Exacerbating the long-standing gender divide, girls and women worldwide have been hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report released by Women Deliver and Focus 2030.
“COVID-19 has exposed the economic gender fault lines across Australia and the world,” says Tanja Kovac, CEO of Gender Equity Victoria, Australia. “[Women] recognise the risk of disaster posed by this moment in history and what it means for their own wellbeing and progress and that of their children.”
In 13 out of 17 countries surveyed since the outbreak, women reported more emotional stress and mental health challenges compared to men, including higher gender-based violence, fewer sexual and reproductive services, greater economic impact and increased household burdens.
A vast majority of respondents said their governments should funnel more resources and attention to supporting gender equality. Accordingly, the survey provides a roadmap for government actions to address the issues – which deliver benefits for all.
“Girls and women’s rights are human rights, and a gender-equal world is healthier, wealthier and more prosperous,” says Divya Mathew, senior manager of Research Policy and Advocacy at Women Deliver.
“Yet despite 26 years of progress since the landmark World Conference on Women in Beijing, no country has fully met its commitments to gender equality.”
The report, which covers six continents housing more than half the world’s population and 53% of all women and girls aged 18 and over, aims to address this by gathering community input to inform the upcoming Generation Equality Forum in Beijing.
“This study is designed to broaden public participation in efforts to achieve gender equality and elevate the voices and perspectives of citizens,” says Mathew, “especially those who are too often excluded from decision-making processes.”
The forum has six themes that were echoed by the survey’s questions: gender-based violence, economic justice and rights, bodily autonomy and sexual and reproductive health and rights, feminist action for climate justice, technology and innovation for gender equality and feminist movements and leadership.
It was delivered online between 24 July and 7 August 2020 in primarily local languages and completed by around 1000 people representative of each country’s population, with data weighted by age, gender, region and vote in the latest national elections, where applicable.
Among its findings, 80% of respondents said gender equality is a personal priority for them, and 60%, on average across all countries, feel that gender equality is essential to end poverty.
These attitudes did not just represent women – a great majority of men also said they support gender equality – and held irrespective of generational, political or socioeconomic influences.
Most respondents said their government should do more to promote gender equality and half said they want their government to promote equality between women and men and end discrimination against women.
Specific actions ranged from equal pay (supported by 45% of respondents globally on average) to increasing accountability of perpetrators of physical and sexual crimes (supported by 61% globally).
The health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 lockdowns were identified as the most pressing challenges facing the surveyed countries.
In Australia, 31% of female respondents reported that their “time doing household work has increased” during the pandemic, compared to 24% of male respondents.
More sobering is gender-based violence, a phenomenon Mathew says “transcends social, economic and geographic borders and is rooted in gendered power imbalances”.
One in three women report physical and sexual abuse in their lifetime, with groups that experience discrimination at increased risk such as girls and women living with disabilities, Indigenous women, migrants, refugees and those internally displaced. And the current global situation has made this worse.
“At the time of the survey, half of the world’s population was in lockdown situations due to the pandemic, placing girls and women at an increased risk of experiencing gender-based violence – particularly domestic violence,” says Mathew. “As a result, the urgency to end gender-based violence has heightened.”
As the top priority to achieve gender equality for respondents in 13 out of 17 countries, this includes cyber harassment, sexual assault, domestic violence, forced and child marriage and female genital mutilation.
Perhaps not surprisingly, ending gender-based violence is a greater priority for female respondents than males – except in China. In nine countries there was a “notable difference” between female and male respondents, says Mathew, with an average difference of more than 8%.
Further to that, she notes, “despite hard-fought gains in the area of sexual and reproductive health and rights in the past 26 years, there are persistent gaps in availability and accessibility of [these] services.
“Given the political, social, environmental and health challenges the world is facing, sexual and reproductive health and rights are at risk of being deprioritised.”
Disruptions to these services during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown measures are predicted to increase the number of unintended pregnancies, maternal deaths and unsafe abortions.
“Across 12 months, modest disruption to sexual and reproductive services due to the COVID-19 pandemic across low and middle-income countries will lead to an additional 49–98 million women with unmet needs for modern contraceptives, 15 million unintended pregnancies, 28,000 maternal deaths and 3.3 million unsafe abortions,” Mathews reports.
Another key finding was public support for women to play a role in all aspects of the pandemic response, with 82% of respondents saying they believed women should be involved at all levels.
“Often serving on the frontlines of response, women are overrepresented in hard-hit economic sectors and therefore bear the disproportionate economic brunt of COVID-19 effects,” says Mathews.
“Yet, despite broad recognition that gender must be factored into the response, women currently make up on 24% of COVID-19 response committees on average across 30 countries.”
The 17 countries surveyed were France, Germany, the UK, US, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, India, Mexico, China, Colombia, Switzerland, South Africa, Argentina, Kenya and Tunisia.
Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of South Australia.
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