OPINION | UN Secretary-General António Guterres: Covid-19 is a crisis with a woman's face

play article
Subscribers can listen to this article
UN SG Antonio Guterres briefing the media at UN Headquarters. (Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
UN SG Antonio Guterres briefing the media at UN Headquarters. (Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The world needs a new push to advance women’s leadership and equal participation. And it’s clear that such action will benefit all, writes United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres

As the world marks International Women’s Day, in the midst of a global pandemic, one stark fact is clear: the Covid-19 crisis has a woman’s face. 

The pandemic is worsening already deep inequalities facing women and girls, erasing years of progress towards gender equality. 

Women are more likely to work in sectors hardest hit by the pandemic. Most essential frontline workers are women — many from racially and ethnically marginalised groups, and at the bottom of the economic ladder. 

Women are 24 percent more vulnerable to losing their jobs and suffering steeper falls in income. The gender pay gap, already high, has widened, including in the health sector. 

Unpaid care has increased dramatically owing to stay-at-home orders and school and childcare closures. Millions of girls may never return to school. Mothers – especially single mothers – have faced acute adversity and anxiety.  

ALSO READ | OPINION | Covid-19 and the impact on women

The pandemic has also sparked a parallel epidemic of violence against women worldwide, with skyrocketing domestic abuse, trafficking, sexual exploitation, and child marriage.

Meanwhile, even though women represent the majority of health care workers, a recent study found that only 3.5 percent of Covid-19 task forces had equal numbers of men and women. In global news coverage of the pandemic, just one of every five expert sources were women.  

All of this exclusion is itself an emergency. The world needs a new push to advance women’s leadership and equal participation. And it’s clear that such action will benefit for all. 

The effective leadership of women during Covid-19 

The Covid-19 response has highlighted the power and effectiveness of women’s leadership. Over the past year, countries with women leaders have had lower transmission rates and are often better positioned for recovery.

Women’s organisations have filled crucial gaps in providing critical services and information, especially at the community level. 

Across the board, when women lead in government, we see bigger investments in social protection and greater inroads against poverty.

When women are in parliament, countries adopt more stringent policies on climate change. When women are at the peace table, agreements are more enduring.  

Yet, women make up a mere quarter of national legislators worldwide, a third of local government members, and just one fifth of cabinet ministers.

On the current trajectory, gender parity will not be reached in national legislatures before 2063. Parity among Heads of Government would take well over a century. 

A better future depends on addressing this power imbalance. Women have an equal right to speak with authority on the decisions that affect their lives. I am proud to have achieved gender parity among the leadership of the United Nations. 

The post-Covid recovery is a chance to chart to create a more equal society  

Pandemic recovery is our chance to chart a new and equal path. Support and stimulus packages must target women and girls specifically, including through scaled up investment in care infrastructure.  The formal economy only functions because it is subsidised by women’s unpaid care work.

As we recover from this crisis, we must chart a path to an inclusive, green, and resilient future. I call on all leaders to put in place six key building blocks: 

First, ensure equal representation – from company boards to parliaments, from higher education to public institutions – through special measures and quotas.

ALSO READ | OPINION | Women are they key to a post-Covid recovery

Second, invest significantly in the care economy and social protection, and redefine Gross Domestic Product to make work in the home visible and counted.

Third, remove barriers to women’s full inclusion in the economy, including through access to the labour market, property rights and targeted credit and investments.

Fourth, repeal all discriminatory laws in all spheres – from labour and land rights to personal status and protection against violence. 

Fifth, each country should enact an emergency response plan to address violence against women and girls, and follow through with funding, policies, and political will to end this scourge.

Sixth, shift mindsets, raise public awareness, and call out systemic bias. 

The world has an opportunity to leave behind generations of entrenched and systemic discrimination. It is time to build an equal future. 

António Guterres is the secretary general of the United Nations.

*Want to respond to the columnist? Send your letter or article to opinions@news24.com with your name and town or province. You are welcome to also send a profile picture. We encourage a diversity of voices and views in our readers' submissions and reserve the right not to publish any and all submissions received.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Lockdown For
Voting Booth
As a child or as an adult, have you ever been a victim of bullying?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Yes, at school
52% - 314 votes
Yes, at work
17% - 103 votes
No, I've never experienced this
31% - 191 votes
Brent Crude
All Share
Top 40
Financial 15
Industrial 25
Resource 10
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo