With the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, the glaring inequalities in our societies have come to the fore. The implications of inequality can be seen in all spheres including access to healthcare, jobs and employment, wage parity, basic services, water and sanitation, quality and holistic education amongst a few. The most visibly deprived are the homeless, migrants, SOGI (sexual orientation and gender identity), daily wage workers, sex workers, indigenous population, single women, persons with disabilities and refugees amongst others.
This situation has also laid bare open the unpreparedness of most countries including the developed ones to deal with it. It has displayed fundamental weakness in our basic structures that has exposed prevailing poverty, fragile health systems, lack of holistic education systems, failing social protection systems, etc.
In any crisis, especially in critical times like these, strength and significance of the governing structure of a nation-state is put to test. It also provides them an opportunity to strengthen the governance structure and make it more equitable, sustainable and inclusive for all. Thus, a critical task that lies ahead of Governments now is to walk the extra mile and steer forward the governance structure; where the social and economic policies can rebuild the already fragile and disintegrating social protection systems of countries and cater to populations that are most affected. Various models of ‘good governance’ are being put to test now to meet the extremely difficult choices that can contain the spread of virus as well as move towards the goal of ‘SDGs’ – leaving no one behind’.
Why is it important to NOT leave women behind in the prevailing scenario?
According to the United Nations, ‘the pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing and exploiting vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems’. While women have been making crucial contributions as frontline health workers, nurses, sanitation workers, online teachers, social workers, administrators, police personnel, media personnel, care providers, they are also one amongst the hardest hit. Some of the ways in which the situation has affected women and girls include –
Extra burden of household work / unpaid care work for women and girls.
Increasing GBV and protection risks – Many countries like China, USA, UK, France, Australia, India, and others have reported cases of increased domestic violence and intimate partner violence. 1 in 3 women worldwide experience physical or sexual violence mostly by an intimate partner. In India, the global data is complemented by the recently concluded (2015-2016) NFHS-4 data at the national level which shows that 28.8% of ever-married women have experienced spousal violence. The situation gets further grave as the life-saving and support services including one stop crisis centres, mental health and psycho social support, police and justice services, etc. are all side-lined as health service providers are overburdened and preoccupied with handling COVID-19 situation.
The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a “ceasefire” to address the “horrifying global surge in domestic violence” On 6 April 2020.
Impact on women at the bottom of pyramid including migrant workers, single women / mothers; the aged and elderly; women with disabilities; SOGI, etc. is more glaring as they encounter double or triple layers of inequality on the basis of their sex, socio-economic situation and other specific conditions.
The impact of pandemic has had an impact on farmers who are grappling with food availability, food access and food utilization thus, leading to food insecurity. The food cycle disruptions affect women’s health and nutrition status thereby, making them the invisible face of hunger.
During any humanitarian crisis, manmade or natural – women always get left behind in the economic realm. This not only impacts their livelihoods but, also increases the gender gap in terms of income, earning, wages and opportunities.
Women will be pushed back to poverty after this phase gets over. In India, 93% of women are engaged in the informal sector / have unskilled jobs and low wages, that contributes to 50% of the economy. They are the ones who lose their jobs first and with no social security and job security, their road to recovery is an ardours and challenging task.
Guiding social norms and cultural practices put women and girls at greater health risks, since they are the last to receive medical assistance or timely care in any crisis situation.
The specific needs of women healthcare workers like menstrual hygiene needs, psychosocial support, household responsibilities apart from personal protective equipment is usually side-lined amidst this chaos.
Interrupted access to sexual and reproductive health – in any crisis whether natural or man-made, financial resources are usually diverted from essential / routine health services to tackle the crisis at hand. Pre and post-natal health care and contraceptives, sexual and reproductive health services, etc. are some of the services that lag behind thereby, having an impact on women’s overall well-being.
The mitigation strategies need to be defined in a manner wherein, they not only look at the health aspects but, also the economic aspects and thereby, help in building women’s resilience. Or else, we stand at the risk of going back by decades, as COVID-19 may possible reverse the gains made so far on realising gender and human rights of women and girls.
How can we rejig the Governance structure to make it more responsive to the needs of the marginalized and vulnerable especially women?
The pandemic has exposed the strengths and weaknesses of our governance structure and has moved nation-states beyond their routine calls to set up systems that protect the most vulnerable and marginalized socially, economically, and medically. It has also shown the unequal development of societies and prevailing inequality between and within countries that has largely impacted the vulnerable and marginalized.
Now, the way social, economic and political decisions are taken within the larger ambit of governance structure will define the ability of scores of individuals to survive in these unprecedented times. Governments are acting and at a considerable pace to take decisions and policies that will help tide the various concerns arising from the situation today. But, it is vital that the decisions and policies being taken also have a perspective that takes into consideration the needs and concerns of the vulnerable and marginalized – especially gender concerns. This will not only provide better outcomes for women and girls but, will provide better outcomes for everyone.
The governance system today has to move beyond state and structures and include people at the centre of action. To address the livelihood and economic needs of women, participation of women in decision making processes and leadership roles are imperative. It is recognised that women, especially rural women, are the key agents of transformative development; and they can provide an inclusive approach to the economic and social development narrative.
