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New U.N. Tracker Looks At How Countries' COVID-19 Responses Are Helping Women

Dola Banerjee homeschools her children in New Delhi in August.
Dola Banerjee homeschools her children in New Delhi in August.

By now, it's become clear that the coronavirus pandemic is not gender neutral. While men are more likely to die from the virus itself, "in terms of the economic and social fallout, it's really women that are particularly affected," says Silke Staab, a research specialist with U.N. Women.

Around the world, reports of domestic violence have surged dramatically, as women find themselves trapped at home with their abusers. Women also face a massive increase in unpaid caregiving. Meanwhile, research suggests women are also bearing the heaviest economic fallout because they're more likely to work in jobs that lack social protections like unemployment benefits.

"What we really wanted to see is how our governments respond to these challenges," says Staab.

To find out, Staab and her colleagues at U.N. Women, together with the U.N. Development Programme, compiled the COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker, released on Monday. The database analyzes more than 2,500 responses to the pandemic in 206 countries and territories from March to August — and assesses whether those measures address violence against women and girls, women's economic security and support for unpaid caregiving.

The bad news: Just 12% of countries had measures that addressed all three areas, and 1 in 5 countries hadn't tackled any of them.

But the findings also point to bright spots in the global response. "What the tracker shows is that countries are taking action and that we can learn from what they're doing. And I hope some of the examples can also serve as an inspiration on that front," she says.

We spoke with Staab about what countries are getting right when it comes to addressing the special challenges facing women in three key areas.

Violence against women and children

"One of the really positive things that the tracker highlights is that many countries – 135 in total – have taken some sort of measures to respond to the surge in violence against women," Staab says, adding that there's real recognition that the situation is critical for women across the world. "We need to see those recognitions be backed up with more funding."

She says Canada is an exemplar in this area: It has channeled up to $22.5 million toward shelters and sexual assault centers, with an additional $7.5 million in funding for a network of shelters that specifically supports indigenous women and children fleeing violence.

Sweden's response also gets high marks from Staab: The country has provided about $10.5 million in funding directly to shelters and hotlines that combat violence against women, children and LGBT people. That financial commitment is worth highlighting, she says, "because in many countries, these [groups] are the first responders."

Economic security

Overall, the global response was weakest here: Just 10% of measures explicitly aimed to support women's financial security, Staab says. That's despite the fact that other surveys have found women are more likely than men to report a loss of income during the pandemic.

Around the world, domestic workers – 80% of whom are women, according to the International Labour Organization — have been particularly hard hit. Many have found themselves dismissed or suspended without pay by employers who are now working from home or perhaps are facing their own financial insecurity, she says. In Latin America, several countries have stepped up with noteworthy responses: Peru and Ecuador have launched public information campaigns to draw attention to the rights of domestic workers. Argentina extended paid leave to this group as well as an emergency relief payment of $155 every 2 months (although the government is now evaluating whether to continue these payments).

"We've also seen, particularly in some African countries, interesting measures to support women businesses and women entrepreneurs," says Staab.

For instance ,Egypt, Morocco and Togo are giving cash or subsidized credit to women who work as market vendors or traders in the informal economy as well as to women-led cooperatives. Togo's program is a standout, Staab notes, because it uses a cellphone app to transfer cash, eliminating the need to wait in lines. All three countries are also training and providing other support to women so they can sell their wares, mostly agricultural products, online.

Meanwhile, Morocco has also set up a certification system for women-led cooperatives to make 30,000 reusable masks per day, according to the tracker.

Support for unpaid care

Whether it's caring for kids at home who would otherwise have been in school or daycare, or ministering to a sick loved one, women around the world are shouldering a surge in unpaid caretaking duties. The overall global response in this area "is really in no way commensurate to the crisis," says Staab. Only a third of countries – largely in Europe and North America, plus Australia, New Zealand and parts of Latin America — have adopted any measures that tackle the burden of unpaid care in any way. "That's really just not enough," Staab says.

Most of the measures related to paid family and sick leave during the pandemic.

Some countries, like Poland, South Korea, Italy and the Cook Islands, are offering cash allowances or stipends to parents caring for children at home because of school and daycare closures. Spain has encouraged telework and allowed workers to adapt and reduce their work hours as necessary to care for dependents. Austria is partly subsidizing up to three weeks of care leave at full pay for employees with kids.

Staab also points to Australia's innovative move at the start of the pandemic to keep afloat childcare centers – many of which are small, independent businesses predominantly staffed by women. In exchange for government-relief funds, child care facilities had to stay open and provide free, government-subsidized care to all parents, with priority given to children of essential workers. While Australia has since significantly scaled back these measures, Staab says governments "really need to think about" offering more affordable, subsidized child care options longer term as they work to rebuild their economies.

"We know from previous crises that not only does women's employment suffer a great deal, but it often recovers at a much slower rate than men's when economic growth resumes," she says. "And a lot of that has to do with care responsibilities. And so affordable child care is a key component of any economic recovery strategy."

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