CW: This articles discusses topics of domestic violence that may be distressing for some viewers.
Gender equality before the pandemic
Gender equality makes up goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which aim to eradicate poverty and achieve an improved and more sustainable future for all. Goal 5 is defined as achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls throughout all areas of life. Not only does it advocate for the fundamental human right of equality, it also highlights the potential gender equality has as a foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world.
Goal 5 can be broken down into key areas of action. These include eradicating harmful practices, such as discrimination and violence against women and girls. This goal also encourages offering equal opportunities, universal health access and promoting the empowerment of women and girls everywhere. Finally, it also includes enforcing legislation that ensures the remain of these practices (UN).
So where were we prior to the pandemic? Gender equality has seen progress throughout the last decades through legislation such as The Equality Act 2010, which legally protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society (GOV).
Where does COVID-19 come into this?
"Limited gains in gender equality and women's rights made over the decades are in danger of being rolled back due to the COVID-19 pandemic." - UN Secretary-General, 2020
The pandemic has caused an increase in gender disparities for several reasons. Women have been the backbone of their communities, with more women on the Covid-19 frontline due to the overrepresentation of women in essential services and caring professions that remained open and available throughout the pandemic.
Of the 49 million care workers in the EU, who have been most exposed to the virus, around 76% are women. With this, women have made up 72% of health workers who have been infected by the virus globally (EIGE). But whilst women have stepped up for their communities, the pandemic has only highlighted how poorly they are treated in return.
Several organisations are pushing for gender mainstreaming in crisis situations (EIGE). This would recognise the disparities between men and women, particularly in roles whereby women are the dominant employees.
Additionally, the pandemic has highlighted the lack of contribution women have in decision-making, particularly during crisis situations and further challenges to occupational health, which simultaneously seems to be affecting them the most.
The pandemics part to play
Whilst Covid-19 has shed light on existing disparities between men and women, it has also created new implications for the progression of Goal 5.
Since the pandemic, there has been a decrease in job security for women due to such a large proportion of women employed in the main Covid-hit sectors that are facing job losses (EP). In 2019 women accounted for 39.4% of total employment, whereas in 2020 during the pandemic, women represented nearly 45% of global employment losses (UN).
Women are also more likely to require time off to care for children and relatives, and throughout the pandemic where ill health was commonplace, this was even more necessary and yet entirely unaccounted for in terms of allowances being made by employers. This decrease in job security has reversed decades of progress in women's participation in the labour force (Oxfam).
The pandemic has also led to an escalation of violence against women. In some countries, the pandemic saw up to 33% increase in reported intimate partner violence (Oxfam). Furthermore, the nature of lockdowns isolated victims more so than usual, causing more difficulty getting help.
Covid-19 has also disrupted health systems and is rewinding efforts to meet needs in sexual and reproductive health. Reduced access to these fundamental health services has led to the global prediction of up to 7 million unintended pregnancies worldwide due to Covid-19 and its measures (Oxfam).
Whilst this list of some of the damaging effects of the pandemic on the progression of the gender equality goal is extensive, it is also not complete. There are many other areas of women's lives that have been impacted due to Covid-19.
So, how do we proceed?
The Covid-19 pandemic has called to attention the incredible importance of gender equality whilst also reversing its progress itself. But without discounting the effects this has had on women over the last few years, this is also certainly a moment of reflection whereby the increased awareness of gender inequality could be used to prompt action in important areas.
Despite women's leadership and courage throughout the pandemic, which is evident in their roles in essential services, they still trail men in securing the decision-making positions they deserve (UN). In order to fully comprehend how gender inequality affects women and in determining the most helpful way to proceed, women with first-hand experience should have the opportunity to encourage change.
Additionally, further commitment to the upkeep of gender statistics is crucial for the monitoring of the progression of Goal 5. Without sufficient up-to-date statistics to begin with, it is difficult to track areas of improvement and areas requiring further attention and action.
Investment in caring professions would also have a clear positive impact on gender equality with the majority of employees being women. The UN suggests that investing in these professions should be treated as a 'collective good' which improves the sector as a whole - the people requiring support and those providing it.
Increased funding and government collaboration in women's organisations could also allow for further insight into the need for new legislation or action in the areas it would be most valuable. The statistics, stories and direction communication with communities are already available; this would allow those to be utilised effectively, whilst providing additional funding to allow for aid and research for women in the meantime.
Lastly, the protection of women's health services is vital. The pandemic has proved the damaging effects on these services, but there is also a direct connection between other crises and the negative effects they have on women's health services in particular, including climate disasters and climate change more generally (UN).
The important part is that we don't let the Covid-19 pandemic take more from our progression in gender equality than it already has. Continuing to fight for equality, and using the pandemic to demonstrate how desperately this gap between genders needs to close, is crucial.