The global Covid-19 pandemic has hit women the hardest, deepening gender divides in health, employment and in the home. Women must be at the centre of the recovery, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said today as it announced a commitment of $2.1 billion (£1.5 billion) over five years to strengthen women’s economic empowerment, healthcare and leadership.
Creating new opportunities for women will be key to building a resilient, post-pandemic future.
In the race to vaccinate the world against Covid-19, for example, it is women who make up 70 per cent of healthcare workers who will be delivering and administering the jabs. But women hold only a quarter of leadership roles in the sector.
“Women will be the ones looking after the cold chain, keeping the records. A lot of women are on the frontline of this work but they are not necessarily in decision-making roles,” said Anita Zaidi, the Gates Foundation’s President, Gender Equality and Director, Vaccine Development, in an online briefing this week.
That needs to change after the Covid-19 crisis has set women back in all areas of their lives.
New data from the International Labor Organization (ILO) show that men as a group have already regained all the jobs they lost in the pandemic, but women are still losing theirs.
Women are also reeling from disruptions to their health services and a sharp increase in caregiving needs and other unpaid work. “Ripple effects of the pandemic have conspired to rob women and girls of opportunity," said Melinda French Gates, co-chair of the Gates Foundation.
Lockdowns and disruptions caused by the virus have triggered job losses in sectors in which women work the most. Unemployment for women rose by 9 million in 2020 and is expected to increase by another 2 million this year. The pattern is not true for men, who are expected to see unemployment decrease in 2021.
At home, one in three women spend nine or more hours on childcare, a proportion that has risen in the pandemic. Lockdowns have slashed women’s access to contraceptives, leaving 12 million women without protection and 1.4 million unintended pregnancies, the data show.
“Each data point represents a woman fighting for a better future, and this funding reflects our longstanding commitment to support all women in their fight for a fairer and more equal world,” said Mark Suzman, CEO of the Gates Foundation.
Gender-equal policies are not only good for women, but will fuel the global recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the data show.
For example, providing access to childcare for women who currently lack it could deliver up to $3 trillion (£2.2 trillion) of additional GDP each year by getting them into the labour force. Simple cash transfer programs globally could lift up to 100 million women out of absolute poverty - those living on less than $2 per day.
The new Gates funding, including $1.4 billion towards women’s health and family planning, was announced as part of the Generation Equality Forum 2021 in Paris.
The forum, which runs until Friday, is billed as the most ambitious event to impact women since the historic 1995 Beijing Conference on Women.
“Now is the chance to reignite a movement and deliver real change," said Melinda French Gates. "The beauty of our fight for gender equality is that every human being will gain from it. We must seize this moment to build a better, more equal future."