To commemorate International Women’s Day, the United Nations has called for “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 World,” as the day coincides with the dark week when WHO declared the virus a global pandemic. A year later, the virus has laid bare the stark gender inequality that continues to shape our world. Despite being at the forefront of COVID-19 response, women – particularly those in economic hardships and from marginalized racial and ethnic groups – have borne the brunt of this crisis.
On this day, we must reflect on why this happened and why it is absolutely critical for women and girls – in all their diversity – to have an equal voice and co-lead in rebuilding after COVID-19.
Forced to make impossible choices
Recent Oxfam research revealed that, while COVID-19 lockdowns have generally increased women’s and men’s unpaid care workload, it was women who continued to do the bulk of this work. The report also found that the crisis has forced women to make impossible choices - between abandoning paid employment and care, even when this meant risking facing further destitution. Women living in poverty, single mothers, and essential and informal workers, many belonging to discriminated against racial and ethnic groups, have been pushed furthest to the margins. As a result, it is not surprising that women reported feeling more anxious, depressed, overworked or ill because of the increased unpaid work, loss of income and other hardships during this period.
Violence against women also soared in many countries during lockdowns, with 243 millions of women and girls reporting sexual, physical and emotional violence during the pandemic. Moreover, sexual and reproductive health and services were side-lined during the pandemic. Access to modern contraception, safe delivery or abortion has been reduced. Over the coming 5 years, it is estimated that 2.5 million girls will also be forced into early marriage due to poverty, affecting their overall development and exposing them more to unwanted, and in many cases physically dangerous, pregnancies and further gender-based violence from intimate partners who are often older and hold more power in the relationships.
These realities were not born just last year but are the result of longstanding systemic practices, cultural values, patriarchal norms, and political decisions that perpetuated inequality and discrimination.
Why things must change
Diverse and equal representation of all genders in decision-making is paramount to any healthy functioning society and sustainable economy. Collective problem-solving is even more essential at this critical post-pandemic juncture. As we brace for the second year of the Coronavirus, we face common global challenges. How are we going to deal with the unrest caused by the COVID-19 economic fallout that has exponentially deepened inequalities and pushed millions, particularly women and marginalized racial and ethnic groups to poverty and hunger? How can we ensure everyone, not just rich nations and the privileged few, get the vaccine, so we can end this terrible disease? How can we rebuild a greener and more sustainable world and heal our beaten planet?
To address these challenges, we need the talent of all people. We need diverse perspectives, knowledge, experiences, and commitment to be valued equally, if we are to shape the way forward and rebuild a world that works for all and not just the privileged few.
For example, we want women who have been excluded from accessing land, to help propose new ways forward for land management. We would like women who migrate as domestic workers or nurses, to participate in re-imagining our national and global care systems. Without this diversity we will not be able to confront the complex global dilemmas ahead of us.
Our post-COVID-29 world will look very different if we turn this crisis into an opportunity to engage everyone, regardless of their class, race, religion, or sexual orientation - in our collective spaces at all levels: at presidencies, religious establishments, civil society organizations, boards, academic institutions or neighbour associations. Only together, we can brave COVID-19 and rebuild a more just world.
But sadly, the reality is far from this picture because many of our institutional machineries are broken and bankrupt. The protection of the common good is hitting new lows, with more citizens losing trust in their leaders to address their problems and concerns. Many politicians appear regularly in our news feed mishandling facts or public resources, bending to suit big corporates interests, and promoting xenophobia and misogyny. In many cases, politics has become morally and functionally compromised, since those most impacted by policies – the poorest, women and racial and ethnic minorities above all - are often excluded from decision making tables.
We will rebuild a better world only if we ensure everyone has a voice
We have seen how in Yemen, as in other post-conflict contexts, how women have been largely excluded from formal peace talks despite their courageous participation in peace building at the local level. We have observed how populist regimes around the world have blatantly disregarded women’s rights, and perpetuated a disrespectful rhetoric around migrants, LGBTQI+ communities, ethnic, racial and religious minorities. We have seen women farmers who lost everything to climate-fuelled events have no say in what rich nations decide at Climate Summits.
Today, we are at a critical crossroad. We have a moral choice to make. Are we going to protect the current broken global economic and social systems that favour the wealthy and privileged? Will we be able to centre our values and practices around equality and care for all people or only a few?
The issues we face together could not be more urgent, and only the collective intelligence, heart and experiences of our humanity can solve them. I strongly believe that we can and will brave COVID-19 and rebuild a better world if we focus our efforts towards ensuring everyone has a voice. Only by fighting for universal human rights and guaranteeing equal and diverse representation of all genders is at the heart of any COVID-19 recovery, we can rebuild better and transform our societies. Only then, on International Women’s Day, we can truly celebrate all people living with dignity and freedom.