On 11th March 2020, the World Health Organisation declared the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic, emphasising the need for countries to take not just a whole-of-government, but a whole-of-society approach as well. Two years on, there have been over 450 million cases of COVID-19, including more than 6 million deaths. However, it has become increasingly obvious that not all responses to this pandemic have considered the ways in which different groups of people – particularly those with pre-existing vulnerabilities – were being affected, leaving some social protection mechanisms limited in their impact.
Gender inequality, in particular, is a significant factor when looking at the impact of COVID-19. After all, as has been seen time and time again, during crisis or emergency situations – where there is a strain on resources and weak institutional capacity – women and girls tend to be disproportionally affected. In this case, not only have women been directly affected by the pandemic in terms of their health, they also face indirect impacts such as an increase in gender-based violence, an increase in unpaid work or the care-burden, and a decrease in paid work, with hard-won gains for women’s rights and agency also increasingly under threat. After all, women were not only less likely than men to be covered by social protection systems before the pandemic, they were also more likely to be left out of COVID-19 government social protection measures.
Keeping in mind the lessons learnt from previous crises such as the Ebola epidemic and last two years of dealing with COVID-19, there needs to be a very clear understanding of what is key to build back better – an effective, gender-sensitive response to the pandemic. In particular, there needs to be a clear and active move towards increasing numbers of women at all levels of decision-making – from policymakers in governments to international institutions and local organisations. For example, although women make up around 70 per cent of healthcare workers, less than 20 percent of national health ministers are women. This highlights the significant under-representation of women where the decision-making process of public health policies is concerned, especially worrying in a public health crisis such as COVID-19.
This lack of representation of women in the decision-making arenas is also likely to affect the effectiveness of relief and recovery efforts post-crisis. For example, according to a report by UN Women on the socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19, the COVID-19 social protection measures of most countries have been largely blind to the rights and needs of women. On the other hand, in countries with gender-specific policy measures, women were 1.6 times more likely to report receiving government aid than women in countries without such policies – further highlighting the importance of a gender-sensitive approach in the creation of national policies. Biased or discriminatory policies waste valuable resources during a global pandemic. By bringing in the specific concerns, experiences and needs of women early on in important conversations and making them an integral part of crafting policy and developing programmes, the effectiveness of such measures increases.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been pushing gender parity as a key issue. The acknowledgement of the disproportionate impacts of emergency and crisis situations on women and the need for gender-sensitive strategies and measures based on their needs and priorities is reflected in recent instruments such as the ASEAN Regional Framework on Protection, Gender and Inclusion in Disaster Management and the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework (ACRF). For example, there are specific provisions in the Implementation Plan of the ACRF addressing the need to mainstreaming gender equality throughout any ASEAN recovery plans. Suggested initiatives include “enhancing gender data and evidence” on the impact of the pandemic by collecting gender-segregated data to inform policy, and using the ASEAN Gender Mainstreaming Strategic Framework 2021–2025 to create practical guidelines to integrate gender equality into ASEAN sectoral bodies.
By forcing us to look the gaps in our societal structures that have made this pandemic particularly challenging to those who are already vulnerable, it has provided an opportunity to build back better by creating, adapting and improving social protection strategies. Hopefully those in positions of leadership will take up this challenge. After all, with women making up half the global population, gender-sensitive policies are vital for a full recovery from this global crisis.