Global response to Covid-19 must address rights and needs of women and girls

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By Mark Lowcock  and Dr. Natalia Kanem

In a week in which people in some parts of the world have been given cause for optimism that they have passed the peak of the pandemic, we have seen how the extraordinary actions of individuals can change the trajectory for a whole nation.

Retired doctors putting themselves back on the front line, nurses making their own face masks so they can treat the sick, parents separated from their children so they can care for people suffering from the virus.

More often than not, these are women. Globally, women make up 70 percent of the health workforce. They also have the majority of caregiving roles in homes and in communities. Women do this essential work in spite of obstacles and inequalities.

That’s why our updated Global Humanitarian Response Plan to fight coronavirus, published yesterday [7 May], has women at its heart.  We know from experience that investing in women and girls produces dividends for all. We see that again with Covid-19. 

In hospitals and in homes, women are on the frontline in this fight against Covid-19. We know local actions translate into global gains. If there is one thing we have learned about this pandemic, it’s that the world is in this together and we can only defeat it if we act as one.  

Women perform 76 percent of the total hours of unpaid care work globally. They will carry more of the weight of caring for the sick and helping to stem the spread of the virus. We must equip women with what they need. Let’s enable them to stay safe and supported. It’s the right thing to do but also the smart thing to do so they can continue to save and improve lives.

As health systems become stretched, many people with Covid-19 will need to be cared for at home. This will add to women’s workload, and put them at greater risk of becoming infected.

And as the world fights the Covid-19 pandemic, we know we have another epidemic to overcome – the violence perpetrated against women, and the inequalities that leave them more likely to be living in poverty and without access to essential services. We know that lockdowns and quarantines are essential to suppressing Covid-19. Yet they can trap women with abusive partners. Over the last few weeks, there has been a dramatic jump in reported incidences of domestic violence in many countries.  In some countries, the number of women calling support services has doubled. Humanitarian settings already stressed by years of war and poverty will not be any different, except that often there are few places to report the abuse or to seek shelter so that women and their children can stay safe.

If we are serious about defeating this virus, we must promote and protect the health and rights of women, for their own well-being and so that they can continue to promote and protect the health of others.

That is why the UN’s global humanitarian response plan to fight Covid-19 sets out specific actions to achieve this in the most vulnerable settings. This global plan is already helping install hand-washing facilities that are safe for women and girls to access; deliver vital medical equipment and supplies, including to address women’s health; and getting aid workers and supplies to where they are needed most.

The plan recognises the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women and girls. It also recognises their power to defeat the virus. UNFPA will use resources from the appeal to prioritise the needs of women and girls – including working with women’s groups on the ground to create safe spaces.

All this is possible because of the generosity of donors. Much more is needed. We count on donors to continue funding the Covid-19 humanitarian response plan while sustaining support for existing humanitarian and refugee response plans. And we urge all governments to make the prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plans for Covid-19.

Every day, women are overcoming obstacles and inequalities to treat and care for those infected with the virus, working hard to contain the virus, and helping their families and communities protect themselves. We owe it to these women to give them the tools and services they need, and the justice and equality that is their right – in hospitals, in homes, and in their communities. We are determined to do everything we can to fight this deadly virus, and that means addressing the inequalities that will otherwise hold all of us back. 

Mark Lowcock is United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator

Dr. Natalia Kanem is Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)

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