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EXPLAINER-Where are women leading the fight against COVID-19?

by Thin Lei Win | @thinink | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 10 June 2020 16:53 GMT

Only a handful of countries have women leading coronavirus responses, with many nations excluding women almost entirely

By Thin Lei Win

ROME, June 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Increased teenage pregnancies, curbed access to sexual health services, a spike in household violence and a surge in revenge porn: the COVID-19 pandemic's disproportionate impact on women and girls has been laid bare in recent months.

Research suggests women leaders have been more successful than their male counterparts at reducing COVID-19 transmission in their countries.

New Zealand on Monday lifted all social and economic restrictions except border controls after declaring it was free of the coronavirus, winning praise for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, 39, and her leadership during the pandemic.

But how many countries are involving women in their efforts to eradicate the coronavirus?

Surprisingly few, according to a report by CARE international which looked at whether 30 countries, including the United States, Australia, Malawi and Brazil, were giving women and men equal voices in national COVID-19 decision-making bodies.

Here are the key takeaways:

Why does this matter?

Despite the number of infections rising faster than ever, many countries are easing lockdown restrictions and formulating policies to alleviate economic pain, joblessness and travel disruption.

Yet concern is mounting that women could be left out of decisions that are likely to impact countries for years to come.

At a virtual summit on Tuesday, 5,000 people from 75 countries discussed the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women and girls.

Former presidential nominee Hillary Clinton said women leaders had demonstrated "inclusive, empathetic, science-based leadership" in the face of the pandemic.


Have countries led by women fared better with COVID-19?

Many countries with women leaders have proved themselves adapt at managing the coronavirus crisis.

Germany, led by Angela Merkel, has had a far lower death rate than Britain, France, Italy or Spain.

Finland, where prime minister Sanna Marin, 34, governs with a coalition of four female-led parties, has had fewer than 10% as many deaths as nearby Sweden.

Plenty of countries with male leaders – Greece, Australia, Vietnam – have also done well. But few with female leaders have done poorly.

Experts warn against extrapolating from a small number of exceptional individuals acting in extraordinary circumstances, but say these women's accomplishments may still offer lessons about how countries can endure future crises.


Which countries are involving women the most and why?

Canada is the only country out of 30 to have more than 50% of the national COVID-19 response team made up by women. The average percentage of women on national-level decision-making bodies is 24%.

Canada is also the only country that fully accounted for gender in its response, according to CARE's metrics.

This includes funding and policy commitments for gender-based violence prevention and response services, sexual and reproductive health care, childcare support, and funding that specifically recognises the economic effect of the pandemic on women.

Countries with more women in leadership are also more likely to deliver responses that consider the effects of the crisis on women and girls, the report said.

For example, France and Ethiopia, where women are more prevalent in government, both scored higher in their gendered responses - 5th and 6th - than countries like the United States and Niger.


Who is doing the worst?

Brazil has the lowest percentage of women serving on the national level - less than 4% - and has taken few steps to meet women's needs during the pandemic.

But the South American country is not alone.

Very few countries surveyed have comprehensively considered gender in their COVID-19 responses, and in almost 25% of the sample, CARE found no evidence of any gender specific actions or policies at all.


What else did we learn?

  • Seven countries - Bangladesh, Kenya, Mali, Myanmar, Niger, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka - have not formulated responses to gender-based violence, sexual and reproductive health services, or economic implications that CARE could find. 
  • France and Britain expanded access to abortions during the pandemic.
  • Five countries - Brazil, Canada, India, Turkey, and the U.S. - have announced funding to support the specific ways that COVID-19 has affected women economically.
  • In Brazil, single mothers who are eligible to receive a cash grant for low-income households will automatically receive two payments; teenage mothers will also automatically receive two payments.
  • In Turkey, increased social benefits for women and widows, as well as conditional maternity benefits.


What can be done?

Increasing women's leadership at all levels of COVID-19 response structures and boosting funding for women's rights and women-led organizations that are responding to the crisis, are CARE’s key recommendations.   

The agency also said governments should apply a gender equality quota to COVID-19-related decision-making bodies and processes so women can meaningfully participate in decision-making.


Related stories:

Africa's female journalists use radio to dispel coronavirus fake news and sexism

Coronavirus is hurting women in tech

Women's jobs at risk in Latin America in coronavirus crisis 


 (Editing by Tom Finn, (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly)