Amidst COVID-19, many of us have fallen victim to a sort of tunnel-vision effect, in which our news and subsequent awareness of global happenings has been limited to economic losses, virus-related fatalities, vaccines, confirmed cases, closings, re-openings, and the like. Consequently, we have begun to lose sight of ongoing global crises, which have not only continued in this new era, but have largely been exacerbated.
While the virus’ novelty and ensuing unprecedented shift is certainly something worthy of our attention, we must now, more than ever, ensure that those on the margins also remain a priority.
Gender equality has already witnessed immense threats to progress as a result of the pervasively spreading ripple effects of COVID-19. While advancements have been affected universally, one of the areas that desperately requires our attention is the Asia pacific, as Asia is home to half of the world’s 1.1 billion girls under the age of 18. Like most other parts of the world, Asia has witnessed incredible developments in the realm of women’s and girls’ rights in recent years. The number of girls in both primary and tertiary schools has risen exponentially; leadership positions are increasingly held by women; and domestic violence, child marriage, and unwanted pregnancies have collectively seen a decline.
Alike all crises and societal disruptions, COVID-19 poses an acute threat to the fragile areas of progress women and girls have experienced.
Key elements of women’s and girls’ advancement make up a pernicious web given one area of progress’ innate impact on others. Consequently, as certain advancements are hindered or precluded, the structure of progress will rapidly collapse. That is, as schools remain closed, and inescapable poverty inhibits online learning, aftereffects will prove far more rampant than a lack of girls in school. In addition, we will witness a surge in forced child marriages and unwanted pregnancies or STDs as a result of inaccessible sexual and reproductive healthcare. Gender-based violence will become utterly rife. Women and girls will face burdens of a rise in unpaid domestic work, enforcing gender stereotypes and thereby reducing the likelihood of girls returning to school and women to the paid labor market. These intertwined trends, amongst others, will collectively debilitate and disrupt years of progress if left unattended.
As societies gradually reopen, revealing an utterly altered way of life, we must maintain gender equality as a forefront concern in response and recovery efforts.
Otherwise, the world risks a considerate reversal of the many gains achieved for women and girls, alongside their positive ripple effects on societies at large. We must call upon our world leaders to place civil society at the forefront of such plans, as this single element will produce multifaceted productive effects, namely:
i. the continued education of girls, resulting in healthier families and communities, fewer cases of forced child marriage, less domestic violence, a vast decrease in poverty, and greater diversity in leadership positions;
ii. increased participation of women in both formal and informal labor markets, which will undeniably bolster economies and societies at large, as women have shown to reinvest 90% of their income into their families;
iii. and improved access to basic healthcare for women, resulting in augmented physical and mental health throughout societies.
Tangible practices our leaders can take to support women and girls in their response include:
i. disaggregating COVID data by sex, age, and disability, as women around the world have comprised the majority of frontline workers and responders, making it imperative to understand gendered differences in exposure and treatment;
ii. accounting for the burden of unpaid care work through additional financial assistance, which will also foster the economic empowerment of women;
iii. ensuring reproductive, pre- and post-natal, psychological, amongst other general healthcare services are attainable to all women, regardless of socio-economic status;
iv. boosting the inclusion of women in policy decisions related to each society’s “new normal”;
v. building media campaigns demonstrating the importance of shared household responsibilities between women and men, including cooking, cleaning, childcare, and homeschooling;
vi. and providing clear and safe steps survivors of GBV can take to leave endangering situations and find safety for themselves and their children elsewhere.
At the forefront of every decision must be the ideals of equality and social justice, and each policy response must uphold all internationally agreed human rights standards.
Together, we can ensure that women and girls maintain the advances they have rightfully earned, and continue to make strides towards a more equal future.
Author’s note: It’s often dispiriting to read about the imminent losses underprivileged and underrepresented groups around the world will witness if action is not taken, while feeling helpless and dependent on our respective leaders to act. However, as individuals, it’s crucial to keep in mind that we can have a tremendous positive impact by sharing related articles and holding relevant discussions with our broader networks (helpful sources include UN Women, Equality Now, Amnesty International, Plan International, Human Rights Watch, Women Going Beyond, amongst others) and supporting organizations, whether through volunteer work or donations, that uphold our visions of a brighter and more equal world for all.