Gender Equality Faces New Set of Obstacles Amid COVID-19 Crisis: SDG Report 2020

Leah Rodriguez

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There is not a single country in the world that has achieved gender equality.

While some nations have made significant progress in reducing harmful practices like child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM), and women are more represented in government than ever, several other barriers still stop women from reaching their full potentials, according to the Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020 released in June. 

International leaders gathered at the United Nations headquarters in 2015 and created the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), or Global Goals, to end extreme poverty by 2030. Global Goal 5 aims to achieve political, economic, and social equality for all women, but the COVID-19 pandemic is making this target increasingly difficult to reach. A new set of obstacles is disproportionately putting women at risk and further jeopardizing gender equality on a global scale.  

Historically, women are especially vulnerable during crises. COVID-19 is no different and already domestic violence, child marriage, and FGM is on the rise, the report said. With schools and child care services closed, women and girls are taking on the brunt of household chores and caregiving responsibilities. Women also represent 70% of health care workers globally and are more exposed to the virus on the front lines.

The report maps out six areas where the world could stand to improve in order to empower all women: gender-based violence, child marriage, unpaid work, representation in decision-making, and reproductive health.

COVID-19 Could Stall Progress in Ending Harmful Practices

Gender-based violence can take many forms, from physical to mental, and has long-lasting negative impacts on women and girls’ well-being that trickle down to their families and society.

The report cites surveys conducted between 2005 and 2017 in 106 countries that showed 18% of women and girls ages 15 to 49 who had ever been in a romantic or sexual relationship experienced physical or sexual violence by a current or a partner within a year of participating.

The possibility of encountering violence has increased for women and girls who are staying at home to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and are trapped with their abusers without resources to escape. Disruptions in social services and health care are making it even more challenging for survivors to seek assistance. 

Data from several countries show an increase in domestic violence reporting during the pandemic. The increase may be much greater, given that less than 40% of women who survive domestic abuse report it as a crime or ask for help because they are afraid or ashamed.

Improving the digital gender gap may help protect women against violence, the report suggested. Women are less likely than men to own a cellphone and therefore have a harder time seeking help or medical support. Women are also more likely to have controlling or abusive partners who track their phone use. 

Gender-based violence, along with early pregnancy and dropping out of school is especially a threat for young girls who live in poverty and are forced to marry early. Some families are resorting to child marriage — the marriage of a child under the age of 18 — to ease financial burdens and attempt to offer protection for their daughters during the pandemic. 

School closures and the increase in poverty during the pandemic could also put more girls at risk of child marriage, setting back recent progress in decreasing the rate.

Around 20% of women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before the age of 18 around 2019, compared to nearly 24% ten years prior, with the largest decline in Southern Asia, according to the report. Sub-Saharan Africa, however, had the highest rate, with 1 in 3 young women ages 20 to 24 married in childhood. 

Another harmful practice, FGM, continues to compromise women’s health across cultures and countries worldwide, the report said. At least 200 million girls and women have been subjected to FGM in 31 countries where the practice is most common. While FGM rates are lower in some countries, in others at least 9 in 10 girls ages 15 to 49 have undergone the practice. 

FGM is still happening in 92 countries, according to a joint report released by the organization Equality Now, End FGM European Network, and US Network to End FGM/C in 2020. Lack of adequate data estimates the practice occurs less frequently, Antonia Kirkland, global lead for legal equality and access to justice at Equality Now, said in a statement released to Global Citizen. Many countries still do not outlaw FGM and lack funding for anti-FGM initiatives, she added.

Due to population growth, progress would have to accelerate 10 times, even in countries where FGM is not as common, to eliminate the practice entirely by 2030, according to the report. What’s more, the pandemic is disrupting programs to end FGM that could help speed up the process. 

“To end FGM, we need political commitment from every country,” Kirkland said. “This includes collecting and circulating reliable data, introducing and implementing comprehensive laws prohibiting FGM, while also providing the necessary funding to NGOs and local services that deliver interventions and support at the community level.”

Unpaid Work Prevents Women and Girls From Fully Participating in Society

Women and girls not only require protection against harmful practices and violence to achieve gender equality, but they also need help with household responsibilities. The imbalanced care burden stops women from working and learning every day. 

