The COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown measures implemented by most of the governments in the UNECE region have fundamentally changed the way we work, study, communicate, define priorities and function in our everyday life. Governments and international organisations have focused on immediate actions to contain the pandemic ranging from supporting the health sector to introducing restrictions on economic activities and human mobility. As the first wave of infections is subsiding in many countries, economic activities are resuming, but the socio-economic recovery will take time, and the ‘new normal’ brings challenges to all sectors and society at large.
The COVID-19 crisis has impacted women and men differently; from their health to working and living conditions. Women make up the majority of workers in the health sector – exceeding 75 per cent for the UNECE region – and have been under enormous pressure fighting the pandemic on the front line. Women dominate as employees in other so-called system-relevant sectors, such as supermarkets and pharmacies. This has exposed them to a higher risk of infection than men.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused enormous challenges for families, with many losing their incomes. Isolation at home for weeks has also disproportionately affected women. Violence against women and girls has increased, in some countries by over 30%. Under strict lockdown measures women were trapped in their homes, often with nowhere to go due to the closure of shelters.
Women have also had to work even longer hours than usual, juggling unpaid care for children and elderly family members, and domestic work in parallel to teleworking. Before the pandemic, women spent on average 13 hours per week more than men on unpaid care work in our region. With the closure of schools and childcare centres during the crisis, this gap has widened even further.
The sharp reduction of employment opportunities has hit women’s financial security. Women in precarious employment are most vulnerable to the economic downturn initiated by the crisis. Over a quarter of women employees in our region are in precarious jobs, compared to about 15 per cent for men. These jobs provide lower earnings and weaker legal protection. The reduction of part-time jobs and other labour market opportunities, in particular in the service sectors such as food, hospitality and tourism, where women are predominantly employed, has resulted in a significant drop in earnings and an increase in poverty.
Many single female-headed households in the Western Balkans, Central Asia and the Caucasus that have relied largely on remittances in the past few years are hit strongly by the contraction of economic activity in host countries, job losses and mobility restrictions.
These developments threaten not only to stall, but to undermine decades of progress towards gender equality and the empowerment of women. 2020 should have been a ground-breaking year for gender equality, marking the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, the most progressive and comprehensive agenda for gender equality. Instead, we now have to make sure that the limited and hard-won gains on gender equality and women’s rights will not be reversed.
As stated by the UN Secretary-General in his policy brief, women and girls need to be at the centre of efforts to recover from COVID-19. This means that women and girls need to lead and participate in COVID-19 response planning and decision-making. This also means that data on COVID-19 have to include a gender perspective, and social protection and economic stimulus packages need to serve women and girls.
More flexible work patterns may persist after the pandemic, hopefully leading to a more equal sharing of unpaid care and domestic work between women and men.
And last, but not least, the shadow pandemic of gender-based violence that is threatening the lives and well-being of women and girls needs to be fought with the same determination as the COVID-19 pandemic.
In cooperation with the UN Regional Commissions we are starting a project to strengthen national capacities for the rapid recovery from the crisis and to build resilience against future shocks. This includes a strong focus on gender-responsive economic and social policies to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in the care economy.
We have also witnessed the critical role of information and communication technologies in the COVID-19 response. We, therefore, are strengthening our capacity building support for women entrepreneurs, to equip them with skills and knowledge for doing e-business in the post COVID-19 context, empowering women to drive the economic recovery. Likewise, we must apply a stronger gender lens to all our activities.
UNECE is firmly committed to supporting countries of our region for a sustainable recovery closely connected with the Sustainable Developments Goals (SDGs), in cooperation with our partners in the UN system, civil society and the private sector.
To all governments, citizens and stakeholders of our region: let us found our “new normal” after COVID-19 on gender equality. Without this, it will not only be women that lose out at this critical moment in our history, but our entire societies and economies.