COVID-19: Women and girls at the centre of response efforts

On 20 April 2020, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, and Gabriela Ramos, OECD Chief of Staff and Sherpa to the G20, convened and chaired the Women Leaders Virtual Roundtable on COVID-19 and the Future to address the disproportionately negative impact the COVID-19 pandemic has on women and girls and to identify and prioritize policy measures that facilitates a more gender-inclusive recovery path. 


The women leaders , ranging from Heads of State and Government, including President, Prime Minister and Vice-President, to Civil Society, head of global women’s movement and Youth leaders, represented the voices of women from various sectors to share their advice based on their experience from before and during this crisis. The engaging and dynamic discussion confirmed that women’s leadership is more needed than ever to go through this crisis.


The women leaders agreed that ensuring gender equality and women’s rights is essential to getting through this pandemic together, to recovering faster and building a better future. They urged governments and all stakeholders to put women and girls at the centre of their efforts and place women’s leadership and contributions at the heart of the COVID-19 response, resilience, and recovery efforts. 

Considering the scarcity of women’s voices in all decision-making spheres, including this crisis, the Roundtable served to put forward measures required to prevent the crisis from becoming a major setback for the safety and well-being of girls and women around the world.  

During the meeting, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said: “One of the most devastating aspects of this pandemic is the way that violence against women, including domestic violence, has risen so sharply in so many countries. All governments should declare services to prevent and respond to violence against women as essential. This includes helplines and shelters. They should not only get the attention and funding they need now, but those resources should continue after the pandemic. In addition, socio-economic stimulus packages should include special provisions targeting women.”

Gabriela Ramos said: “In an unequal world, a health crisis like the one we face today hurts women disproportionately. Women take on the majority of care work, both paid and unpaid, making up 70% of the healthcare workforce globally, half of doctors and 95% of long-term care workforces across the OECD. They are risking their lives, yet their pay, status, social recognition and visibility are limited. Furthermore, women are potentially over-exposed in this economic fallout as they are overrepresented in informal economy without adequate social protection. Essentially, we face two options as we respond to this crisis: we can either let these disproportionate impacts exacerbate existing inequalities, or we can make sure to embed a strong gender lens in response and recovery efforts to emerge stronger – and our choice is obvious. The post Covid-19 world will never be the same, and it is up to all of us to ensure that women fare better.”

The Roundtable participants identified key action areas as follows:  
Health Care Systems and Care Work: Women make up 70% of the global healthcare workforce but are concentrated in lower level, lower-paid positions. During this crisis, female health care workers are overextended responding to the immediate effects of this crisis.

  • Ensure proper working conditions for health care workers including adequate provision of protective equipment, equal pay and leadership, and reasonable working hours.
  • Ensure the needs of women are taken into account both as workers and as patients, as well as adequate funding for women’s health issues and sexual and reproductive rights.

Economic Impact: Containment and lockdown are vital to save lives, but are having dire impacts on the economic well-being of people around the world. It is estimated that 2.7 billion workers, or around 81% of the world’s workforce, are currently impacted by lockdown measures. Women with caring responsibilities, informal workers, low-income families, and youth are under particular pressure.

  • Ensure adequate social protection for women facing risks to their jobs and income. This social protection should take the form of subsidies for workers facing lay-offs, mediation to defer utility and rent payments and suspending evictions, increasing access to health care protection.
  • Ensure adequate social support for women participating in informal work including extending access to unemployment benefits for non-standard and informal workers.
  • Support youth who face job losses during this time and will likely face employment challenges following the crisis. Ensure access to digital learning and skilling opportunities as well as digital tools to connect youth with employment opportunities.
  • Provide support for workers with care responsibilities in the form of child allowances, access to childcare facilities for essential workers, promoting flexible working arrangements, financial subsidies for employers who provide workers with paid leave.
  • Encourage businesses to carry out due diligence on potential and actual adverse impacts on women in supply chains.

Gender-Based Violence: Prior to the crisis, more than 1 in 3 women had experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. Since the crisis, these rates have increased. Certain countries have seen more than 30% increases in calls to helplines. Support services are struggling.

  • Integrate efforts to prevent and respond to all forms of violence against women into COVID-19 response plans.
  • Designate domestic violence shelters as essential services and increase resources to them and to civil society groups on the front line of response.
  • Designate safe spaces for women to report abuse without alerting perpetrators, including online.
  • Step up awareness campaigns, including targeting men at home.

Women, Peace and Security and Humanitarian Aid: The disproportionate effects of this crisis on women as health workers and caregivers are amplified in developing country contexts. Furthermore, aid budgets are under threat as donor country governments invest heavily in measures to protect their own populations. 

  • Ensure women’s leadership in humanitarian responses and in conflict areas.
  • Guarantee access to basic services for the most marginalized groups of women, including rural indigenous, refugee, and migrant women.
  • Carry out humanitarian assistance work in accordance with standards on ending sexual exploitation and abuse, and sexual harassment.

(www.oecd.org/ photo:pixabay)

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