Women have been overwhelmingly leading the global frontline response to COVID-19, and these everyday heroes inspire us all. The majority of essential workers in United States’ response and recovery efforts are women, and the global picture is similar. However, women also face significant challenges in many parts of the world, including increased violence, disproportionate care responsibilities, loss of wages, and in some regions, regression of rights.
The Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues (S/GWI) – in collaboration with partners and thought leaders across government and civil society – arranged a series of virtual roundtables to better understand on-the-ground realities, the impact of the pandemic on women and girls, and share best practices for managing foreign assistance programs during the crisis.
Now, more than ever, we need to empower women leaders to accelerate recovery from this crisis by ensuring pre-crisis gains are protected, and that women are provided with access to opportunities to better their lives, their families, and their communities. The group’s insights highlight opportunities for empowering women as drivers and leaders of economic recovery, in peace and security efforts, and addressing gender-based violence (GBV) prevention and response:
- The responses to COVID-19, including economic recovery efforts, cannot be gender neutral. In order to respond effectively to societal needs, foreign assistance interventions must be informed by gender analysis. This includes the examination of the needs, gaps, and opportunities for women, men, girls, and boys, and how to narrow existing inequities. In the Department of State, S/GWI champions this best practice and leads trainings for colleagues that are tailored to their respective missions. Gender analyses should be leveraged during the pandemic and beyond to ensure assistance provides informed, comprehensive, and effective solutions and strengthens support for local women leaders.
- Sex-disaggregated data as it relates to COVID-19, including on the impact on women-owned businesses and women workers, must be collected and made publicly available. This data will help to inform responses by strengthening evidence-based approaches and identifying gender gaps in access to information, tools, and resources. This data can also be used to make the business case for how women can be key drivers of the economic recovery. Speakers recommended identifying the sectors and professions where women as entrepreneurs and/or workers have been impacted and then, using data-informed approaches, tailoring responses to the pandemic’s economic effects to leverage women’s economic participation as part of the solution.
- GBV is rooted in inequality perpetuated by pre-existing gender and social norms – COVID-19 has exacerbated these driving forces. Instances of violence against women and girls are not unique to COVID-19. In contexts where women and girls are already at risk of violence, the necessary public health measures put in place to battle the spread of the virus, such as social distancing, self-quarantining, and stay-at-home orders, may further endanger them. Response efforts to GBV must ensure survivors have access to rapid, appropriate, accessible, and quality information and services including health care, psychological and social support, security, and economic and legal services. For programs not primarily focused on addressing GBV, it is imperative that beneficiaries have access to information and referral pathways for receiving assistance.
- Management of foreign assistance programs to empower women and girls must be flexible throughout the pandemic. Now, more than ever, it is essential to ensure the needs of women and girls – especially those the most economically vulnerable – are being addressed as they arise, and that funding for women’s empowerment is maintained. As pandemic response and circumstances change rapidly, so too must program management.
- Provide women the resources, spaces, and opportunities to lead. The meaningful participation of women and girls in political, economic, and public life is critical to building and sustaining peaceful societies. Women must be involved in decision-making processes at all levels of their communities – from local and national governments to educational institutions and in crisis response – and assistance programming should facilitate the full participation of women in these venues. These findings are aligned with the Department’s Women, Peace, and Security efforts.
- Virtual engagements should be mindful of the digital gender divide. Many foreign assistance program activities have moved online. While virtual services and trainings can simplify access to information, including for those individuals with disabilities, we must also be mindful of digital gender gaps and recognize how technology can facilitate abuse and exploitation of women and girls. Moreover, for many households and businesses, the pandemic has increased this existing divide, meaning that scores of women are unable to access to technology and digital platforms and take advantages of innovations and opportunities. The risks and opportunities of the virtual environment are important considerations that should be factored into programming.
- Everyone plays a role to empower women. It is incumbent upon all of us to take action to help one another. On an assistance or program management level, it is imperative to work with implementing partners to ensure beneficiaries have access to appropriate resources, services, and opportunities. Individually, each of us can start by researching local service providers to best help refer and direct others, including employees and colleagues, to the support they need.
About the Author: Linsey Armstrong serves as a contractor Grants & Outreach Analyst in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State.