Opinion: COVID-19 threats facing women are daunting. We cannot be afraid of the challenge

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A front-line health worker at an infectious disease institute in Thailand. Photo by: Pathumporn Thongking / UN Women Asia and the Pacific / CC BY-NC-ND

This week marks one year since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. It also marks one year since the birth of a new generation of heroes and survivors: the women upon whose shoulders rests a disproportionate share of pandemic response.

Even as we celebrate International Women’s Day this week, the gender inequities and inequalities that existed long before the novel coronavirus are intensifying. Before hard-won gains in gender equality come undone, we need global solidarity to support women and girls during recovery from the pandemic.

We’ve just spent the past year building COVAX, a global solution to a global problem. The same principles of solidarity that are delivering COVID-19 vaccines across the world can also deliver on gender equality — providing that we decisively put women and girls at the center of pandemic recovery.

Never in history has the spotlight on women leaders shone brighter. The leadership of women and girls at all levels has been at the forefront of pandemic response, solutions, and innovations. From activists to policymakers, from scientists to health workers, women and girls have exemplified leadership with equal parts competence and compassion, fortitude and foresight.

Women-led governments and ministries from all corners of the globe — from Iceland to India’s Kerala state — were more successful in protecting their populations from COVID-19 through proactive and coordinated policy responses, listening, and science, as well as relational leadership. In showing empathy, putting a human face on economic problems, relating to the pain and grief of families, and communicating messages in a way that promoted people's agency, women established a new brand of leadership.

Before hard-won gains in gender equality come undone, we need global solidarity to support women and girls during recovery from the pandemic.

At the same time, there were countless women coronavirus warriors who risked their own lives to protect others. As health systems were overwhelmed with increasing numbers of COVID-19 patients, women nurses, who constitute the most critical line of defense, worked day and night to save lives. In every part of the developing world, women front-line health workers fanned out to prepare communities for lockdown restrictions and raise awareness of COVID-19 prevention measures, resulting in unparalleled public health gains.

It is a travesty that the COVID-19 pandemic has also put women and girls under siege. Women and girls are fighting for their lives as a “shadow pandemic” of violence threatens their safety.

In August, UNESCO forecast that over 11 million girls may not go back to school after the crisis. When girls no longer have access to safe school environments, they are at greater risk of sexually transmitted infections, adolescent pregnancy, early and forced marriage, and gender-based violence. A lack of education also robs them of future opportunities.

The pandemic is rolling back women’s economic gains of past decades while widening the gender poverty gap. The 740 million women employed in the informal economy have suffered disproportionately from damage to the global economy. Meanwhile, 510 million women — 40% of all employed women — work in industries hit hardest by COVID-19, such as food service.

Women’s employment is at greater risk than men’s, and women now have to carry a far greater share of unpaid domestic and care work — including educating many of the 168 million children globally who have been out of school for almost an entire year due to lockdowns.

COVID-19-related restrictions and a diversion of the workforce have led to disruption of essential health services, from routine immunizations to prenatal care and skilled birth attendance. This means many more girls and women are struggling to survive childhood and childbirth. Further, the pandemic has seen a significant rise in stillbirths, and unsafe abortions are expected to be increasing too.

The magnitude of the threats facing women and girls is formidable, but the pandemic has revealed that we, members of the global community, are not afraid of an epic challenge. We came together to guarantee the largest global rollout of vaccines in history to protect people from COVID-19, regardless of gender, geography, or wealth.

From new governance mechanisms and new technologies to new ways of communicating, we have created a robust global mechanism with an ambition to bridge the vaccine divide. Bridging the gender divide is also possible — if we ensure that more women are in leadership positions and that gender impacts are considered in all our economic, health, and social policies.

COVID-19 threats facing women are daunting. We cannot be afraid of the challenge. As we continue to celebrate International Women’s Day and embrace this year’s theme, “#ChooseToChallenge,” we must choose to uphold the equity commitments we have made in the name of global health security to achieve gender equality. Until then, all of us — not only our women heroes and survivors — are being held back from the healthy, inclusive, just, and prosperous future we all deserve.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Anuradha Gupta

    Anuradha Gupta is deputy CEO at Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Since joining Gavi in 2015, Anuradha has led efforts to put equity and gender at the center of its programmatic planning and to tailor support for countries within its strategy. She has also driven efforts to create a new model of country-level alliance support through the establishment of the partners’ engagement framework.