“Women are the unsung heroes of this crisis”
The health crisis, and the subsequent widespread lockdowns worldwide, have led to a surge in violence against women. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, warns that women's rights could be diminished as a result of the pandemic.
Interview by Laetitia Kaci, UNESCO
In March 2020, you warned of an increase in gender inequality due to the health crisis. Why is this pandemic particularly detrimental to women?
There is no crisis that is gender neutral, and this one is no different. Often, the crisis accentuates the inequalities between men and women that already exist.
Women have experienced great hardships due to this pandemic. Many of them work on the front line and have been directly exposed to the virus. They have also been hit hard by its economic and social consequences. The interruption of activity due to the crisis has led to greater economic hardship for women, who generally work in more precarious and lower-paid jobs than men. Many of them have lost their means of livelihood.
Additionally, many women depend on social services, which have become less accessible during this period. Those who did not have access to social support in the first place, are even worse hit.
The pandemic has brought to the forefront crucial professions – such as nurses, teachers, cashiers – in which women are over-represented. Could this crisis change the way we perceive these workers?
Women are the real heroes of this crisis, even if they are not recognized as such. But curiously, there seems to be a lack of awareness that women are actually shouldering the response to this crisis. Even if they are saving lives, they remain unsung heroes.
I hope that this perception will change. That is why we have to keep talking about the role they play – put their efforts front and centre, so no one can escape it.
What can women bring to crisis management?
Women are viewed by our societies as the main carers, whether paid or unpaid. But they also know how to go beyond thinking of this as a purely health-related crisis to be managed. Because women know how to multitask, they are perhaps better placed to understand that in a situation like this, we are dealing with several factors – such as economic, social, health and food security. They have a better understanding of intersectionality because they experience it on a daily basis. So they are already hardwired to deal with crises like these.
In a statement in April 2020, you referred to the shadow pandemic of increased violence against women. What impact have the lockdowns had on the situation of women?
In that statement, I said that helplines and shelters for victims of domestic violence around the world have reported an increase in calls for help. The confinement has exacerbated tensions and increased the isolation of women with abusive partners, while cutting them off from the services that are best able to help them. This particular context has made reporting abuse even more complicated, due to limitations on women’s and girls’ access to phones and helplines, and disrupted public services like police, justice and social services.
In some countries, where services to protect victims of domestic violence are not considered essential services, women have been deprived of all help, while they remain locked in their homes with their abusers. This has made it even more difficult for women to cope with the violence.
Is there a risk that women's rights are being diminished?
Definitely, women’s rights have taken a step back – they are even grinding to a halt in some cases. We must not allow this to happen.
This year, 2020, is a big year for women. It marks the twentieth anniversary of the United Nations Security Council resolution 1325 (on Women, Peace and Security). We must push on all the plans that we have, and get ready for when it is possible to be more active. But we have to stay on top of that agenda and we cannot shelve it. It is as important for women to achieve their rights as it is to survive COVID-19. These two battles [for women’s rights and against the disease] have to be fought together. And we have to win them both.
How can we ensure that women's rights are not victims of this crisis?
In the economy, for instance, we have to make sure that the stimulus packages [offered by governments in different countries] target women very clearly, and that they work for the women in the informal sector. These are some of the rights that we will have to continue to fight for. The fight against gender-based violence will not end after the crisis. We must remain vigilant and aim to flatten the curve of violence against women.
We must also encourage women to take up positions of leadership in the response to the pandemic in the fight against the virus – especially in countries where they are under-represented in the health sector and beyond – and call for fairer representation in certain sectors. This is where our efforts must be focused.
It is also necessary to encourage the development of distance education, while ensuring that it is not accompanied by a widening of the digital divide. Communities do not always have access to technology, and even where there is technology, there is still a gender digital divide. We have to continue to make that fight a reality. We have to make sure that girls in poor communities do not miss out on education when education moves to digital platforms.
I hope that UNESCO, UN Women, the Broadband Commission, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and ministries of education can work together to ensure that a broadband infrastructure is established in rural schools and communities in informal settlements – so that everyone, everywhere, has access to education.
Helen Pankhurst: “Feminism is in my blood”, The UNESCO Courier, January-March 2020
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