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Maternal Health 2020

Women and COVID-19: five things governments can do now

H6 Partners/Sven Torfinn: Mothers with babies and staff at health center in small village near Mosango.

Anita Bhatia

UN Women Deputy Executive Director

Governments the world over are struggling to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. While some voices have flagged the impacts on women, gender concerns are not yet shaping the decisions that mainly male leaders are making. Yet many of the impacts of COVID-19 are hitting women hardest. 

While the economic and social impacts of COVID-19 on all are severe, they are more so for women. Many industries directly affected by quarantines– travel, tourism, restaurants, food production – have very high female labour force participation.

Women also typically shoulder a greater burden of care. On average, women did three times as much unpaid care work as men at home even before COVID-19. Now, formal sector female employees with children are balancing one or more of the following: work (if they still have it), childcare, home-schooling, elder care, and housework. Female-headed households are particularly vulnerable.

Apart from the direct impacts of the disease, women may find it hard to access much needed maternal health services given that all services are being directed to essential medical needs. Availability of contraception may become disrupted. Women’s personal safety is also at risk and domestic abuse rates have drastically increased during COVID-19. 

Because the majority of frontline health workers – especially nurses – are women, their risk of infection is higher.While attention must be paid to ensuring safe conditions for ALL caregivers, special attention is needed for female nurses and carers.

However, many key decision-makers in the pandemic response are men. Women still do not enjoy the same degree of participation in decision-making bodies – governments, parliaments, cabinets or corporations – as men do. Women are only 25% of parliamentarians and less than 10% of Heads of State or Government worldwide . Yet, the few women leading countries are shining examples of a more effective COVID-19 response.

Here are five actions governments can take now to address this: 

First, ensure that the needs of female nurses and doctors are integrated into response efforts. At a minimum, this means ensuring that menstrual hygiene products are available as part of personal protective equipment. But most importantly, talk to the caregivers about the critical medical equipment they need and respond to them.

Second, ensure that hotlines and services for all victims of domestic abuse are considered “essential services” and are kept open.

Third, bailout and stimulus packages must include social protection measures that reflect an understanding of women’s special circumstances and recognition of the care economy. This means ensuring health insurance benefits for those most in need and paid and/or sick leave for those unable to come to work because they are taking care of children or elders at home. 

For informal sector employees, who constitute the vast majority of the female labour force in developing economies, special efforts should be made to deliver compensatory payments.

Fourth, leaders must include women in response and recovery decision-making, at the local, municipal or national level, as that will lead to better outcomes. Alongside this, policymakers should leverage the capacities of women’s organisations to ensure a more robust community response. The Ebola response benefited from the involvement of women’s groups, why not this? 

Finally, policymakers must pay attention to what is happening in peoples’ homes and support an equal sharing of the burden of care between women and men.. One concrete action for governments, particularly for male leaders, is to join our campaign, HeForShe and stay tuned for more information about ‘HeforShe@home’, whereby we enlist men and boys to ensure that they are doing their fair share at home and alleviating some of the care burdens that fall disproportionately on women.

Building in the needs of women offers an opportunity for us to “build back better”.

What better tribute to our shared humanity than to implement policy actions that build a more equal world? 

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