The year 2020 marks two important landmarks in gender equality achievement: the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action and the 20th year of implementing Security Council resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic caused cancellation and postponing of many important international meetings, including a shortened version of the 64th session of the Commission on the status of women, but it is also risking to heavily jeopardize the progress made over the last years.
Vulnerable populations are by definition the elective victims of any pandemic, not only in terms of mortality, but also for the long-term effects that a pandemic might have in deepening the social, political and economic divide and exponentially increase their negative consequences.
Among vulnerable populations, those affected by gender-based discriminations might be the ones paying the highest price for their subordinate position in society. The social lockdown may increase isolation and aggressive behaviours by violent partners and the economic downturn might make it difficult to maintain opportunities for decent work. With the schools closing, the efforts to ensure access to education for girls might be put aside, while programmes for prenatal, maternal and child health might be overshadowed by the pandemic's emergency priorities. Notwithstanding these unprecedented times, women have continued to bear the heaviest burden from childcare and family members, and they are the unknown heroes at the forefront of hospital care as nurses and doctors.
In a recent policy brief, the Secretary General suggests 3 priority areas where governments should concentrate their efforts to ensure policies and measures are built with a gender dimension, to address the current response and the long-term recovery efforts. These are: 1. ensure women's representation in all Covid-19 related decisions, 2. Set up mechanisms for the recognition of informal and formal work, 3. consider women and girls in addressing the future impact of Covid-19.
In Italy, the Covid-19 pandemic hit particularly hard, with the national health system reduced to near collapse. The virus morbidity and mortality rates seemed to be affecting women less than men, with preliminary analysis showing 47 per cent among females and 52 per cent among males.
However, due to the high number of females employed as nurses and care givers, female health workers were infected twice as much as their male counterparts, respectively 66 per cent versus 34 per cent.
Fearing a possible surge in domestic violence due to the quarantine lockdown, several Member States have taken measures to ensure women are not left alone and at the mercy of violent partners. Spain has set up a whole emergency plan which includes helplines and special housing for victims. France, which has already the highest rates of gender-based violence in Europe, had to respond to a soaring 30 per cent increase in cases during Covid-19 quarantine, by even seizing hotels for sheltering purposes. In Argentina, the Ministry for Women, Gender and Diversity has designated pharmacies as referral places for women victims of intimate partner violence.
Like most countries in Europe, Italy had already a strategic plan against domestic violence in place for the years 2017-2020, which included policies and financial resources for protecting women victims of intimate partner violence (IPV). However, in addition to that, the Italian Minister for Equal Opportunities has declared a number of emergency measures, including a special increase in the budget to support anti-violence centres and special shelters for victims of gender based violence during the Covid-19 emergency and to provide immediate support to women victims of IPV. A help- line is available 24/7 for psychological support or for referral and legal assistance. Media campaigns on national television have been launched. These financial resources will be also used to support sex-workers and victims of trafficking in persons.
With regard to women in the workplace, various Member States, including Italy, have set up emergency funds to protect workers from job loss and to provide subsidies during the quarantine. However, these measures are likely to exclude the informal economy sector, where women represent a significant number. The social and economic crisis which is most likely to follow Covid-19 pandemic will be necessarily more relevant for women if gender differences in wages and career continue to be underestimated by global development policies.
To this regard, UNICRI conducted in 2014 a research study to shed light on the impact of the economic crisis of 2008 on women's wellbeing and gender equality, in four countries of the Mediterranean Basin. The study analysed women's public and private aspects of life such as IPV, number of divorces, employment rates, poverty, minority groups, housing, health, prostitution, retirement benefits. In all countries analysed, violence against women, and girls in particular, is intensified and exacerbated in situations of socio-economic stress. Evidence shows that where the "gender gap" is greater - in the status of women's health, participation in the economy, education levels, and representation in politics - women are more likely to be subjected to violence. In the effort to create a prevention strategy, economic and social empowerment are paramount. The study also analysed what were the coping responses from governments. This research complements several initiatives undertaken by UNICRI towards the prevention of violence against women, encompassing research, awareness raising, capacity building of law enforcement, and the protection of victims through women's empowerment programmes and cooperation with civil society.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Governments should ensure that the needs of women and girls are taken into due consideration in contingency crisis and emergency plans, in order to benefit both men and women equally and leave no one behind during emergency preparedness and response plans.
Governments should also ensure that women's voices are heard in times of crisis. This means making sure that there is equal representation of men and women in decision making boards and in political decisions and policy spaces at large, at all stages, during and following a crisis or emergency.
Access to prenatal and maternal care services and frontline response to gender-based violence should not be diminished in times of crisis and should instead be considered essential at all times.
Governments should increase collection of sex disaggregated and gender data in order to ensure that the gender perspective is regularly included and integrated in all national emergency response plans.
Economic crises have the power to heighten gender-based inequalities, worldwide. Governments should ensure access to social protection mechanisms for all workers including informal workers. Women's unpaid work at home and for childcare should be accounted for in social protection policies.
UNWOMEN: Gender equality: women's rights in review, March 2020
United Nations Policy brief: The impact of covid-19 on women 9 April 2020
Istituto Superiore di Sanità dati donne e uomini
Dipartimento per le Pari Opportunità
Wehnam et al. The Covid-19 gendered impacts of the outbreak, The Lancet, 395:10227, ppgs.846-848, 14 March 2020
R. Hutt, The coronavirus fallout may be worse for women than men, World Economic Forum, March 2020
Photo credits: UNSPLASH/Engin Akyurt