International Women’s Day 2021

Women in Leadership:  Tackling COVID-19 and Gender Equality Across the Globe

Author:  Kimberly Hamilton, Integra – Director of Operations (MCC) and Business Development Manager

Focus group discussion in Cote d’Ivoire with women being supported through a partnership between USAID and the World Cocoa Foundation.

According to UNWomen, countries with women heads of state such as Denmark, Ethiopia, Germany, and Slovakia have been “more successful in stemming the tide of the COVID-19 pandemic” despite men holding the vast majority of positions in government worldwide.  While Integra applauds the efforts of all governments and policymakers to assist their citizens during the pandemic, we also celebrate the women addressing the impacts of COVID-19 and gender inequality in their local communities.  Accordingly, in honor of the 2021 theme for International Women’s Day—“Women in leadership:  Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 World,” Integra reached out to our global network of technical experts to provide their perspectives on how women of all means are stepping up to tackle COVID and create a more gender-equal world.

COVID-19 and Gender Inequality

As in the United States, gender inequalities such as unequal access to finance, unequal employment opportunities, the wage gap, and gender-based violence (GBV) present even greater challenges in international development settings.  Despite significant progress to reduce gender inequality socially, culturally, and legally, COVID-19 has highlighted and exacerbated many of these issues according to UNWomen and our own experts.

Women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic resulting in higher rates of unemployment, higher rates of job loss than men, and increased financial insecurity due to the pre-existing gender pay gap.  Further, the pandemic has negatively impacted some industries more than others, such as the tourism sector.  This means that in countries where more women are employed in a given sector than men, such as tourism in the country of Georgia, they are at a higher risk for experiencing job loss than their male counterparts. Women in the informal economy are even worse off, left with little, if any, social safety net to fall back on in the event of illness or job loss.  Further, due to restrictions on movement during quarantine, the global rates of gender-based violence have drastically increased during the pandemic.  These issues are not unique to any particular country or region.  They are pervasive and warrant the support of the international development community to address issues of gender inequality worldwide.

Women are actively engaged in building resilience in both their communities and families.  This has been demonstrated by world leaders and everyday citizens alike, ranging from women heads of state and public health experts, to frontline workers—supporting each other to prevent and mitigate GBV.  Integra’s development experts reported that some women were even able to overcome pre-existing gender inequalities to generate additional income and improve social norms as discussed below.

Evaluation Expert Meera Sundararajan leads a focus group discussion with women entrepreneurs of the USG-supported Producer Owned Women Enterprises (POWER) India. Photo Credit: Priscilla James

In West Bengal, India, for example, Integra interviewed more than 40 women who have been able to contribute substantially to family income through their involvement in a U.S. Government-funded project designed to advance women’s economic empowerment.  In several instances, women continued to generate income during Covid-19 while the men in their family lost work in the formal economy.  In addition to this shift in gender roles, many women who had received agricultural training as a result of development assistance also reported it was the first time they were able to teach their husbands something, shifting the societal norms in their communities.

Integra’s team in Cote d’Ivoire reported that Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLAs) enabled rural women to access funds and diversify their household income while their husbands were unable to work. This underscores the necessity of improving women’s access to finance, which according to Gender Expert Ellen Boccuzzi, has been a challenge for women business owners in many parts of the world where they do not have equal access to the funds needed to keep their businesses afloat during the pandemic.  Nevertheless, where funds are available, our staff noted several instances where women in local communities were working more outside the home, rebalancing the scale of gender inequality.

Integra salutes the leadership, bravery, and determination of women around the globe in meeting the challenges posed by the pandemic. The international development community has an important role to play in closing the gender gap now, so that an equitable future is possible post-pandemic. In our own efforts, Integra will continue to support gender equality through providing data-based evidence, rapid gender assessments, regional gender analyses, and COVID-19 specific assessments, as well as evaluating and recommending improvements to gender-specific programming.  While achieving a truly equal future for women in a post-COVID-19 world may take generations, one thing is clear—we are proud to support women in leadership at all levels who are working tirelessly and effectively to build a more equitable future.

Integra would like to thank all of the consultants who contributed information and perspectives to this article, including:  Abhirup Bhunia, Brenda Pearson, Ellen Boccuzzi, Emmanuel Kouassi, Jenna Holliday, Maia Giorbelidze, and Sancheeta Ghosh.

“Covid-19 limited livelihood opportunities, especially for the men, which are in the external, formal economy—those who worked in cities had to come home.  This means that a lot of the resilience and making up for the income shortfall fell on to the women.  They were ‘happy’ to ‘step out’ of their household duties and contribute to household income [and] engage in the economy.”

“Women have also experienced an increase in GBV in the context of the pandemic.  In the Pacific Islands, for example, crisis centers have documented a surge in the number of GBV reports since the start of the Covid-19 crisis.  Fiji’s Minister for Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation reported on May 4 that close to 50 percent of women are reporting a correlation between Covid-19 and increased violence, linked directly to the restrictions of movement and economic strain on families.”

“Women comprise an estimated 60% of all workers in tourism, one of the most affected industries in Georgia, which accounts for 7.8% of total employment.  The low average salaries for women in tourism, which were about a third of the national average salaries in 2017, exacerbate the impact of a reduction in income in this industry on women.”

“Women who went through PepsiCo agronomic training were able to teach male counterparts about plant infestation—first time many of them taught the men something.  Even agronomy trainings are impacting gender dynamics.”

“Their husbands hardly manage to sell the cocoa due to COVID, so it’s affecting the whole family welfare.  In response, women have taken on more responsibility to take care of the family.  Village Savings and Loan Associations presented the ‘only alternative’.  Women are using funds to diversify household income: increasing production of other vegetables like cassava, etc., that are selling well on local markets.  Others are opening local shops, tailoring, etc. to diversify income.  So women are taking the lead on household income now.”

“Programming and policy can no longer afford to pay lip service to gender; instead, data driven and substantive gender-responsive policy and programming is needed to address structural inequalities and challenge the gender norms in a fundamental way.”

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