Home / Opinion / Views /  Gender-responsive policies for a post-pandemic world

As the world prepares to celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March, this year’s theme, ‘Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a covid-19 world’, gives us an opportunity to look at ways to assure level-playing fields to almost half the country’s population. The 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing last year, was intended to highlight gains in gender equality and empowerment. Unfortunately, the covid pandemic has stalled achievements of the past two and half decades, and some of them are at risk of being rolled back.

All crises have their worst impact on the most vulnerable and marginalized populations, particularly women. The United Nations Secretary General’s Policy Brief: The Impact of Covid-19 on Women and Population Foundation of India’s brief on the same topic discuss the differential impacts of covid and make recommendations to ensure that women and girls remain central to recovery efforts. While the social and economic impact on women and girls has been severe, much of the response lacks a gender lens. For instance, evidence from past viral outbreaks like Ebola and Zika suggests that less than 1% of published research papers on these epidemics focused on the gender dimensions of the emergencies. And the covid pandemic is no different.

By 2021, 47 million women and girls will be pushed into poverty as a result of covid, according to a recent report, Gender Equality in the Wake of the Pandemic, commissioned by UN Women and UNDP. There, however, continues to be little research on the social impacts of covid on the young, especially girls. Adolescence is a crucial period for all, but girls and young women are particularly at risk of dropping out of school due to early and forced marriages, early pregnancies, and violence. According to the Global Girlhood Report 2020, at least half a million girls were at risk of being victims of forced child marriages in 2020, and up to 2.5 million may be married early due to the pandemic over the next five years.

The pandemic did not just pull girls out of schools, it also heightened financial vulnerabilities and raised their care-giving responsibilities. A rapid assessment study conducted by Population Foundation revealed, for instance, that 51% of female respondents in Bihar, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh experienced an increase in domestic workload during the nationwide lockdown, while just 23% of males did.

Covid has laid bare existing inequalities and magnified the harmful effects of patriarchy and gender inequality on our society. These negative trends need to be tackled urgently and reversed so that women do not have to accept a return to pre-covid levels of inequality. We must aim higher and “build back better", as the global call to action goes.

We should invest in the education of India’s young so that they’re equipped to make appropriate choices as they shape their future. But we also need policies that ensure women equal representation in response planning and decision making, address the ‘care economy’, and address the socio-economic impact of covid from a gender perspective.

Support for gender-responsive policy making across the sectors of education, health and skill-building will let us mitigate the immediate and long-term adverse social and economic impacts on India’s young. We need transformative approaches to livelihood enablement and economic justice for young women and girls, apart from fresh ways to foster collective action by them and rebuild educational institutions (and systems), even as we prioritize the health and well-being of Indian youth.

Some critical measures that will make a difference include:

One, robust systems to safeguard women and girls from gender violence. These must ensure that mechanisms for reporting violence remain accessible even in crisis situations.

Two, recognition that the assurance of sexual and reproductive rights and health are within the ambit of essential services. These are crucial to women’s well-being and therefore must be counted as critical under all circumstances.

Three, gender-inclusive social protection measures for unpaid care-givers and economic support packages, aimed especially at the country’s most vulnerable women.

Four, enhanced investment in education and vocational training for women. This can lead to higher female labour force participation in the long run.

Five, counselling and special mental health services, in recognition of the impact of the pandemic on young people.

Six, investment in education, especially in appropriate low-tech, affordable and gender responsive educational methods, even as a safe return to schools is enabled for all.

Seven, the adoption of behaviour-change communication strategies to challenge false notions of masculinity, reduce persistent gender discrimination, and assure women greater agency and autonomy.

There is much that governments and our policymakers can do to promote gender equality in a post-pandemic world. The Generation Equality Forum this year offers the Indian government an opportunity and platform to announce and commit to investments for the promotion of adolescent well-being and gender equality.

This International Women’s Day, we must pledge to address the unequal burden shouldered by girls and young women during this pandemic and step up our efforts so that their hopes and dreams are fulfilled.

Poonam Muttreja is executive director, Population Foundation of India

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