March is the month of women. International Women's Day is annually celebrated in almost every country of the world on 8 March. The largest global policy agenda-setting gathering for gender equality – the Commission on the Status of Women – spans a whole two weeks every March.
This year’s International Women’s Day was the first I commemorated as a leader of a constitutional body, the Malawi Human Rights Commission, which is mandated to promote and investigate all human rights in the broadest sense possible. The theme this year was thus personal as it serendipitously focused on Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.
In this article, I reflect on women’s leadership and how we are acting for gender equality in various spheres, knowing how suppressed women’s roles in decision-making whether you look at it from a local perspective or a more international one. Structural barriers constrict opportunities for women’s leadership in positions of power, including elected office, civil service and the private sector. And women mostly do not have the room to lead in their homes either, even when they contribute as much or more than their male spouses. In female-headed households, decisions on key assets such as land are frequently the purview of male relations such as their brothers and community leaders.
COVID-19 has exacerbated these inequalities further because of this second-rate position women occupy in society relative to men. So, what will a world in which women lead look like for gender equality, especially now that the future looks bleak in light of Covid-19 pandemic nationally?
Let’s start by quoting UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres who figuratively states that “COVID-19 is a crisis with a woman’s face”. As a woman seeing the first-hand female experience of surviving the pandemic, I can hardly find a better alternative to Mr. Guterres’ assertion. Restricted movement for women means automatically assuming the triple burden in meeting productive, reproductive and social responsibilities with very little capacity to influence their families towards better livelihoods. Social norms dictating the gender division of labour implies that they have limited power to negotiate with their spouses on the sharing of household care and domestic chores such as helping with homework, fetching firewood and so on.
Unfortunately, the workplace seldom recognizes this triple burden as a basic step towards grounding working women in career paths that work for them. The absence of women in leading corporate positions restricts the scope of gender-responsive institutional considerations. If stronger presence of women in leadership were a reality, it is more likely that companies would promote flexible working hours for both women and men who have pressing care responsibilities. The workplace would strengthen wellness and wellbeing and for those that have been affected by COVID-19, including its gendered impacts, and would easily scale up mental health and counseling services as an example.
UNICEF estimates that 888 million children worldwide will be affected by COVID-19, out of whom 7.7 million are in Malawi. This means that we will continue facing disruptions for this the girl child, who has suffered a heavy blow by rising cases of child rape and violence as a result of the pandemic, losing the protective role the school environment has historically played. Given the space to lead such a fight, women leaders could help reverse this trend – as Theresa Kachindamoto has done – and has translated to greater equality for girls and boys. The State, communities and institutions would be better equipped to ensure services for survivors are deemed essential and remain accessible and adequately funded!
Malawian women must also equally lead in the informal economy where most of them are employed. While they loudly speak to gain the platform to lead, they need the structures that are reluctant to see this happen to change. Policy measures pushed deliberately by government to offer them better and cheaper finance and better market regulations that boost their competitiveness. Broad economic measures can be implemented to confront women’s increasing time and income poverty. This includes efforts to recognize, reduce and redistribute the increased burden of unpaid care and domestic work in national accounting systems.
NGOs and institutions working on COVID-19 interventions can play crucial roles in advocating for these changes. Many are already joining the global movement on Generation Equality that seeks to accelerate progress on gender equality. While they must themselves be the example for the change they preach, they can push for policy advocacy towards improving sex-disaggregated data and gender statistics collection, use and expansion of research on the gendered impacts on COVID-19. They are best-positioned to investigate plausible explanations as to why there are more COVID-19 fatalities for men than for women while unearthing data on cases, deaths, hospitalization and testing to understand the pandemic’s impact on different groups and where solutions are failing the citizens.
A stronger female leadership can advocate for bold changes in the market. We need meaningful partnership with the private sector, who can formidably chart the recovery by working with youths, universities and others and democratize information on COVID-19. Mobile service providers, for example, must look beyond profits and provide cellular data that is more affordable than any other time in our history, for without customers, there is no business. They can play an important part in bridging the technology divide, including realizing the internet is no longer a luxury. Private sector can provide tools for learning, using platforms to share information specifically for women, girls and children even in the comforts of their homes. The conduct of private companies must ensure health protocols are observed in delivering services and products and, where possible, tailor for women who are vulnerable within their entities and in their clientele.
In conclusion, beyond the public health crisis, COVID-19 has rapidly morphed into a fully- fledged economic and social crisis whose effects will reverberate for years to come. COVID-19 has revealed the cracks in socio-economic equality are larger and more complex than we thought. It has exposed the divides between the rich and poor within and between countries. With hoarding of vaccines by rich economies even beyond their country needs means countries as ours will continue to suffer the direct health effects of the pandemic in comparison with rich countries.
Considerations for gender equality can be instrumental in addressing these impacts as they will help unlock a potential for economic vitality that will be critical for our survival. This means increasing women’s social and economic opportunities as our societies have done for men since time immemorial. It also means dealing away gender stereotypes, gender-based violence in all its forms and ensuring emergency centers, hotlines and protection services are functional and follow through funding.
We must bring women to the table, not to satisfy numbers, but meaningful engagement and, where necessary, give them the opportunity to lead and share a new perspective. Our lives through a devastating pandemic depend on it.