Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Entwicklung und Humanitäre Hilfe
On 23 March 2022, Global Responsibility hosted an online event on the social and economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on women and girls and possible policy implications for Austrian development cooperation, with cooperation from the Austrian Red Cross, CARE, Light for the World, and WIDE. The Austrian Development Agency co-funded the event
Watch a full-length recording of the online event, 23/03/2022
Moderator Rita Isiba, engagement specialist from Aphropean Partners, opened the event. The director of Global Responsibility, Annelies Vilim, noted in her opening remarks that we live in a time of multiple crises: She pointed out the war in Ukraine and conflicts and protracted crises in other countries, climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and poverty. She stressed that these crises were interconnected. The war in Ukraine could lead to higher food prices in North African countries, for example, due to their dependency on wheat imports from Ukraine and Russia. In all crises, vulnerable groups and women suffer the most. Annelies Vilim emphasized that the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals were off track and would therefore need our attention to be implemented and realized by 2030 and closed by stating that we could only solve global crises together.
In her keynote, Âurea Mouzinho highlighted that the pandemic had dramatic consequences across the world. It is a shared reality among women and girls in Europe, America, Africa, and Asia that the unpaid care burden has increased as well as the risk of domestic violence.
She emphasized, however, that there was a stark contrast between the economies of the Global North and the Global South:1 While European and North American governments were able to limit the impact of the pandemic by stimulus packages for their economies, African countries had few opportunities for such financial emergency relief due to their high sovereign debt repayment obligations.
The impact of a G20 initiative to offer an expansion of the debt service was thwarted due to three reasons, Âurea Mouzinho explained:
According to Âurea Mouzinho, the pandemic has been primarily a health crisis with significant economic consequences, albeit manageable, for the Global North. For African countries and many other countries in the Global South, the pandemic led to an unprecedented socio-economic setback due to historical economic and geopolitical deficiencies.
Âurea Mouzinho used this metaphor: Countries of the Global North and South have to navigate through the waves of the pandemic, but the former have vessels and the latter canoes. African women and girls that sit in the canoes, sit at the sinking end of them, scooping water with buckets to keep everyone from sinking.
Âurea Mouzinho emphasized that many African countries’ public health, education and social assistance systems are not able to provide safety nets due to underfunding. Also due to social norms, women and girls have to compensate for the government’s inability to provide adequate support by caring for the sick, elderly and children, sourcing water to meet hygienic requirements and finding additional income. The pandemic reinforced patriarchal social conventions and exposed underlying gender inequalities in this way.
She emphasized that the current economic model is subsidized by women's unpaid care and domestic work. Even during the pandemic this work has not been acknowledged and addressed in policies. She referred to a statement on Feminist Post-COVID-19 Economic Recovery,2 which states that the COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity to dislodge structural inequality and reframe the political economy. This would for example mean to re-center the role of care and well-being in policy, rethinking the debt burden of African countries, re-center the state and counter neoliberal policies.
Clarisse Konombo informed the audience that in Burkina Faso women were affected more by the consequences of the pandemic than men, as they were economically poorer and did not have savings that would allow them to compensate for the economic consequences. At the same time, women had to generate revenues for their families without support from the state. Clarisse Konombo explained that the situation was especially difficult for internally displaced people – to a large part women and children – as they did not have paid work and lived outside of their usual environment. Caritas Burkina Faso runs projects to increase the resilience and empowerment of women and girls and to support internally displaced people so that they can be socially and economically in charge of their own lives again.
Ina Girard informed that in Georgia women and girls were strongly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic especially due to the following economic challenges and deeply rooted gender stereotypes and pre-existing inequalities. Many women lost their employment since they make up a large portion of the workforce in pandemic-affected industries, especially the hospitality and tourism sector. Women in Georgia are the main caregivers, in paid work in the health sector and at home. Due to the pandemic, the care burden for women doubled or tripled. Ina Girard gave the example of women who came home after a night shift as nurses and then cared for family members, such as helping children with homeschooling. Ina Girard emphasized that the situation was especially difficult for women in rural areas who have no access to information due to a lack of electricity. The Georgian Red Cross supports nearly 200 elderly people with professional home care, addressing also the issue of domestic violence. However, many more would need support. She also pointed out that girls were isolated from their peers and lacked access to psycho-social care.
Janepher Taaka pointed out that many women in Uganda are dependent on the informal sector. When the sector was shut down for nearly two years, many women lost their income. They had no or only a few savings to compensate. As they lost their working capital and as state support (for example credits) often was not available to small, informal businesses, they remained unoccupied. Furthermore, changes in work arrangements like downsizing of businesses and digitalized work left many women unemployed. Janepher Taaka reported that families from rural communities sent their daughters to urban areas to earn income. However, many of them work as sex workers. Other girls were forced into early marriages. The rate of teenage pregnancies increased during the pandemic, thus more girls had to leave school because schools are not prepared to support young teenage mothers. Janepher Taaka noted that unpaid care work has become a significant burden for women. Many of them also work in hospitals and have to balance this work with their care work at home. Janepher Taaka wondered why, in light of this, the important role of women has still not been acknowledged.
