Why COVID-19 is a call to action for gender equality and peace

Woman stands in doorway in Tajikistan

This blog was written by Elizabeth Laruni and Gabriel Nuckhir from International Alert’s Gender team.

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a considerable impact on our health, economies and societies, not least when it comes to gender.

Gender-based violence (GBV) has long been the greatest threat to the security of women and other vulnerable groups around the world, especially in conflict-affected areas. COVID-19 has only compounded this situation, with huge increases in reported cases of GBV globally, leading to it being labelled the “shadow pandemic”.

COVID-19 is simultaneously threatening efforts to address broader structural gender inequalities and promote peace – key targets of the Sustainable Development Goals and United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, which this year marks its 20th anniversary.

For one, lockdown measures to address COVID-19 are having a major impact on women’s livelihoods and income. The ‘informal sector’, where women represent a significant proportion of workers, is the most vulnerable, with people often reliant on daily income with no or little savings available to help buy increasingly costly food supplies. Where sources of income decrease, food insecurity – which walks hand in hand with displacement and social turbulence – is rapidly becoming a major concern. This will disproportionately effect women and children, in both nutritional and personal security terms.

Household economic pressures are compounded by the fact that women and girls carry out three-quarters of unpaid care work, with lockdown only adding to their responsibilities for looking after children and sick relatives.

Economic pressures will also play into harmful gender norms. Narratives of women as soft, weak and defenceless (in need of protection) are used to justify and uphold ideals of masculinities that position men as strong protectors, ready to use violence when necessary to protect their own. Yet, at times of crisis like this, the societal pressure to protect and provide for families is increasingly challenging for men, and frustration and violence can often be directed inward within the home.

These increased demands on women and the doubling down on traditional gender norms, combined with increased GBV, will affect women’s ability to lead, convene and participate in ongoing reconciliation or peacebuilding efforts in their communities. Muting their voices in a space that is already challenging for them to access is a dangerous game at a time when global tensions are increasing not reducing.

In societies where women play important roles as mediators or are involved in conflict and dispute resolution, such demands will curtail their future ability to play a role in promoting peace and stability.

As increasingly restrictive emergency legislation was introduced across the globe, we have also seen worrying examples of the erosion of women’s sexual reproductive rights. This is having a disproportionate impact on women and other marginalised groups, such as those with non-binary gender identities, and those living in poverty and in conflict-affected contexts and humanitarian settings.

All of these consequences indicate a need for both short- and longer-term measures to avoid exacerbating gender inequalities and undermining peace.

The experiences with the Ebola and Zika viruses demonstrate that failing to address structural gender inequalities in crisis response will further compound those inequalities: women will be even more likely to experience social and economic deprivation, and have even more limited access to resources. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, women accounted for 60% of those infected with Ebola.

While gender equality is now championed globally, on the ground during emergencies it is often deprioritised in practice. Research by International Alert and Oxfam in the Middle East and North Africa showed that women’s rights organisations in conflict were repeatedly told that “now is not the time” to advance gender equality and instead were pushed to work on crisis response. A report we produced around the 2015 Nepal earthquake, Building back better or restoring inequalities?, highlighted that such approaches to disasters often entrench inequalities.

Lessons from these past experiences on how to prioritise gender dimensions of the crisis must inform the current globalised response to COVID-19.

First and foremost, gender equality must be made an integral part of the overall response. This means understanding how gender identity interacts with other factors to impact an individual’s experiences of the crisis and their vulnerabilities. This helps overcome the risk of the most vulnerable being sidelined from the response as well as safeguarding against exacerbating existing gender dynamics that can lead to conflict. To effectively undertake and apply such analysis, it is important that response teams are gender balanced, including at leadership level.

Secondly, the voices of women on the frontlines of the response, such as those of healthcare and social workers, need to be included in disaster response planning, as well as recovery afterwards. We must also ensure the meaningful participation of women and other vulnerable groups in COVID-19 response initiatives, to avoid further entrenching inequalities and to help build back better and more peaceful societies. Because our actions now will shape what comes after the crisis.

Thirdly, we must face down the shadow pandemic of COVID-19 related GBV. Where shelters, helplines and other support services exist, they must be designated as essential services. Crises also typically redirect police attention and resources away from GBV. Law enforcement needs to be sensitised to this issue in the COVID-19 context and to the sensitivity of handling referrals. The sense of injustice, in terms of the state’s failure to prevent and then address GBV, will otherwise further alienate people from their government in societies where trust is already low.

In addition, we must ensure that COVID-19 emergency assistance and any stimulus packages that follow are sensitive to the needs of women and vulnerable groups, and are shaped in a way that do not exacerbate conflict dynamics. Meanwhile, we must make sure we are supporting those who provide unpaid care that keeps communities functioning, given that the degradation of support networks in homes and the broader community can be a precursor to wider social instability.

Above all, there is a need to redouble support to local women’s activists, networks and organisations in fragile contexts, so that they can continue to play a role in building peace. These networks are the lynchpin for the advancement of the broader gender equality movement, including the Women, Peace and Security Agenda. They have distinctive expertise and nuanced understandings of their contexts, but they require reliable, flexible funding to address the unique gendered impacts of women and girls in this pandemic. Redirected funding and increased demand for support may otherwise crowd out the ability of women’s organisations to respond to GBV while continuing to work on structural inequality.

Only six months ago, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres told the Security Council that “change is coming at a pace that is too slow for the women and girls whose lives depend on it, and for the effectiveness of our efforts to maintain international peace and security”.

As part of its response to COVID-19, global leaders and civil society must reinvigorate their commitment to the Women, Peace and Security Agenda and gender equality more broadly. By doing so, interventions can better respond to the impact the pandemic is having on women and other vulnerable groups while avoiding deepening inequalities that contribute to unequal societies and violent conflict.