2020 should have been a year of celebration of the rights obtained for women over the past two decades. Instead, it will be remembered as the year of one of the greatest human rights setbacks; the year that the COVID-19 pandemic caused health, economic and social crises, of which women were the first to be impacted by.
Although gender parity has never been achieved by any country to date, the last two decades have nonetheless seen significant progress made towards increasing women’access to healthcare, education and job markets. Over the past 25 years , according to a recent report from UNESCO, 180 million girls have been enrolled in primary and secondary school; early pregnancies decreased by a third between 1995 and 2020; and the percentage of women married before the age of 18 fell from 25% in 1995 to 20% between 2013 and 20193. Yet, the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown measures have seriously undermined these achievements and now risk causing alarming regression.
Women’s rights in decline following the pandemic
The economic, social and political impacts of the crisis have had a tremendous impact on women and girls in all countries. Regarding employment, women represent 70% of healthcare workers globally and have been at the forefront of responses, leaving them more exposed to the virus and to overwork, leading to increased physical and mental fatigue. In the global labour market, women still tend to hold short-term, part-time jobs, many in the informal economy, leaving them more susceptible to losing all sources of income with Covid-19-related job losses. A UN Women study estimates that in 2021, due to job cuts linked to COVID-19, more than 47 million women and girls had to live on less than USD 1.90 per day, raising the number of women living in extreme poverty to 435 million5. Without health insurance or social protection, these women found themselves financially dependent on men, isolated at home or forced into prostitution in order to survive.
In this context of lockdowns and distancing measures, many women have, in accordance with prevailing social and ideological norms, been sentenced to the majority of unpaid care and domestic work. With increased cutbacks on basic social and health services, women have also experienced a lack of access to family planning services and birth control, leading to an increase in unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions. Research reveals that the negative outcomes associated with unintended pregnancy may include delays in initiating prenatal care and increased risk of maternal depression and parenting stress.
The COVID-19 pandemic is also undoing the progress made in reducing early marriage. According to UNFPA, globally, more than 13 million girls under the age of 18 could be forcibly married between 2020 and 2030. UNFPA also reveals that during periods of lockdown, violence against women increased in almost all countries.
Education, the key to women’s rights
For Aide et Action, the COVID-19 pandemic is a unique opportunity to transform society in the long term, in particular through the education of girls and women. Guaranteeing girls’ access to education today is an unparalleled key to avoiding the loss of gains but also to increasing women’s access to all of their rights. School is not only a place for learning the skills or know-how to obtain a better job, it also improves girls’ access to food, care, a listening ear and assistance. In school, girls can learn their rights and in turn exercise them, leading them to participate in society more, develop critical thinking skills and push for progress in gender parity.
Major investments and innovative initiatives
The context of post-crisis will prove challenging for women’s rights. We believe that the priority should be to guarantee the reopening of all schools in acceptable sanitary conditions (which implies the construction of latrines for girls and boys and access to drinking water), distributing school grants to the most disadvantaged families in order to prevent girls from dropping out of school, setting up support courses so that girls have the opportunity to catch up on lost education during school closures and ensuring girls access to digital tools of which they have been largely deprived of.
However, these objectives will of course be unattainable without adequate funding. Currently, the rights of women and girls are still largely under-funded, as is the education sector, which, according to UNESCO has received only 0.78% of funding dedicated to the post-crisis situation, rendering education largely invisible in global recovery strategies.
Two major events prioritising girls’ education are expected in 2021: the Generation Equality Forum in June and the G7 summit under the British presidency in July. They should be the starting point for major investments and the development of innovative and multisectoral initiatives to make women’s rights an urgent priority here and now. The right to education should be guaranteed, and not viewed as a cost in post-recovery but as an investment in an inclusive transformation of the economy as well as in building more just and sustainable societies.
In January 2021, Aide et Action launched Education For Women Now, a global movement to support the education of 3 million vulnerable girls and women by 2025. Waiting is no longer possible, the time to act is now.