She informed the audience that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, women's and girls' reproductive health needs have been placed on hold. This led to less professional support in deliveries, skyrocketing numbers of teenage pregnancies and limited access to protective services for women who experienced increasing domestic violence.
Janepher Taaka welcomed that the representation of women in political leadership was relatively high in Uganda with approximately 40%. However, female representatives often seemed detached from the realities that most women face and the patriarchal system made changes difficult. Janepher Taaka, therefore, emphasized the importance of strengthening the participation of women in decision making at all levels. She further mentioned that it was important to raise the participation of women and girls in technical and vocational education and training and to make policies more inclusive so that the livelihood and education of women, including young mothers can be supported.
Ilauda Manala said that also in Mozambique women and girls were the most affected during the pandemic because they had little savings, low income or lost their jobs in the informal sector and had less access to social protection services. Ilauda Manala stressed that there was neither adequate social security nor support for unemployed people. Already living in vulnerable situations, it was impossible for women to overcome the impact of the pandemic. Especially for girls and women with disabilities and for those taking care of children with disabilities, the reduced access to rehabilitation services due to the pandemic was difficult. Ilauda Manala further reported about increased gender-based violence, teenage pregnancies, many girls dropping out of school and the lack of access to food.
She pointed out two major factors to minimize the effects of the pandemic and to make women and girls – including those with disabilities – more resilient for future crises: Firstly, women should learn new skills through education and trainings and have access to funding to be able to set up businesses. Here, technical and vocational trainings supported by scholarships could also provide safe spaces for women to talk about their challenges. Secondly, a strong social protection system is needed. However, many of the programs supporting gender equality were delayed or cancelled due to the pandemic. She recommended that all development programs should be disability and gender inclusive and that the Austrian Development Policy should increase the funds allocated to projects that directly support people with disabilities and that it should support the government of Mozambique in expanding social protection services.
Reflecting these statements, Âurea Mouzinho stated that women and girls in the four countries experienced very similar consequences of the pandemic due to their position in the economic and social hierarchy, which again was deeply ingrained in the rules of the global economy. She invited the audience to question the systemic nature of the global economy and to engage with the question of financing for development for countries of the Global South to ensure fiscal space to invest, for example, in social public services. She indicated that the speed and concern with which economic and political power was mobilized for those affected by the war in Ukraine should serve as a benchmark for how we respond to crises worldwide – for example when discussing the access to COVID-19 vaccines of the Global South or debt cancellation. Austrian organisations should make sure that the voices of women of the Global South are heard in their government.
Ingrid Pech underlined the importance of increasing the skills of women and girls through access to education and improving their access to economic means to become self-sufficient and independent from their male family members – also in rural areas. She welcomed hearing the statements of today’s speakers as they were helpful for considerations for development policies. She announced that she would share the main messages of today with the Austrian Development Agency.
Ingrid Pech shared her experience from working on energy, water and food security and said that it was important to integrate women and girls into development projects not only as receivers but also as agents. However, women needed support to increase their skills to be able to act as agents. She saw a big role for civil society organisations to convey the needs of people and possibilities on the ground and to turn important ideas from the policy level into reality.
Margarita Langthaler highlighted the fact that all speakers stressed that the consequences of COVID-19 were exacerbated by pre-existing structural gender discrimination. She confirmed that this was in line with her research in the field of education, where inequality has massively increased due to pre-existing asymmetry between the Global North and the Global South as well as within countries. She highlighted that women tended to be poorer than men, and worked more often in informal and less protected jobs. Therefore, security measures applied during the pandemic affected them much less than men. Also, the fact that women were responsible for care duties, which increased heavily, and had less decision-making power in marriages and family planning increased their vulnerability. Margarita recommended going beyond a project and policy level to address the structures of the global economy and power asymmetries to change the context where women can actually act. Regarding education, she added that the pandemic showed that we needed to strengthen resilient education systems of high quality which are open to everyone. In her opinion, only public systems can provide this. She declined a stronger participation of private actors in education. Therefore, we should support countries to increase their fiscal possibilities by rethinking the global rules of the economy, debt and tax regimes.
Annelies Vilim expressed her sadness when hearing about the hardship of women, the increase in gender inequality and the violations of women’s rights due to COVID-19. She referred to Antonio Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, calling for Building Forward Better which meant that we should not only recover from the pandemic but should try to transform the structures. Development Policy could play an important role to do so. Listening to the speakers, Annelies felt confirmed that the platform Global Responsibility should continue asking the Austrian Government to substantially increase its budget for development cooperation to support countries in the Global South. She said that although gender mainstreaming was already applied, we should still take the needs and perspectives of women and girls more into consideration.
This statement was followed by a final discussion with the audience as well as closing remarks by Sophie Veßel from Global Responsibility.
1 Âurea Mouzinho mentioned that she saw the term "Global South" as a relational category that revealed power relations between countries. She refused to see the Global South as one geographical location.
2 Femnet (July 2022): African Feminist Post-COVID-19 Economic Recovery Statement
Global Responsibility: Multilogue on COVID-19 from a development and humanitarian perspective