Monday, March 8, marks 112 years since the first International Women’s Day was commemorated in New York City. Over the course of time, there’s been a clear and consistent reason for celebration: progress.
From women’s suffrage across the world to the expansion of civil and political rights to the widespread entry of women in the workforce to the global adoption of measurable standards for the rights of women and girls under the Sustainable Development Goals, the past century has, for all its foibles, seen a laudable forward march on gender rights.
Yet, on this day, International Women’s Day, progress is clearly at risk. Amidst the pandemic, the social and economic status of women and girls is indisputably declining on a global basis. The decline in women’s economic, emotional, and physical wellbeing isn’t just attributable to the overall impacts of Covid-19. Women are bearing specific disproportionate impacts of the crisis.
As governments around the world plan new rounds of fiscal support and reckon with how to apply the lesson of the pandemic, we need a systemic response to the rapidly growing challenge of gender equity.
Consider the disproportionate economic impacts of Covid-19 on women. The United Nations has cautioned that many women who escaped from extreme poverty in the last two decades are now at risk of falling back. The UN report cites that, throughout the world, Covid-19 is a “force multiplier” for economic inequities. The fact is that women, owing to a diverse range of structural factors in place before the onset of the crisis, earned less, saved less, held less secure employment, and have been more likely to work in the informal sector. As the UN warns: “Their capacity to absorb economic shocks is therefore less than that of men.”
Beyond the general risks inherent in being a member of a vulnerable group during a time of economic upheaval, women face burdens and impacts specific to Covid-19. Millions of mothers, for example, have faced the impossible dilemma of sending their children to school and risking viral exposure, or not showing up to their jobs.
In the cases where schools have been closed, women, who are responsible for the vast majority of informal household care globally, have seen their economic prospects evaporate. In many parts of the world, including Southeast Asia in particular, predominantly female domestic workers who travel regularly to higher-income countries for employment have been rendered unable to work due to transit restrictions. While many women in developed world at least have opportunities for interaction in online gatherings, in Africa and most of the global south, online connections are impossible due to lack of broadband, telephone, and electricity.
Prudence Luzia, a woman in Chad, recently described the intersectional nature of the challenges of gender inequity, isolation, poverty, and violence: "We used to go to church to pray with our friends, work together in the market, sing with our neighbours on weekends, and share meals as we celebrated children's achievements. Today, our businesses have collapsed, and we are locked at home with our abusers,” she laments.
It should be no surprise that the cascading challenges of Covid-19 are taking a disproportionate toll on women’s mental health. While news reports around the world point to a rise in the subjective experience of “burnout”—a state of emotional, mental, and sometimes physical exhaustion related to ongoing stress—many women are facing outright mental health crises in the face of the demands amidst the pandemic. While there are few statistics documenting mental health conditions in the global south, accounts like the one from Prudence Luzia in Chad point to dire conditions.
This International Women’s Day can’t simply be a moment to take stock of progress or pay lip service to gender equity. We need governments, business, and civil society to take seriously the crisis facing women around the world. While women account for an estimated 70 percent of front-line workers, including teachers and nurses, a new study of 17,000 people in 17 countries found that fiscal support measures amid Covid-19 largely failed to meaningfully address the needs of women.
Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of the NGO Girls Who Code, has proposed a "Marshall Plan for Moms”—harkening back to the European redevelopment program following World War II. Saujani is calling for the US government to issue direct payments of $2,400 a month to mothers to compensate them for unrecognised and unpaid labour. Policymakers in other countries should consider enacting similar plans.
The United Nations is currently calling on governments to make cash transfers to the most vulnerable groups, including mothers, frontline workers, older women, women living with disability, and women living in poverty and crowded conditions. It’s likewise vital to ensure that women are prioritized in vaccination campaigns and that governments make new investments in essential services like post-rape care and telemedicine to safely support those experiencing violence.
It’s essential that we increase the representation and effective participation of women in violence prevention and decision-making—from the grassroots up to national policy levels—to drive shifts in gender relations and equity.
On this International Women’s Day, there’s still reason for hope in our future. From the awakenings of the #MeToo movement to increased inclusion of women and girls in business and government leadership globally, the movement for gender parity has forward momentum. Yet long-term progress depends on reckoning with the current crisis. Covid-19 isn’t a just threat to global health and prosperity. It’s also a threat to gender equity.
Kim Samuel is founder, Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness, and Rehmah Kasule, Gender Mainstreaming Consultant & Senior Fellow, Advanced Leadership Initiative, Harvard University