Addressing gender inequalities is essential for the success of COVID-19 recovery policies

The COVID-19 pandemic is an unequal crisis. The analogy “same storm, different boats” comes up often in discussions of the pandemic’s effects. But not only are some boats more vulnerable to the storm, they are also being pushed further from safe harbour. The COVID-19 pandemic is amplifying pre-existing inequalities.

People in poor health, those with limited access to healthcare, and whose livelihoods put them in frequent contact with others are at the greatest risk of the virus. As such, it is disproportionately dangerous for the poor, especially in low-income countries

Like the virus, the measures to control its spread have inequitable effects. Women in particular are more likely to bear the brunt of the pandemic’s economic and social consequences. Ongoing PEP research in Nigeria, under the IDRC CORE initiative, is investigating how the pandemic is widening the gap between men’s and women’s employment.

The crisis is highlighting how national-level (macro) policies work for some sectors of the population yet punish others, usually the most vulnerable.

Much of women's work not recognised in official data

To understand why this is happening, we first have to look at the data informing these policies. Here we find that much official, national-level data fails to capture important parts of the economy.

Typical measures of a country’s economic health, such as gross domestic product (GDP), do not recognise men’s and women’s work equally. GDP does not include unpaid services, such as “reproductive” or care activities that support the current and future (productive) workforce. On average, women carry out the majority of unpaid care and domestic work, which is estimated to be worth between 10% and 39% of GDP.

How unpaid care services are measured matters. Essentially, they represent a transfer of resources from women to others in the economy.
If unpaid care work is seen as consumption rather than production, this will change macroeconomic policy priorities. 

Women bear the brunt of the pandemic’s economic and social consequences

Lock-down policies have forced some sectors to adapt while others essentially shut down. Women are overrepresented in many of the sectors – including tourism and hospitality, food services, domestic services, and retail – that have been hit the hardest during this crisis.

Women also have fewer resources to cope with job losses. Women are less likely to have savings and be covered by social protection measures as they tend to work in more vulnerable and informal occupations. This is especially true in developing countries where 92% of working women are employed in the informal sector.

As well as pushing many women into poverty, the pandemic has increased the disproportionate burden of unpaid care shouldered by women. Before the crisis, women and girls carried out two and a half times more unpaid care and domestic work than men globally. As the need to care for children, the elderly, and the sick at home increases, women find themselves taking over where social services lack.

Similarly, poverty measures generally do not reflect inequalities within the household. As well as tending to own smaller and less profitable businesses than men, women often spend less time in for-profit activities due to their burden of unpaid care responsibilities. In sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, and especially among low-income households, a large portion of women are not involved in household decisions about spending their personal earned income. Yet the data rarely reflect these critical disparities within households.

Policies based on incomplete evidence amplify inequalities

Basing policies on evidence that does not reflect the variety of experiences within a population is bound to exacerbate inequalities, even if the policies are not explicitly “gendered”.

As women concentrate in specific sectors and have less access to credit than men, changes to exchange rates, interest rates, trade liberalization policies, monetary policies, and inflation affect men and women differently. PEP researchers have demonstrated how women suffer when policies do not account for gender differences. A research team in Senegal showed how a trade agreement with the EU would threaten the already precarious working conditions of many women and increase gender inequalities as the sectors where women are most active would become the least competitive.

Over the last few decades, a number of initiatives have helped raise awareness of the inequitable consequences of economic and other apparently gender-neutral policies. In Uganda and Rwanda, gender budgeting has helped integrate gender-equality goals into budget policies, programs, and processes. The Canadian government has made gender-based analysis mandatory in all its policies and departments, including in finance and trade.

We are at a critical time for tackling these inequalities as governments implement rapid-response policies to restore their economies following the pandemic. So how can policies that aim to stabilise the whole economy address inequalities within the population? And in the case of low-income countries, can this be done with very limited policy means?

Addressing gender inequalities benefits the whole population

There is growing recognition that efforts to specifically support women can help address gender inequalities, which in turn enhances economic growth. Government spending can reduce market inequalities. For example, public investments in care (for children and the elderly) ease women’s disproportionate care burden and help them access opportunities for paid employment. 

PEP researchers have also shown how the whole population benefits when women’s needs are considered. Two teams of researchers in Burkina Faso found that agricultural subsidies for women increase national food security, employment and economic growth.

Addressing gender inequalities is thus an essential element for the success of COVID-19 recovery polices. And sustainable and equitable decision making generally requires evidence that takes women into account. As such, research has an important role to play for understanding the links between macroeconomic policies and gender equality.

For many years, PEP has encouraged its research teams to consider gender issues in policy analysis and in 2019 PEP began requiring project teams to incorporate gender analysis in their research. As well as an evidence base of gender-sensitive research, PEP also provides training from gender analysis specialists to the members of its project teams and this year added Gender Analysis in Economic Policy Research to its public online courses.

In fostering a new generation of gender-aware knowledge producers, PEP is supporting gender-sensitive policymaking as a step towards gender equality.

By Arjan de Haan (@ArjanDevDebate)
Senior Program Specialist for Sustainable Inclusive Economies at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC)


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