Pandemic is widening poverty gap between women and men, new UN findings show

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Women carry cotton along a road near Zorro village, Burkina Faso. Photo by: Ollivier Girard / CIFOR / CC BY-NC-ND

NEW YORK — After years of steady decline, the global poverty gap between women and men is now widening amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with women aged 25-34 particularly hard hit, according to new findings by the United Nations Development Programme and UN Women. It could take more than a decade for younger women, many of whom are at the start of their careers and raising young children, to regain their financial losses and professional stability.

For every 100 men aged 25 to 34 living on $1.90 or less per day in 2021, there will be 118 women, according to the “From Insights to Action” report, released Wednesday. While the poverty rate for women was expected to decrease by 2.7% between 2019 and 2021, projections now show an increase of 9.1% due to the pandemic and its effects.

“When you compare women with some small children at home to men with small children at home, that's really where you see the gap,” said Ginette Azcona, an expert from UN Women’s research and data team who led on the report. The data collection was carried out by the Pardee Center for International Futures at the University of Denver.

“So, it again confirms that story of unpaid care and domestic work being primarily done by women and the stress that COVID-19 is placing on that work. Then, of course, it has this ripple effect on women's access to paid work and their ability to sustain their families and to stay out of extreme poverty,” Azcona continued.

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UN Women rolled out surveys in multiple countries in Asia and the Pacific just weeks after the pandemic was declared. Statistics specialist Sara Duerto Valero explains how the agency was able to act so quickly, and what the data reveals so far about the impacts of the crisis on men and women.

The International Monetary Fund has estimated that the pandemic will contribute to the global economy contracting roughly 5% in 2020. Without protective public measures in place, the number of people living in extreme poverty will increase by 96 million in 2021, placing the already off-track Sustainable Development Goals further out of reach. The health, equality, climate, and education goals aim to eliminate global poverty by 2030, among other measures.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned in a civil society town hall this week that the pandemic could cost “years, even generations” of progress on women’s empowerment.

Around 435 million women and girls will be living on less than $1.90 a day by 2021, including 47 million pushed into poverty as a result of COVID-19, according to the new U.N. findings. The report presents the first known analysis that aggregates economic forecasts by sex.

“We really wanted to be able to make data on goal five available to researchers, media, students, policymakers on the international poverty line by sex and age, something that you don't find at the moment anywhere else at the country level, at least,” Azcona said.

Initial estimates offer a devastating picture for women in the formal and informal work sectors.

For the 740 million women who work in the informal economy, their income fell by 60% during the first month of the pandemic, according to the report. In Asia and the Pacifc, 50% of women formally employed, compared with 35% of men, reported drops in their working time.

“The evidence we have here of multiple inequalities is critical to drive swift, restorative policy action that puts women at the heart of pandemic recovery.”

— Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director, UN Women

But if other factors are considered — such as the prolonged nature of the pandemic and school closures, for example — the situation for women could be far worse, according to Azcona.

“If we are able to take into account the true impact on women's employment, the true impact on kind of health services, education, etc., the picture could be much more dire,” Azcona said.

Country-specific data collection on COVID-19 remains patchy, according to Azcona, and offers few insights into the particular experiences of women and girls. Globally, just 37% of COVID-19 cases have been disaggregated by sex and age as of mid-July, according to the report.

“For now, the big kind of takeaway that is coming out of this analysis is that the pandemic is having a serious effect and really threatening progress on eradicating extreme poverty by the end of this decade and is actually putting it behind by a decade,” Azcona said.

Women’s employment is now 19% more at risk compared with men’s. One example of an increasingly fragile field is domestic work, where women make up 80% of the labor force. Already, 72% of domestic workers have lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19, according to the International Labour Organization.

“The evidence we have here of multiple inequalities is critical to drive swift, restorative policy action that puts women at the heart of pandemic recovery,“ said UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka in a media statement.

Ensuring women’s continued access to health care — including sexual and reproductive health care — is one way that governments can help offset financial damage caused by the pandemic, according to the report. Investing in protection systems for women’s income security, in addition to expanded access to affordable and quality child care services, is another way to reverse the trend of growing inequality.

It would cost $2 trillion — or 0.14% of global gross domestic product — to lift the world's extreme poor out of poverty by 2030 and place the first SDG target of eliminating poverty within reach. But over 100 million women and girls can be lifted out of poverty if governments also implement comprehensive policy strategies that address child care, education, and income loss.

Devex, with support from our partner UN Women, is exploring how data is being used to inform policy and advocacy to advance gender equality. Gender data is crucial to make every woman and girl count. Visit the Focus on: Gender Data page for more. Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of UN Women.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.