Crises are gender blind but not gender neutral. Time and again, we have seen new examples of women being left behind by the world’s response to new challenges. The Covid-19 pandemic is no different.
Covid-19 is affecting women’s livelihoods more drastically than men’s. Globally, women have lost jobs at almost twice the rate as men–making up 54% of overall job losses, despite accounting for 39% of global employment. With schools closed and many people working from home, pandemic lockdowns have significantly increased the burden of unpaid care. According to the Beijing +25 – Accelerating Progress For Women and Girls report, men account for nearly double the share of women (figure 5 for selected countries) of total paid work. Of unpaid work, women’s share is nearly triple that of men.
Nevertheless, women are at the forefront of the global pandemic response. The mother who keeps her family intact. The health worker going door-to-door in rural communities. Women are once again proving to be the key cogs that keep the machinery of our societies, nations, and economies running.
Yet, the global response remains largely oblivious to the systemic barriers facing women across the globe. Regardless of where you are in the world, women earn less, save less, have limited access to social protection and are more likely to be employed in the informal sector. Their capacity to cope with the economic shock, due to fewer resources at their disposal, and limited influence over the decision‐making processes is therefore significantly less than that of men.
What’s at stake in Asia?
According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2020, none of us–or our children–will see gender parity being achieved in our lifetimes, at least not for another 99.5 years. In Asia, many countries are actually regressing on gender equality.
This sobering picture reflects the scale of the challenge we face.
Gender equality is not only a moral and social imperative but an economic one. Studies show that increasing women’s economic participation speeds up development, helps overcome poverty and improves children’s nutrition, health and education outcomes. Advancing gender parity is also a key contributor to strengthening national, regional and global economies. Asia Pacific countries could add US$4.5 trillion to their collective GDP annually, according to McKinsey.
Today, the discourse has moved towards facilitating economic recovery and regrettably, there is no evidence that it includes women and their concerns.
Women at the center of recovery
Putting women at the center of our post-pandemic recovery is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do. To emerge stronger and more resilient from the current pandemic, we must bring gender considerations from the margins into the mainstream.
First, sectors where women are overrepresented and under-paid must receive special attention. This includes the informal sector, as well as services and labor-intensive manufacturing and small- and micro-businesses. In most countries, support measures ambitiously rolled out by the government in response to the Covid-19 economic shock are gender blind.
No longer can we afford to neglect these sectors when it comes to supportive policies. The Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a “movement” of self-employed women in rural and urban India and the largest trade union in the world, urged the government of India to help 1.7 million women workers in the informal sector during the Covid-19 crisis. The long-term response is meaningful, productive work which will help them overcome hunger and the fear of the disease.
Second, we must equip women entrepreneurs with the resources to be a catalyst for the uplift of their communities. Organizations like Global Alliance for Mass Entrepreneurship (GAME) and Impact Investment Exchange (IIX) let women entrepreneurs know that they are not alone and that their dreams are realizable.
GAME created a Futurepreneur Grand Challenge contest to catalyze women entrepreneurs in the Indian city of Bangalore, and provided cash at a critical moment to the winners: the owner of a bookstore and café, a catering company, and a bakery, among others. More recently, GAME launched a mentoring program for women entrepreneurs in recognition that providing mentors and peer groups can help women scale up their business and become a collaborative agent of change.
Singapore-based capital firm IIX listed the second bond of the Women’s Livelihood Bond (WLB) Series on the Singapore Stock Exchange earlier this year with support from The Rockefeller Foundation, UNCDF and Standard Chartered Bank. Unlocking over US$150 million for over two million women across Southeast Asia, the WLB Series provides up-front income to generate assets and skills to transition from subsistence to sustainable livelihoods.
Third, we must elevate women to leadership positions in order to drive change at a societal scale. This year, countries with women heads of state had six times fewer confirmed deaths from the pandemic than countries led by men. Women representation in political leadership can create conditions for a level playing field, especially in times when women’s needs can be easily overlooked. Currently, only 20% of parliamentarians in Asia Pacific are women. It is crucial that women representatives are included and consulted to advocate for policies with a gender lens to create favorable conditions such as social safety nets for women workers.
Covid-19 wrested control of our global narrative this year. It is a time for bold prioritization. But we can take back the pen and rewrite the world’s future by moving to establish greater gender balance and put women at the forefront of recovery. If we do this, we will be supporting not only women themselves, but job creation, community rebirth, and national economies as a whole.
By: Deepali Khanna
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