The impact of Covid-19 is not gender-neutral. As the pandemic has spread across the globe it has heightened and amplified existing vulnerabilities and inequalities in social, political, economic and health systems.
Policies and public health responses have not fully considered the gendered impact of the crisis on girls and women. Instead, with the spread of the pandemic, even the limited gains made by women and girls in the past few decades are at risk.
From health to the economy, the impact of Covid-19 is exacerbated for women and girls simply by virtue of their sex across all sectors.
The economic impact on women and girls is compounded as they are generally earning less, saving less, holding insecure jobs, have less control over their own finances and living close to poverty. According to an analysis published in UN Women's recent report, Gender Equality in the Wake of the Pandemic, by 2021, 47 million women and girls will be pushed into poverty as a result of Covid-19.
Women's health has been adversely affected through the reallocation of resources and health priorities, especially sexual and reproductive health services.
Women and girls are facing the pressures of increased unpaid care work, compromised mental health and anxiety. Restricted movement and social isolation have increased gender-based violence and with girls out of school for long periods, they are at greater risk of child marriage and school dropouts.
Even with the hope of a vaccine becoming a reality in 2021, it is clear that Covid-19 has changed our lives and the way we live. Covid-19 is not only a challenge for global health systems and governments but a test of our humanity.
Recovery and responses must lead to a more equitable world that will be more resilient to future crises. Long-term recovery efforts whether social, economic or in health and well-being must look towards more inclusive societies.
It will be critical for all public health preparedness and response-related plans in the future to consider both the direct and indirect health impacts on women and girls. The year ahead, with its glimmer of hope of a resumption of 'normal' life must use this moment to ensure that the 'new normal' will be one that is equal and just.
While women and girls are hardest hit by the pandemic, they are also the backbone of recovery in communities across the country. Frontline Health Workers, ASHAs (Accredited Social Health Activists), Anganwadi Workers and Auxiliary Nurse Midwives (ANMs), are at the heart of the National Health Mission's response. It is crucial therefore that going forward we place women and girls, their inclusion, representation and rights, at the centre of our Covid-19 response.
Strengthening the health and social system from a gender perspective would ensure that women and girls are equally represented in all planning and decision making.
Evidence shows that policies that do not consult women or include them in decision making are less effective, therefore women's representation across planning and policies is critical. Women-led countries such as New Zealand, Taiwan, Germany have by and large fared better in their emergency responses.
A gendered health response would ensure that basic services such as access to contraceptive choices, menstrual hygiene products, gender-based violence related services, maternal and ante-natal care, abortion services continue to be available even during a crisis.
The provision of sexual and reproductive health services are fundamental to the health, rights and well-being of women and girls. Economic support measures can be introduced for women at risk, including gender-inclusive social support programmes.
Additionally, increased resources for education and skills training for women and girls would result in higher labour force participation, post-Covid-19.
Beyond simply a public health issue, Covid-19 has snowballed into an economic and social crisis, the effects of which will continue for some time yet.
As we look forward to 2021 and what it holds in store for women and girls, we will need to come together to develop a coordinated and systemic response to tackle the crisis.
To quote the UN Women's report, "over 100 million women can be lifted out of poverty globally if governments implement a comprehensive policy strategy aimed at improving access to education, family planning, equal wages and social transfers".
There would be a cost to inaction, and we would run the risk of losing the very valuable gains women and girls have made in the last decade.
Putting women and girls at the centre of the health system will be paramount to driving better, more sustainable and equitable development outcomes. It will ensure that even beyond Covid-19 and the current pandemic, violence against women and girls will be built into a reimagined and stronger public health system. We must act now to ensure the well-being of women and girls, rather than reacting every year.
(By Poonam Muttreja, Executive Director, Population Foundation of India, and a public health expert)