My sister is a nurse. She’s one of the female health heroes on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response, and she’s not alone. Women make up 70 per cent of health and social sector workers globally.
Think about your latest social media feed. Caregivers overwhelmed with the dual care burdens of paid and unpaid work, from ensuring children continue learning when schools are closed to caring for sick relatives while facing mobility limitations and employment hurdles. How many of you immediately thought of a female face – a friend, sister, daughter or you?
Experience shows us that public health crises deepen gender inequalities with devastating impacts on girls and women. And too often, the gendered impacts of disease outbreaks are ignored. We want to learn from our past mistakes and do better.
Crisis can spur momentous change. Here are 5 core actions for gender equality that UNICEF is calling for and practicing in the COVID-19 response:
Care for caregivers
Together, we must provide adequate support, including childcare, health services, and other social support and protections for vital frontline responders, most of whom are women. Their roles are frequently overlooked and underpaid. We need to support them and keep them safe.
Since women and girls often take the caregiving lead at home, let’s un-stereotype roles. At home all caregivers can share new responsibilities as “teachers”, fairly distribute chores and support boys to lead in quality caregiving of younger siblings.
Public and private employers must also champion family-friendly policies to protect employees, reduce stress, and support improved child and family well-being. We are lucky to work for UNICEF, which already has these policies in place. As a mother of two young sons, I know I am very fortunate to have this support, but also believe this should be the norm, not the exception, for all families wherever they work.
Prepare for increases in gender-based violence (GBV)
GBV in all forms – including domestic violence – will increase during an emergency. All first responders need to know how to handle disclosure of GBV by women and girls they will encounter. Our GBV Pocket Guide, also an app, can help.
We can also all help amplify existing GBV hotlines and other support mechanisms in our community on our social media channels. Don’t underestimate the power of your voice to let women and adolescent girls know where they can get care.
Maintain core health and education services and systems
Evidence from past epidemics indicate that efforts to contain outbreaks often interrupt education services and divert resources from routine health services, including maternal and child health, HIV care and the clinical management of rape.
It is especially important that we prioritize education for adolescent girls
Together, we must ensure the continuity of core and quality education and health services, including through alternative delivery methods. It is especially important that we prioritize education for adolescent girls already facing significant risk of school-drop out, which could contribute to increased teenage pregnancies and sexual exploitation and abuse.
Engage existing women’s and youth rights networks for connectivity and vital information
The social support adolescent girls find in schools through peers and mentors are universal. As schools transition to remote learning, let’s be sure adolescent girls and boys both find ways to connect and engage in order to continue learning. Let’s facilitate interconnectedness and empowerment. Digital learning platforms and other innovative tools, including our U-Report, can help.
Women and youth networks are also central communicators and should be engaged to ensure the meaningful participation of girls and women in all decision-making processes and service delivery; yet these organizations need more flexible resources to continue their work.
Ensure gender data are available, analyzed and actionable
Everything we do is inter-connected. To really understand and address the health, economic and social impacts of COVID-19, we must prioritize looking at sex, age and disability data together as well as independently.
Coverage needs to talk about the increase in GBV and services available to support survivors
As we move forward in our media consumption of COVID-19, let us all call out gender inequities or ambiguities. Virus cases shouldn’t be presented as homogenous numbers with no face. Coverage needs to talk about the increase in GBV and services available to support survivors. “Families” and “caregiver roles”, including those of teachers, shouldn’t be represented as only female. And let’s keep the unique needs and opportunities of adolescent girls at the forefront of our efforts to push for #Generation Equality.
Patty Alleman is Senior Advisor and Lauren Rumble is Principal Advisor, Gender Section, UNICEF.