Some of the best practices undertaken by various countries to ensure gender responsive governance include –
State of Kerala in India through Kudumbashree that is a network of women’s organizations, have started 1144 community kitchens in Panchayats and Municipalities with the help of local self-government institutes. Out of these, 416 have also been providing food @ Rs. 20 per meal to the communities.
State of Odisha, India has given the power of a collector / district magistrate to the Sarpanch of a village (around 58% are women) wherein, they are voluntarily working in providing ration, support to migrants, distributing masks, updating communities about the various schemes and programmes of the Government amongst others. Self-Help groups have also been playing a major role in the state of Odisha in raising awareness, making and distributing masks and providing a support system to the frontline workers at the community level.
State of Madhya Pradesh, India has started a separate helpline number for COVID 19. The officials in-charge of all helpline numbers including Women Helpline 181 have attended almost 1.5 lakh calls daily since the beginning of lockdown. Few districts have announced to wash hands every three hours by providing water drums and soaps at regular intervals on roads. Anganwari workers and Asha workers are working day and night as front line warriors – providing homemade masks, take home rations, environment friendly home-made plates to eat at quarantine centres for the migrants and sensitizing villagers on COVID 19 through creative wall paintings.
Qubec and Ontario province of Canada have listed shelters for women survivors in the list of essential services. This is to ensure that the already strained systems due to the pandemic don’t further lead to more trauma, injury and deaths due to different forms of GBV.
The Egyptian Government has adopted a COVID-19 response plan by issuing a policy paper on “Egypt’s rapid response to women’s situation during the COVID-19 outbreak”. It has also initiated a bimonthly gender policy tracker, to track the government’s response to the crisis through a gender lens.
Yukon has devised a plan where women experiencing homelessness and fleeing domestic violence can now have free access to cell-phones with free access to internet and calls to get the required support.
France and Spain have a policy where they have asked women who are under any threat or violence to visit the drugstores and simply say the code “mask 19” behind the counter, if they are not able to talk about their concerns openly.
The ways in which our governance structure can be made more responsive to the gender needs include –
Women should be engaged in the decision making processes and have representation / leadership roles at the district, state and national levels where plans, policies and programmes are being framed to tackle the pandemic situation .
Shelter homes, one stop centres, distress call centres, mahila police stations, etc. should continue providing ‘essential’ services and be accessible to women at all times. As the rate and numbers of gender based violence including domestic violence and intimate partner violence is on a rise, it is important to ensure that all care services and support systems be functional. The frontline health workers should also be trained to identify those in distress and provide necessary services.
The economic policies and bailout packages for a country / state should have dedicated provisions for women contributing to the economy in both formal and informal sectors. In case of cash transfer by Government, it should be targeted at the individual level rather than looking at family / household as a unit. This will ensure that women have a say in matters at the household / family unit and also have cash to meet their expenses.
Women who are at the bottom of pyramid, including single women, single parents, migrants, differently abled, elderly, etc. should be given special emphasis in terms of social support schemes, medical, economic and social assistance, etc. Health care insurance and other insurance policies should be activated to meet the needs of those at the bottom of the pyramid.
At the village level, it should be ensured that women engaged in agriculture and other allied activities should have access to credit; systems should be in place to ensure that women are able to sell their resources and other forest / NTFP produce, etc. It should also be ensured that food insecurity is removed from all levels and women have access to nutritious and clean food.
As the health systems are collapsing, it is important to continue pre and post natal services, and other health services for women. There should be no interruption to access sexual and reproductive health services and financial resources should not be diverted from essential / routine health services to tackle the crisis at hand.
The local self-government mostly at the panchayat level should be given more power and responsibilities and women representatives from that level should become the voice and agents to meet the needs of the women.
SHGs at the local level should be used as vehicles for bringing about transformative changes within communities in terms of spreading awareness, assisting the frontline health workers and involvement in making masks, gloves, etc.
Disaggregated data based on sex, age, disability, socio-economic category, etc. should be collected so that it becomes easier to cater to their specific needs and requirements.
Thus, gender responsive governance needs to be looked at different levels –
Keeping these factors into consideration, it is important to strengthen our governance and responsive systems to be gender equitable. If more women are involved in shaping the new social and economic order, we would be more responsive to everyone’s needs and become more resilient to absorb future shocks so that we can “Build Back Better”.
 Guterres António, 2020. United nations COVID- 19 Response. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/en/un-coronavirus-communications-team/pandemic-exposing-and-exploiting-inequalities-all-kinds-including
— By Pooja Singh, UN Women and Nizni Hans, former UN Women.
Nizni Hans :
Nizni Hans has worked with UN Women addressing issues of Ending Violence Against Women and Gender Responsive Governance / Budgeting in India. Presently, she is associated with Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences, Odisha working on gender issues and rights of indigenous communities.
Pooja Singh :
Pooja Singh is Consultant for Gender Responsive Planning and Budgeting at the Directorate of Women and Child Development, Government of Madhya Pradesh in Bhopal placed by UN Women MCO for India, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka.