withstanding. Such societies tend to be open to diverse and varying ideas and abilities and extract the best from a varied pool of talent. Such societies have no reservations about placing women in leadership roles. They are genuinely inclusive and welcome a plurality of voices and ideas. Therefore, they tend to do better in deci-sion-making under difficult circumstances leaving few ‘outliers’ in plans and pro-grammes that try to manage and mitigate impacts. Where we seek to rebuild and recover, women, as active members of the labour force, as heads of families, as educators, as political leaders, and as citizens, should not be sidestepped in planning for the ‘new normal’.
We have seen what existing gender-neutral crisis management policies have resulted in. Many are still living with the effects of it. It should therefore be the goal of any nation hoping to recover at the soonest to make women’s empowerment part of new structures of governance. Although gender mainstream-ing and gender equality pro-grammes exist at different lev-els of governance, from global to regional to national, it would require a shift in the collective social psyche to make a difference. This would require concerted efforts at reimagining gender roles and recalibrating social policies around a more gender-specific rather than a gender-neutral angle. Ultimately, these efforts should lead to a reassessment of the importance of women’s roles in society, which includes formalising, by any means possible, their active and sustained involvement in the rebuilding and recovery of their nations