By Caren Grown
The COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has exposed and exacerbated many existing social inequalities the world over. Gender inequality—layered along with the effects of the pandemic, lockdowns and the economic downturn—could leave a deep and lasting impact on discrimination against women and girls.
Globally, around 70% of health sector workers are women, which makes them more exposed to the pandemic. Lockdown measures have exacerbated tensions in the home leading to increased levels of gender-based violence (GBV), while restrictions on movement are creating barriers for women seeking to escape abuse and access health services, including sexual, reproductive and maternal health services, or community services like crisis centers, shelters, legal aid, and protection.
Such effects are especially magnified in settings impacted by Fragility, Conflict, and Violence (FCV), where access to health, education, and employment is hampered, and combined with a heightened risk of GBV. Forms of violence such as early and forced marriage have been reported to be on the increase in FCV contexts, which is a risk factor for intimate partner violence, while there is a resurgence of harmful practices such as female genital mutilation. Civil society, especially women peacebuilders, play a vital role in addressing these issues: in Cameroon, for example, they have included domestic violence in their COVID 19 advocacy campaign, including through videos, referrals to a one-stop center for services and segments on local Pidgin-language radio stations about COVID-19 and GBV.
As the COVID-19 economic downturn begins to bite, longer-term social consequences are likely. Evidence from past crises – such as the Ebola outbreak in conflict-affected areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo – suggests that school closures worsen inequality, since girls are less likely to return to the classroom than boys. Girls may also be forced to enter the job market or shoulder additional duties at home, leading to increased exposure to violence and spikes in adolescent pregnancies.
Meanwhile, women’s overrepresentation in informal and agricultural employment – which have been badly hit by the pandemic – threaten to further widen economic inequalities. Only four in 10 women in FCV settings are in formal employment, a figure that drops to 2 in 10 in protracted conflicts, leaving the majority more vulnerable to economic hardship and also excluded from social protection measures targeted at workers.
The impacts of COVID-19 in fragility, conflict and violence are not gender neutral, and neither should be development interventions in these settings. This is why the World Bank Group’s recently released first Strategy for FCV has a special focus on closing gaps between men and women, aligned with its institutional Gender Strategy, and with UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which is having its 20th anniversary this year.
The WBG’s operations are, for example, designed to prevent and respond to GBV. In South Sudan, our partnership with the International Committee of the Red Cross and UNICEF is enabling us to improve geographical coverage of essential health and nutrition services, including counseling and treatment for survivors. Addressing GBV is also a priority in our work on forced displacement, given the specific traumas and challenges women face in conflict and crisis situations. In Burundi, for example, investments in refugees and host communities in the north-east region ensure dedicated roles for women in project planning and leadership, encourages the formation of associations of women entrepreneurs to enhance their collective voice and agency, raises awareness about GBV services through communications campaigns and expands access to health, education, nutrition and other social services taking into account ease and security of access for women.
WBG operations in FCV settings are also designed to close gender gaps in access to economic opportunities and assets and invest in women’s human capital to be able to fully participate in the economy. This includes supporting local private sector approaches. In Lebanon, for example, women’s labor participation rates stand at 23%, one of the lowest in the world. The International Finance Corporation (IFC) has partnered with Lebanon’s Chamber of Commerce, Industry, and Agriculture to launch a peer learning platform to help Lebanese companies hire, retain, and promote more women in the labor force by creating resilient, family-friendly workplaces, including workplaces with employer-provided childcare.
Crucially, there is overwhelming evidence that more gender equality in societies helps increase resilience to FCV challenges. Addressing gender inequality is therefore an essential element of the WBG’s scaled-up work on prevention. Beyond focusing on conflict, prevention is also about proactively addressing risks and grievances in order to empower women and close gender gaps – including in health, education and economic opportunities – as societies with more gender equality tend to be more resistant to violence and conflict.
One example of how we are putting this into practice is the Sahel Women Empowerment and Demographic Dividend project, which targets adolescent girls and their communities in both FCV-affected countries and countries that may be at risk of violence across the Sahel– from Mali and Chad to Cameroon and Guinea. It is helping keep girls in school, improving adolescents’ sexual and reproductive health and enabling girls’ social and economic empowerment. The project uses innovative initiatives such as “husband clubs” that engage men around the importance of family planning and equal distribution of household responsibilities. It also engages community and religious leaders to help reduce gender discrimination, violence against women, and child marriage.
Women’s equal participation in economic and social life is essential to prevention and helping societies transition out of fragility. Critically, working with local women-led organisations is essential in fragile settings to inform the design and implementation of gender- and conflict-sensitive programs. This is particularly important in the context of the response and recovery to the COVID-19 crisis, as we know that when women actively participate in peace- and state-building processes, the chances for building resilience and achieving sustainable peace significantly improves.
In fact, women’s active engagement in peace processes improves the likelihood of agreements lasting at least 15 years by 35%, yet they continue to be under-represented and often excluded from decision-making processes. Investing in their voice and agency, as well as pushing for their full social and economic inclusion in these most challenging settings, will be essential to help countries emerge from the COVID-19 crisis and lay the foundations for more inclusive, resilient, peaceful and prosperous societies.
(The writer is the World Bank Group Global Director, Gender.)