The Gender Blindness of the COVID-19 Response: How will it impact the SDGs?

Tabia Kazembe is the Africa Correspondent of The German Diplomat. Having grown up in Malawi, a country with the highest rates of gender inequality, she has always had a passion for fighting for gender equality, women empowerment, and ending violence against women and girls. She has professional experience working with international organizations in North America, Europe and Africa for the United Nations Secretariat, UN Women, CARE International and Save the Children. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and Economics, and a Masters Degree in International Relations from Northeastern University.

She can be personally reached at

New York, U.S. | June 10, 2020 | Analysis Article

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The world has experienced a series of outbreaks of communicable diseases, some new, some reemerging, since early 2000. We have seen the H1N1 and H5N1 strains of influenza, the cholera outbreak, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), the Zika virus, and Ebola. While some of the outbreaks were discovered earlier like SARS (February 2003), it was the 2014 Ebola outbreak that sparked concern and raised the need for particular attention to address gender issues during infectious disease outbreaks. Following the outbreak, the United Nations launched the Gender Mainstreaming Strategy as a course of action for addressing the needs of women and girls.  The strategy accentuates the importance of incorporating women and girls in humanitarian crisis response. The strategy goes into detail by pronouncing that recovery strategies must “ensure that gender equality concerns are taken into account across the assessment, and that the recovery needs and opportunities for women and girls are explicitly included in the recovery plan.” Unfortunately, there is still conspicuous absence of publications and policy discussions that identify gender analysis approaches. Public health efforts and policies still fail to address the gendered impacts of health outbreaks both in national and global policies.

Understanding the need to address the needs of women and girls during outbreaks, and recognizing that women, men, boys and girls are affected differently, is critical with regards to policy development and nonpartisan interventions. Equally important is recognizing that disabled women and girls as well as other minorities are prone to encounter more challenges. An understanding of the various social statuses is also required so that governments and organizations can respond to each of them differently based on the people’s needs, instead of placing them all into the same category.

The Absence of Women in Disease-Response

During the Ebola outbreak, women were left out from decision-making processes. Since they were disproportionally affected, several of their needs were unmet. The lack of women’s inclusion exacerbated the direct impact of the outbreak on women and girls.

During outbreaks more emphasis seems to be placed on immediate biomedical needs that address the whole and ignore the different needs of women and girls. In the Gender and Development Issue, Smith (2019) asserts that there is a distinct lack of gender analysis in high-profile policy documents. Moreover, the published documents lack considerations regarding gender inequality, women’s particular needs, and the health of marginalized groups. For example, notable documents published by The World Bank Group, and the Harvard Independent Panel on Ebola that are precisely about outbreaks failed to address the gender analysis dimension of the outbreak and response. Even after reading the 2018 Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) Center for Disease Control and Prevention report, it is noticeable that there is zero mentioning of the word gender, or women’s needs throughout the entire document.  

When disease outbreaks occur, gender dimensions involve both the physical and social constructions. For policy makers to understand the primary and secondary effects of emergencies before they can effectively respond to outbreaks, they need to understand that all genders are impacted differently during outbreaks. In order to fully understand the pandemic, it is crucial to study its gendered nature before developing detailed analyses and responses. Albeit several reports stating that COVID-19 is claiming men’s lives more than women’s, a recent study from Germany has shown an increase in female cases, surpassing those of men (52 percent for women and 48 percent for men). The likely cause of this new trend is unknown, although this could possibly be caused by social or biological elements, or perhaps both. For example, current statistics demonstrate that 70 percent of the health workforce comprise of women who mostly work in informal sectors with limited social and legal protection. Additionally, gendered norms have led to women being predominant caregivers who provide informal care to their families.

Government Restrictions are Impacting Women and Girls

The United Nations Secretary General released a statement, in which he urged “all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic.”  However, most governments have been unprepared, lacking ways to mainstream gender in their response plans. Instead of developing policies that incorporate women’s needs, some governments have developed policies with gendered implications that are disproportionally affecting women.

Uganda reported an increase in pregnancy related deaths, primarily caused by transport restrictions in the country. Private transport operators in the country have been denied permission to operate, even during medical emergencies. For a country that is hugely reliant on private transportation and has limited ambulatory services, pregnant women and girls have been forced to walk long distances to seek medical help, even when they are in labor. In the process, some are dying and others are losing their infants.

The pandemic has impacted the access of women and girls to sexual and reproductive health services, because several countries have closed clinics and community-based service outlets. The International Planned Parenthood Federation reported that over 5000 clinics and community care centers have been closed in 64 countries; the majority of them being in South Asia. Worldwide, largely affected countries include Pakistan, El Salvador, Zambia, Sudan, Colombia, Malaysia, Uganda, Ghana, Germany, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka; all of them reporting more than 100 closures. Most of these clinics and medical outlets are resources where women and girls go to seek contraceptives. The closures will likely result in an increase in unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

Countries with restrictive abortion laws, where there is already a lack of access to reproductive health facilities, might end up with more clandestine services as a result of the pandemic, which will likely cause unsafe medical procedures such as abortions and maternal mortality.

What is the way forward?  

Domestic violence, or “intimate terrorism” has increased since the pandemic, since women and girls are stuck at home, isolated with abusers in confined living conditions with low economic security and restricted movement. In order to assist these women and girls, some of the actions taken could be identifying the victims who are trapped with their violent partners. Once identified, they should be informed of innovative ways on how they can safely and easily report cases by calling for help without raising the alarm. This could be done through cellphone apps, messaging features, and hotlines that transmit messages discreetly.

Research has shown that there is a wide gap in policy documents and publications that recognize the role of gender issues during outbreaks. A detailed documentation of outbreaks that investigates how they affect women and girls, using lessons learned from previous outbreaks, is essential in scaling interventions that focus on socially and economically assisting women and girls.

Conditional and unconditional cash transfers would be vital for women who face economic turmoil. Not only would they provide them with financial stability, but they would also reduce intimate partner violence.  For women working in the health sector, governments should consider prioritizing and offering them equal opportunities, financial packages, flexible and reduced working hours, as well as job security that would help them stay afloat. Gendered incentives aimed at assisting in paying bills should also be prioritized. Given the low labor jobs that most women are traditionally involved in, they are the first ones to be hit during economic downturns.

Several girls around the world are remarkably impacted by the pandemic due to the nationwide school closures. While girls in Western countries might be better off, in a sense that they have access to computers, books and the internet, the majority of girls in developing countries do not have the same privileges. They lack access to computers, the internet, and adequate books, which are prerogatives for most people in places like Africa. Governments and school officials should work together to develop resources and learning alternatives such as distance learning programs. The programs could be aired on the radio or streamed on mobile phones so that children, particularly girls, in developing countries are not missing out on school.  

If COVID-19 response fails to address the unequal gender relations, then we are more susceptible to drawbacks in gender equality. It is a collective responsibility of all international advisories and governments to acknowledge the risks of gender gaps and inequalities. This pandemic should be a teachable moment for bringing radical social change and ending inadequate representation of women in policy-making decisions in all sectors and for generating more realistic solutions for girls in developing countries. When we investigate long term solutions that will fight conspicuous invisibility of women and gender on a global scale, not only will women and girls be beneficiaries, but everyone will, as we all work together to recuperate from the pandemic. Let’s jointly bend the curve for the greater good.

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