By Forus International

25 years after the adoption of Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, 2020 was meant to be a milestone for reducing the gender gap, but in fact, we might be witnessing a dramatic backstep in the achievement of gender equality and SDG number five. As part of their global politics series, UN DESA hosted a global policy dialogue on gender equality, where a panel of nine women from different horizons gathered to discuss this new normal, from the Beijing Declaration to the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond.

A global pandemic, conflicts in the US elections, protests for social change in Latin America, disasters emerging from nature’s pain and humans causing pain to each other. The year 2020 has been defined by a set of events that will steer the future of society as we -used to- know it, creating a “new normal”. A reality that doesn’t recognize borders and where one’s problems are also our neighbours’, where standing alone is not an option and governments need to work together to find collective solutions for a better tomorrow. 

In this new normal, we find ourselves both in a reflection and inflexion point. For far too long, we have been living in a society where “different” is synonym of “wrong” and more differences means more marginalization. The simplest differences, such as being a man or a woman, have proven to be the most determinant factors to have an impact on the way we live and cope with this new normal. But what does this mean to gender equality in a context where we are entering the final lap, the last ten years, to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the realization of Agenda2030? As the clock ticks in this fast-forward and changing context, where are we into achieving gender equality? 

As we try to understand this new reality, we’ve been relying on research and data, to make informed decisions and be in a position to create accurate policies that respond to the needs of the people. 

The 2020 Worlds’ Women report, presented by Francesca Grum, lead author of the report, shows that there has been significant progress within gender equality indicators over the past two decades. Education seems to be a success, as we’ve achieved gender parity in primary and secondary education at the global level. Women are marrying later and are having fewer children, and there’s a feeling of increased empowerment. Power and decision-making positions have seen some progress, with doubled women’s participation amongst parliamentarians, tripled amongst ministers. 

However, we are still far away from the 30% gender quote and far behind the 50% gender parity. Today, the hard-earned gains in gender equality are being challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic. The report, that has been produced since 1990, highlights the importance of mainstreaming a gender-based approach in data collection, as an incomplete picture risks taking us to the wrong direction. Without gender-disaggregated data, inequalities are made invisible. 

Numerous challenges persist until the Beijing promise becomes a reality. Sarah Hendriks, from UN Women, stressed the importance of addressing women’s and girl’s unique needs and priorities when responding to the covid-19 pandemic. According to the World’s Women report, data shows that in spite of efforts being made around the globe to address gender-based violence (GBV), progress is yet to be made. Violence against women has increased in light of the imposed lockdowns, and there is no evidence of this getting better as lockdowns are eased. 

Jayati Ghosh, the Chairperson of the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, explained that a vicious cycle has been created, as the economic situation of households has been negatively affected by the pandemic, the emotional stability has also worsened, and that frustration is taken on women. 

Gender inequalities are also observed in the labour sector, especially as there are little initiatives to address this issue, that has a tremendous impact on women’s economic security. With the lockdowns also came the remote work. Working from home doesn’t mean having a safe space to work. 

According to Manuela Tomei, from the International Labor Organization (ILO), more than 9 million people have shifted to mandatory remote working, she added that “those who have managed to do so, can be considered as privileged”. 

Indeed, a new set of challenges has emerged from this shift that go beyond the digital divide, from an increase in domestic violence to mental health problems that result from combining paid work and increased responsibilities within the family sphere. ILO’s household surveys show that there’s a dramatic decline in women’s employment rate, particularly for those in the informal sector and those with children. 

For the workers in the informal sector, remote work is not an option as they rely on their mobility to be able to carry out their work. The ILO estimates that 140 million jobs will be lost by the end of the year because of the pandemic, and if the second wave is accentuated, the estimation could reach 340 millions of full-time jobs. A vast majority will affect women, especially as 40% of employed women are working in the sectors most hit by the pandemic such as working in food services, hospitality and accommodation, and manufacturing in the garment industry. 

When referring to a “future normal”, hopefully, an improved version of our current reality, Tomei highlighted the need to invest in the care industry as the crisis has made evident the core role of childcare services. We need to reflect on how to combine policies related to parental leaves with a provision of services by the State. 

As seen during this pandemic, crisis can go beyond borders. Alliances and building collective resilience are more important than ever. Ana Guezmes, from the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL), stressed that the regional level has a key role to play in the way we respond to the crisis. CEPAL’s primarily approach has been to put gender at the core of the region’s development agenda, “we need to go beyond our normal standards and means to put in place a transformative recovery”, she added. 

If we aim to strengthen our policy outcomes we need to bring a wide diversity of voices into the discussion. In responding to the covid pandemic, civil society actors, particularly national NGO platforms, have played a key role in coordinating responses with local governments. 

In Bolivia, UNITAS, has put forward the need to implement safeguarding practices in this new environment. To do so, they have been coordinating efforts with the local authorities to distribute flyers with information and phone numbers to help women denounce domestic violence cases. When looking at the country level, it is by zooming in at this scale that we really perceive the intersecting inequalities and challenges sub-groups face. UNITAS is one of the many members of Forus International, a global network of national NGO platforms and regional coalitions that have had to adapt their work because of the constraints of the pandemic, particularly in light of the shrinking space for civil society and the absence of enabling environment for their work.

We have a major policy task, we can’t treat women’s challenges as extensions of our work, we need to really focus on them and think to what extent we can mobilize our work to tackle them”, said J. Ghosh

We need to understand women’s challenges by analyzing what they do, who they are, how they live, etc. Although policy outcomes might not be visible in the short-term, sometimes because of the multiplicity of variables that can steer the result and its timeline, it is clear that data is a tool that can be mobilized as a means to empower populations. It is the kind of tool that once it is integrated, it can have long-lasting effects. 

As Martha Chen, from Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing & Organizing, said: “data in the hands of workers is power, If they could have access to this data, they could effectively negotiate with governments, and other stakeholders”. 

Data doesn’t have to be exclusively at the service of policy-makers, it needs to be available and accessible to the rightsholders for them to organize and decide what their priorities are and be able to have a saying in the decision-making process. 

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