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Women and girls in the age of the Pandemic

by Vanessa Smith                                                                                                   

Women and girls are at an increased vulnerability, even before the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The increased burden of unpaid child care and household responsibilities, a side effect of the global pandemic, falls more so on women and girls than it does on men. Women dropping out of the labor force increased by 30% in India, and increased the number of hours women in the United States spend on responsibilities at home from 1.5 to 2.0 hours.

Moreover, women in lesser developed countries are more likely to be involved in informal work such as small business subsistence work and domestic work, and are less likely to have the type of safety net of social protection measures, as revealed in a recent report by the World Bank. Women working on smallholder farms and traders will see a decline in crop productivity and an uptick in food pricing and closed borders, reducing their ability to sell, buy and trade.

Female participation in the labor force is two thirds of their male counterparts, and the likelihood of women receiving the same opportunities as men to reskill and re-enter the labor force is disproportionate to that of their male counterparts.

A report published by McKinsey and Company highlights the stark numbers of the gender equality gap. The report highlights data which puts the reality of gender parity into perspective. Female job loss is 1.8 times higher than it is for their male counterparts in the United States in India. That is at 5.7 rate versus the 3.1 rate that men face in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Labour-related exposure is also notably higher in women. Women are at a greater risk because of their disproportionate numbers in labour sectors more at risk to the COVID-19 pandemic. Women have significantly larger numbers in the health care industry, putting our female front-line workers are greater risk, and the stress of not only battling their own effects of the pandemic, but that of their entire communities.

Farmer weeding maize field in Bihar, India
Copied with permission “Farmer weeding maize field in Bihar, India” by CIMMYT is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Women’s health risk is increased not only in their higher risk workforce exposure, but also because of their unique childbearing responsibility. Childbirth during the pandemic causes another layer of vulnerability that is exclusive to women and their unborn children. Despite childbirth mortality rates leveling off and dropping in recent years, black women, particularly in the United States have a 2.5 greater risk than their white female counterparts to experience complication and mortality during childbirth. UNICEF reports that even before the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 2.8 million pregnant women and newborns died every year, or 1 every 11 seconds, mostly of preventable causes. That level now is at a greater risk as exposure to COVID-19, stressed health systems and a disruption to services complicates matters for pregnant women across the globe.

“Millions of mothers all over the world embarked on a journey of parenthood in the world as it was. They now must prepare to bring a life into the world as it has become – a world where expecting mothers are afraid to go to health centres for fear of getting infected, or missing out on emergency care due to strained health services and lockdowns,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director. “It is hard to imagine how much the coronavirus pandemic has recast motherhood.”

Gender inequality is real and not only reflects a flattening level of progress of society, there is a very strong case for its economic impact. McKinsey reports a $1 trillion-dollar economic impact for business-as-usual of the economic cost of gender inequality, citing through their different projected models that if we focused on policy and improved gender parity measures, the potential for economic growth could be around $13 US trillion dollars.

Policy, increased training and corporate responsibility will prove to be critical to transforming the outlook for our society, and women. Educating policymakers and pressure for institutional reform in countries around the world is an important component to global gender parity. Highlighting companies invested in female inclusivity will prove to create significant impact on women, girls and society at-large. Reskilling women, education and female focused programs can also lead to a faster recovery not only form the COVID-19 pandemic, but also makes a case for stronger and more resilient communities and cities during the economic recovery.