COVID-19 threatens four ‘lost decades’ for gender equality

01 October 2021

The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women and threatens to roll back decades of hard-won progress on the fight against inequalities between women and men.

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© UNDP Bangladesh/Fahad Kaizer

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected women and men differently due to their distinct roles in economies and societies, so responding to the crisis without first assessing its impact on gender equality jeopardizes efforts to “build back better”, participants at UNCTAD’s first Gender and Development Forum heard.

Women's employment, for example, fell globally by 4.2% in 2020 compared with 3% for men, as sectors in which women tend to work more – such as tourism – were ravaged by restrictions used to curb the spread of the virus.

Before the pandemic hit, women already faced a 99-year wait before they were expected to enjoy full equality with men. The effects of COVID-19 have increased the wait by almost 40 years to 136, according to estimates by the World Economic Forum.

“So, when it comes to gender equality, we are not talking about a lost decade. We are talking about almost four,” UNCTAD Secretary-General Rebeca Grynspan said on 26 September at the forum’s opening.

“Unless we solve inequalities between men and women, the pursuit of the SDGs is not possible,” she said, referring to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals set up in 2015 by the UN General Assembly to be achieved by 2030.

Insufficient and unsatisfactory

No less than 53 of the 251 SDGs’ indicators make direct reference to gender equality, women and girls. Yet women have not been given a seat at COVID-19 recovery decision-making tables.

For example, of the 225 working groups created to design and implement COVID-19's life-saving programmes for which data are available, women make up less than a quarter of members and are not represented at all in 12% of the working groups.

“It should be very clear to us all that the current recovery is insufficient and unsatisfactory for both the society at large and for women in particular,” Ms. Grynspan said.

The need for a complete reset

The Gender and Development Forum was held virtually and hosted by Barbados as part of UNCTAD’s 15th ministerial conference (UNCTAD15), set for 3 to 7 October.

It featured over two dozen panel discussions, break-out sessions and cultural events, providing a critical space of debate and reflection on a wide range of issues that affect gender equality, from agriculture to industrial policies, from education and training to labour market needs, from environmental challenges to human rights-based solutions.

“I am immensely proud that Barbados has been given the opportunity to host UNCTAD’s inaugural Gender and Development Forum,” Barbados Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley said. “The forum couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.”

UNCTAD15, whose theme is “From inequality and vulnerability to prosperity for all”, will tackle the most pressing challenges facing the world, including the COVID-19 crisis, the climate emergency, growing food insecurity and mounting debt – all of which affect women and girls disproportionately.

Ms. Mottley called for a complete reset of the international economic development paradigm. “If at this unique moment of history we cannot succeed in moving the policy needle, then, believe you me, we never will.”

The role of trade

Responding to its mandate to assist member states in understanding and addressing the links between trade and gender, UNCTAD hosted a high-level session of the forum on 27 September, entitled “Shaping gender-responsive economies and societies: What role for trade?”.

While free trade has created new opportunities for some women, it has also marginalized others. For example, rural women are often unable to compete with imported products, especially if such products benefit from generous subsidies. And while global trade has brought new formal employment opportunities for women, these are most often "blue collar" jobs.

UNCTAD Deputy Secretary-General Isabelle Durant cited the examples of two regional agreements: the South American trade bloc MERCOSUR and the East Africa Community (EAC).

“When we look at the trade and regional agreements, we find that the jobs they have made available to women are mainly in simple tasks that do not include management or supervisory responsibilities,” she said.

“In other words,” she added, “they are not empowering jobs.”

However, speakers highlighted that governments can help create virtuous circles that empower women and allow them to take advantage of new economic opportunities – by strengthening their financial independence, for example.

Rwanda’s trade and industry minister, Béata Habyarimana, said that if women's ownership of land is guaranteed by law, they can more easily access the finance they need to set up or expand their businesses.

Steps in the right direction…but not far enough

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women make clear calls on governments to ensure their trade policies don’t have adverse impacts on women.

The number of initiatives by the trade community to mainstream gender into trade have rapidly increased over time.

These include multilateral initiatives, such as the Buenos Declaration on Women and Trade signed by 127 members and observers of the World Trade Organization, the inclusion of specific trade and gender chapters in free trade agreements beyond the preamble, and ex-ante assessments of how trade reforms could affect men and women differently.

Such initiatives, taken multilaterally or by groups of like-minded countries, show a growing commitment to use trade policy to empower women.

Including gender considerations or reference to core labour standards in trade agreements is a significant step towards setting a fairer and more inclusive playing field, noted Finland’s trade and development minister, Ville Skinnari.

But, he said, it’s crucial to monitor how these commitments are implemented and how they affect daily life.

Mr. Skinnari added that trade can’t solve all the challenges women face. It creates new opportunities, but for women to fully grasp them, gender-based obstacles need to be addressed – in most cases at the national level. 

This, speakers said, requires much stronger collaboration between government agencies and coherence among policies in different fields.   

“There is a widespread absence of engagement and collaboration between trade ministries and departments and divisions of gender, either at the national or regional levels,” said Violet Eudine Barriteau, professor of gender and public policy at the University of the West Indies at Cave Hill, Barbados.

Beyond a narrow focus

In her closing remarks to the forum, Ms. Grynspan urged policymakers to work more together and to move beyond the narrow focus of increasing women’s participation in trade.

“The final goal should not only be to have more women involved in trade but to ensure that they engage under fair terms, and that countries have the space to put in place policies at the domestic level for this to happen,” she said.

To ensure that everyone can contribute to UNCTAD15, the Canadian government has donated $200,000 to support the participation of least developed countries, including women in these nations, in the interactive debates and events. This will ensure that no one is left behind when key issues are being discussed and make the conference’s negotiated outcome more inclusive.