Philanthropist Melinda Gates is proposing a roadmap to ensure women are not left behind in COVID-19 recovery.
Gates penned an article in Foreign Affairs magazine on Wednesday, that highlights how the COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately impacting women and girls and makes recommendations to guarantee they survive the crisis. Her suggestions draw from the impact previous epidemics had on women’s lives and lean on what some countries are already doing right.
“Gender-blind is not gender-neutral” must be a call to action in the current moment, according to Gates. She warned that ignoring how the pandemic is affecting women and men differently will only continue the crisis and slow down economic recovery.
The pandemic provides leaders with an opportunity to dismantle antiquated systems and rebuild a more equitable and resilient world, Gates said.
“This is how we can emerge from the pandemic in all of its dimensions: by recognizing that women are not just victims of a broken world; they can be architects of a better one,” she wrote.
Decision-makers can take steps right now to make sure the world recovers from this pandemic stronger, more prepared & more equal than it was before. The key: Women and girls must be at the center of the response. Read more in my piece in @ForeignAffairs. https://t.co/dok9ku3h2k— Melinda Gates (@melindagates) July 15, 2020
Here are six steps the world can take to protect women against the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Gates.
1. Make women’s health care an essential service.
In low- and middle-income countries, COVID-19 could cause 113,000 maternal deaths, but they can be prevented, Gates said. Access to sexual and reproductive health care for every woman in every country, and adapting maternal care to the constraints of the pandemic could save hundreds of thousands of lives.
Protecting the contraceptive supply chain is also crucial to prevent an estimated 49 million additional women from going without contraceptives and 15 million additional unplanned pregnancies, Gates said.
She recommends separating mothers and newborns from COVID-19 patients in health facilities or providing professional home care for mothers. The pandemic is also an opportunity to restructure women’s health care and make it more accessible.
2. Protect health care workers.
Health workers — 70% of whom are women — should receive first priority when the COVID-19 vaccine is developed, Gates said.
Women health workers also need adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) that fit their bodies. Most PPE is designed for men and prevents women on the front lines of the virus from doing their jobs efficiently and effectively.
3. Tailor economic relief efforts to women’s needs.
Policymakers must take into consideration COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on women and the unique role they play in recovery when rebuilding the economy, Gates said.
Social protection programs can ensure women have the means to buy nutritious food to feed their families, for instance.
What’s more, policymakers should support women in agriculture (who represent 43% of the labor force) with financial tools to protect them against the aftermath of the pandemic and create a safety net for future crises.
Governments can also provide emergency cash assistance with women in mind and follow Canada’s lead by allocating stimulus funds toward women-owned businesses. Gates also noted Argentina and Burkina Faso as examples for directing funds toward industries dominated by women.
4. Close the digital gender gap.
Women in low- and middle-income countries are less likely than men to have access to mobile phones, limiting their access to information, online banking, and the online marketplace. All countries need to improve digital access for women, Gates said. Kenya and Bangladesh have set phone and data package prices by taking into account women’s needs she pointed out.
5. Incentivize unpaid work.
The longer women continue to handle more household responsibilities than men, the longer COVID-19 recovery will take, and economies will suffer.
“The burden of unpaid work must be recognized, reduced, and redistributed,” Gates wrote.
Policies for men and women such as paid family leave, coupled with infrastructure investments that make unpaid work easier, can add value to unpaid work. Flexible work schedules and onsite childcare can help, too, Gates added.
6. Listen to women.
Women lack representation in leadership and government around the world, but they must be included in COVID-19 response planning. Women from diverse backgrounds and experiences hold the answers, Gates said. Grassroots women’s organizations that have deep ties with marginalized communities are the key to making sure no one is left behind.
Disclosure: Melinda Gates is the co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a funding partner of Global Citizen.
Editor's note: This piece has been updated to include a disclosure that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a funding partner of Global Citizen. We regret the oversight.