Q&A: UN Women envisions a more gender-equal post-pandemic society

Our COVID-19 coverage is free. Please consider a Devex Pro subscription to support our journalism.
Anita Bhatia, deputy executive director at UN Women. Photo by: Bundit Chotsuwan / UN Women / CC BY-NC-ND

NEW YORK — The novel coronavirus pandemic is impacting people around the world, but it is having an outsize effect on women’s work, health, and livelihoods — and requires a targeted gender response, according to Anita Bhatia, deputy executive director at UN Women.

“The post-pandemic society has to pay attention to equality of all genders and all disabilities and to do so in a way that builds a stronger society.”

— Anita Bhatia, deputy executive director, UN Women

Most front-line health workers are women, and women also disproportionately hold informal sector jobs that they now stand to lose, without strong government safety nets.

“I am just shocked every time I turn on the television to watch the news on this. All I see is a sea of men. With the exception of a few female heads of state, women are not present in decision-making to the same degree as men,” Bhatia said in a recent interview.

“We want to see policymakers actually find ways to impute the voice of women in decision-making because you will get better outcomes. A more diverse decision-making team leads to richer decisions and better outcomes,” Bhatia said.

Bhatia spoke with Devex about how UN Women has formed an immediate response plan to COVID-19 but is also looking ahead to longer-term challenges — and even some opportunities.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Could you explain how UN Women has developed its response to COVID-19?

In the countries where we are present — and many of those are affected by the crisis — we are engaged with WHO and with the rest of the U.N. agencies in making sure that the immediate humanitarian response has a gender lens. In some countries where there are big refugee camps, for example, we are making sure that the messaging and the social distancing is done in a way that doesn't disproportionately impact women. We'll have to make provisions for the special needs of women.

We know, for example, that domestic violence is probably going to go up, and we are hearing about this anecdotally. We are pushing governments to say that shelters are essential services and should be kept open during the crisis. This also includes access to medical services that in some places may not be considered essential. What you don't want is that, by not paying attention to these issues, you actually regress and slide back on the gains that we have seen over the last 25 years in areas like maternal mortality.

How are you assessing what issues to prioritize first?

In Asia, where we have country offices, we sit down with the U.N. country team and the resident coordinator, who is in dialogue with every single U.N. agency, about what they are bringing to the table. We are saying, “Look, when we are getting messaging out, when we are getting interventions out, when we're getting the humanitarian response out, we're part of the thinking on how to make that response really effective.”

We know from the Ebola crisis that enlisting women's organizations in getting out key messages was really valuable, and it was also very valuable in building the post-crisis resilience and recovery response. The real work, of course, is on the ground, because that's where we see directly the impacts of the crisis on women. Going back to the domestic violence issue, our job is to say to governments who are crafting their policy response: “Please ensure that you consider shelters essential services. Please be aware that domestic violence goes up and that there will be victims of trauma and maybe even there will be deaths because we know intimate-partner violence is so high. Please sensitize law enforcement to be open to this, even as they are dealing with other issues.”

Have you seen any action taken at the country level so far with those requests in place?

Governments are overwhelmed. They are trying to craft the best possible response, and they understand that the social distancing and isolation measures are absolutely critical to suppressing the spread of the disease. Our immediate work is just to deal with the health effects of the response. Among the countries that have been affected, we are not working in France or Italy or Denmark, but we're in policy dialogue with these governments because they are principal donors. In countries like China, India, Thailand, Vietnam, and countries in Africa where the crisis hasn't really reached big proportions yet, we are also talking about that.

What are the other main concerns that might require a longer-term response?

We're drawing attention to the issue of unpaid care. Even before the crisis, women did three times as much unpaid care work as men. Now we are seeing that women are facing triple or quadruple the burden because they're taking care of the home, as they often do, but now you have kids at home. We will soon be launching the social mobilization campaign called "He for She at Home" because we want to address the issue of gender stereotypes at home.

Even before COVID, there were a lot of countries where we were seeing declines in female labor force participation. We have not gotten to the bottom of what is driving this reduction. But many of the sectors that are going to be deeply affected are in the formal sector and are very dependent on female labor force participation, like tourism and retail. Most of the informal sector employment also has a very high percentage of women, and there are no social safety nets for these women.

How much of a concern is progress on the SDGs at this point? How hard would it be to regain progress that might be lost during this pandemic?

The pandemic shows that if we'd had the SDGs — perhaps paid more attention to climate and the fact that, by cutting down habitat, we are just bringing certain infections from the animal kingdom closer into the human kingdom — we may not be here. If there's one thing the pandemic is showing, it is that everybody truly is equal and we truly are boundaryless in this world. Going forward, we have an opportunity to do what I call “build back better.”

The post-pandemic society has to pay attention to equality of all genders and all disabilities and to do so in a way that builds a stronger society. I do think the crisis is going to lead to such a fundamental shake-out in both developed and developing economies that it's an opportunity to think about what kind of a society and economy we want afterward — one that gives women an equal place.

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.