By Anna Coates
An international instrument on pandemic preparedness and response opens a much-needed space to highlight the centrality of gender inequality considerations in health emergency responses.
With an eye to inclusive governance, investment in gender expertise, and strengthening existing normative mechanisms and architecture for gender equality at global and national levels, a new intergovernmental instrument offers an opportunity for future health emergency preparedness and responses to meaningfully contribute to gender equality.
The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the urgency of addressing gender inequalities, including violence against women and girls; access to health care, including sexual and reproductive health care; and economic inequality.
The recent resolution on “Strengthening WHO preparedness for and response to health emergencies” covers the range of public health issues involved in pandemic responses and includes general references to “gender responsive” interventions. However, the lack of specificity does not represent the full dimensions of pandemic impacts on gender equality, and therefore may limit meaningful action.
Threats to the provision of, and access to, sexual and reproductive health services (including contraception and safe abortion), and thus to women’s sexual and reproductive rights, due to overstretched health services, are indicated in the resolution. The “shadow pandemic” of increased violence against women and girls is referenced.
However, other key gender equality issues remain invisible, such as the increased unpaid care burden on women in the context of school shutdowns and work from home, and how the economic fallout is damaging precious gains in women’s economic empowerment. Women already faced a gender pay gap, and were over-represented in informal employment, leaving them potentially uncovered within emergency social protection schemes. The gendered digital divide further limits women’s ability to take advantage of innovative economic opportunities generated by containment measures (See: UN Women’s related policy brief).
Women are not explicitly mentioned in the well-deserved recognition of frontline health care workers, despite being the majority (for example, according to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), women represented 72% of the over 6,000 health workers in the Americas who had died from COVID-19 by January 2021).
Predecessor frameworks have been stronger in their consideration of gender implications. The UN Framework for the Immediate Socio-economic Response to COVID-19 stresses the necessity of a “strong gender equality imperative” across all axes.
However, even so, normative frameworks such as the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BPfA) can be sidelined in the context of emergency responses, despite their relevance. Within the twelve BPfA critical areas, three priorities merit especial note as the backbone of all efforts towards gender equality in the COVID response and hence should be explicitly included within any future related instrument: disaggregated data; institutional mechanisms; and women in power and decision making.
Disaggregated data to assess the extent of the gendered dimensions of the COVID-19 pandemic are limited. The WHO has elsewhere called on Member States to urgently “collect, report and analyze data on confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths disaggregated by sex and age, at a minimum.” However, existing knowledge already opens windows to significant concerns. As the resolution notes, the consequences of COVID-19, “including increasing gender and other inequalities, have further outlined the need for multilateral cooperation.” This requires strong coordination of gender expertise from multiple domains. The UN System’s “Minimum Requirements Checklist for Integrating Gender Equality in the Implementation of the UN Framework for the Socioeconomic Response to Covid-19” outlines practical considerations for gender-sensitive COVID-19 responses and was made possible by strategically pooling existing gender expertise across the UN system. To ensure its full implementation, global governance for pandemic responses should explicitly strengthen existing UN architecture for gender equality, investing in capacity, expertise, and senior leadership across all entities, including within the WHO as part of its leadership role in “global coordination and cooperation.”
Similarly, any instrument on pandemic preparedness and response needs to fully engage with existing normative mechanisms for gender equality. At global level, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) facilitates a unified voice to state and amplify shared priorities and commitments amongst national machineries for the advancement of women / gender equality. National gender equality mechanisms require strengthening for adequate representation and coordination of gender concerns in national pandemic response governance. As noted elsewhere more generally, attention to Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) country recommendations would help identify strategic priorities to be addressed in specific settings in the context of health emergencies.
The needs and interests of women and girls — half the population affected by pandemics — need their own voices in the task forces, working groups, and political and scientific committees that form the backbone of response governance at global and national levels. Equal participation, leadership, experiences, perspectives, and world views of women in all their diversity should be made explicit in any instrument for inclusive and effective COVID-19 responses that reflect the uneven consequences of gender inequalities among women according to ethnicity, migratory status, (dis)ability, sexuality, and gender identity, and other social axes. The WHO resolution outlines civil society’s role in supporting implementation of “multisectoral national action plans.” Also being explicit about their accountability role and the representation of diverse women’s voices would pivot this role to one geared towards motivating transformative action.
COVID-19 responses risk exacerbating gender inequalities. But this juncture also presents an opportunity to advance the rights of women, girls, and those of diverse gender identities. An international instrument on pandemic preparedness and response should seize this foothold and advance gender equality through inclusive global and national governance.
Anna Coates is Chief, Office for Equity, Gender, and Cultural Diversity, Pan American Health Organization (PAHO/WHO). The author holds sole responsibility for the views expressed in this commentary, which may not necessarily reflect the opinion or policy of PAHO.