Women spend three times as many hours in unpaid domestic and care work as men, and even more if they have young children, according to data collected from 89 countries between 2001 and 2018, the report said. In 75% of the countries with data, there has been a small decrease in the time women spend on unpaid household labor compared to men. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that even with men taking more responsibility for household chores, women and girls are still doing most of the work, according to a poll conducted in 17 countries. 

Some Women Still Aren’t Making Decisions About Their Own Health

When women can decide when, if, and how many children they want to care for, they are less likely to live in poverty — but many women lack agency over their bodies, the report said. 

Only slightly more than half of women (55%) between the ages of 15 and 49 make their own reproductive and sexual health choices, according to data from 57 countries between 2007 and 2018. Most women (91%) have the most input in whether or not they use contraception. When it comes to health care or sexual activity, only 3 in 4 women have a say.

Data from 75 countries showed that 73% of them identified the laws and regulations needed to guarantee full and equal access to sexual and reproductive health care in 2019, the report said. On average, countries had set in place 87% of laws and regulations needed for HIV counseling and testing services. Countries also instituted 79% of relevant laws and regulations that require women’s full consent they receive contraceptive services, including sterilization.

Female Representation in Decision-Making Roles Increased — But Not by Much

The key to introducing policies that protect women and enable them to make important decisions about their bodies, education, and lives is equal representation in decision-making roles. 

Women might hold more positions of power than before, but governments worldwide are still male-dominated, the report revealed. 

Women’s representation in national parliaments had reached 24.9% in January 2020, up from 22.3% in 2015. In 133 countries, women have better access to decision-making positions at the local level and hold 36.3% of elected seats in local government, mostly to meet gender quotas. When looking at both local and high levels, only 13% of countries have achieved gender balance (40% or more) in parliament and only 15% have in local government. 

This disparity in positions of power is apparent outside of government bodies, too. Women represented a mere 29% of managerial positions in 2019, despite making up 39% of the world’s workforce. 

Women have to fight to get into the workplace in the first place, and then they are not considered for decision-making positions, the report said. Women accounted for 41% of managerial positions in Southeast Asia, 40% in North America, and 8% in Northern Africa in 2019. 

Having women in decision-making positions plays an important role in preventing worsening existing inequalities and ensuring relief efforts apply a gender lens during the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 Relief Through a Gender Lens Is Key to Staying on Track

Women’s rights advocates are urging the international community to act quickly to meet Global Goal 5 before it’s too late.

Prior to the pandemic, climate change, conflict, food insecurity, and exclusionary politics were already reversing advances in gender equality. Every country would have had to speed up progress to meet Global Goal 5 by the deadline, Susan Papp, policy and advocacy managing director at the organization Women Deliver, told the news agency Inter Press Service. 

One study released by the organization Equal Measures 2030 in March found that more than a third of countries have been moving too slowly or in the wrong direction to address four of the five core issues targeted by the Global Goals.

The world must learn from previous epidemics like Ebola and Zika that exacerbated inequality and set back women and girls in affected countries, Tessie San Martin, president and CEO of the organization Plan International USA, said in a statement released to Global Citizen.

“The time is now to ring alarm bells because the progress made to date on gender equality is in danger of being erased,” Martin said. “If we are smart about how we understand and target pandemic response and recovery initiatives so that girls are not just disadvantaged but are at the center of how these initiatives are designed, we have a unique opportunity to advance the gender equality agenda beyond our initial aspirations.” 

The SDGs cannot advance without adequate COVID-19 response measures that address girls’ vulnerabilities, according to Equality Now’s Kirkland.

“This involves budget and relief packages that promote gender equality and stepping up strict enforcement of laws against violations such as child marriage, female genital mutilation, and sexual and gender-based violence,” she said. 

“To achieve gender equality by 2030 all governments must prioritize the elimination of sex discriminatory laws and put in place guarantees of legal equality, as a first step.”

This year marks 10 years to go until the 2030 target to end extreme poverty and achieve the targets set out under the SDGs. With the release of the Sustainable Development Report 2020, we’re taking a deep dive into the successes we’ve already made — and barriers that still exist — when it comes to achieving the SDGs and ending extreme poverty by 2030. You can find our Sustainable Development Report 2020 content series here.