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Crises disproportionately put girls and women at risk of stopping their education, lacking access to health care, and living in extreme poverty. If countries do not act fast, we will not achieve gender equality by 2030. You can join us and take action on this issue here

The COVID-19 pandemic is threatening years of gender equality progress. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals 2020 Report found that female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage are on the rise. Women are also doing more unpaid labor than ever, and access to women’s health care is becoming more limited. 

Rather than give up now, leaders see the crisis as an opportunity for countries to step up their efforts to create a more equitable world for women and girls.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive directorof UN Women, envisions a path forward despite the new set of challenges presented by the pandemic. She spoke to Global Citizen via email about how the latest SDG report’s findings can guide COVID-19 response and future initiatives to achieve gender equality by 2030.

Mlambo-Ngcuka stressed the importance of female leadership, making sexual and reproductive health essential everywhere, addressing the increased risks of harmful practices, rebalancing household responsbilities, and more.

Read the interview below.

Global Citizen: The SDG 2020 report found that while women have more political representation on a local level, there is still room for improvement in top-level positions. Why is ensuring that women are equally represented in parliament crucial to achieving gender equality, especially in light of COVID-19? 

Mlambo-Ngcuka: Women’s participation in political processes means that more inclusive decisions are made, diverse voices are heard, and different solutions are created. This leads to better outcomes for everyone.

When women are equally represented in parliaments, they are better able [to] raise the profile of key issues, including sexual and reproductive health and rights, child care, and equal pay, as well as broader development issues, such as the alleviation of poverty.

In the context of COVID-19, women leaders can play a key role in driving political, media, and public attention to the pandemic’s disproportionate socioeconomic impact on women who are overrepresented in informal and vulnerable employment, as well as the “shadow pandemic” reported of gender-based violence. 

Having more women in high-level positions also challenges discriminatory social norms and stereotypes and sends a message that women leaders are just as legitimate and capable as men. We need only look to countries such as New Zealand, Germany, Norway, and Taiwan to see powerful examples of how women’s leadership can provide more effective, inclusive, and fair policies, plans, and budgets to address the pandemic. 

In media coverage of the outbreak, only one woman is quoted for every three men. The time to change this is now. 

To “build back better” and achieve gender equality, women must be able to lead and participate fully in decision-making, both on COVID-19 response and recovery and across all areas of public life. We have to work harder to get to 50/50 representation in parliaments and cabinets by 2025.

What must the world do to ensure that women not only have agency when it comes to using contraception but can also make their own decisions regarding health care and whether or not to be sexually active? 

Sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) are an essential part of achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment. When women are in control of their own bodies, they can make health decisions that are critical to their well-being and that of their communities and societies, including whether or not to be sexually active and how to protect themselves from HIV and sexually transmitted infections. Those choices impact not only women’s health but are closely linked to their ability to engage in broader opportunities, for instance, in politics, education, and entrepreneurship. 

To ensure that women have agency in decisions about their sexual health, we must fulfill the commitments made in the Beijing Platform for Action and the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) to make sexual and reproductive health services and education essential everywhere. 

National-level committee decisions on COVID-19 must be made in consultation with groups working on women’s rights and SRHR to ensure consideration of best health practice recommendations. Universal health care programs should include sexual and reproductive health services, and key donors and funding bodies (such as international organizations) should pledge to ensure that programs include these commitments. To this end, one of UN Women’s Generation Equality Action Coalitions is dedicated to “bodily autonomy and sexual and reproductive health and rights,” and we are moving forward with a strong group of partners to ensure this is a key area for action. 

Child marriage and FGM are two areas where we’ve seen progress, how was that accomplished? 

Achieving progress on these harmful practices has included working with policymakers to change laws, as well as with traditional and cultural leaders, to address deeply rooted social norms. This work has been guided by the commitments in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995) and other international frameworks, and in 2012 the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted the first-ever resolution against FGM. Today, the EU-UN Spotlight Initiative is working to scale up existing initiatives on fighting FGM and child marriage in Africa. 

Progress has also been the result of brave survivors speaking out to protect other women from these harmful practices and violations. UN Women’s Regional Goodwill Ambassador for Africa, Jaha Dukureh, who is a survivor of child marriage and FGM, worked to ensure that a ban was passed on FGM in her country, the Gambia, and contributed to the passage of a law making it illegal for parents to bring children to the US for female genital mutilation. She also helped in 2019 to co-convene the first African Summit on Female Genital Mutilations and Child Marriage in Dakar, Senegal. Its outcome document, [the] Dakar Declaration, recommended that interventions to stop FGM take a multilayered approach that establishes enabling policy and legal frameworks, while empowering girls, mobilizing families and communities, and providing quality education, protection, and health services. 

Overall, support for harmful practices is decreasing. At least 59 countries have passed laws against FGM, including 26 of the 29 African countries where FGM is most concentrated, and UNICEF estimates that some 25 million child marriages have been prevented in the last decade. But change is not yet happening fast enough, and any gains made may soon be overtaken by the rapid growth of the youth demographic in the most affected countries. We also know that in times of crisis, the risk of child marriage increases, and therefore it is critical that COVID-19 response and recovery measures address these increased risks. 

Even with more men taking on household responsibilities during the COVID-19 pandemic, women and girls are still doing the majority of the work. What else must be done to equalize household burdens even further? 

Around the world, women were already doing an average of three times as much unpaid care and domestic work as men, including the majority of child care. Lockdown orders and school closures brought on by the pandemic have only increased this imbalance, exposing the often hidden care and domestic work that keeps families running. We need to use this as an opportunity to both value and rebalance unpaid care work in the home. 

This starts with men and boys stepping up and doing their fair share, including through initiatives such as UN Women’s #HeForSheatHome campaign, which calls on men and boys to help balance the burden of care in their households. We must work alongside government, private sector, and civil society actors to ensure that men’s care labor is not just a temporary “necessity,” but part of a permanent shift. This kind of behavior change needs to be accompanied by policies that support staff to take parental leave and access affordable child care, and by long-overdue government investments in the care economy — from prioritizing budget allocations and expanding access to improving the quality of care services and ensuring decent work and social protection. 

Together we can ensure that the pandemic is not an excuse to revert to traditional gender roles, but instead, an opportunity to address long-standing inequalities and a better world for all people. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Disclosure: Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka joined Global Citizen's board of directors in 2021, after this story was published.

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