Gender Responsive Policy Systems for Inclusive and Effective COVID-19 Response
This post is written by Aslihan Kes and Meredith Soule, USAID Bureau of Resilience and Food Security.
While COVID-19 is affecting everyone, gender norms and disparities are rendering women and girls more vulnerable to the economic and health impacts of the pandemic. Women comprise 67 percent of the health workforce, often occupying frontline positions as nurses and community health workers, which make them more susceptible to the disease. At home, women and girls’ unpaid care burden, already significantly higher compared to men, has increased further as schools closed and family members became sick. Many household responsibilities that usually fall to women and girls, such as water collection and going to markets, also create a risk of exposure to COVID-19 due to queuing, crowding, and socializing that often takes place at water points, markets or other frequented community resources. More frequent hand washing requires more water, increasing the burden on women and girls who must spend more time on water collection activities.
In many countries, women are overrepresented in informal and precarious work, including as smallholder farmers, own-account workers, and micro-entrepreneurs. Across sub-Saharan Africa, it is women who carry out a significant portion of cross-border trade. Already constrained by more limited access to productive inputs, markets, and services such as finance and extension, women’s livelihoods are more vulnerable to the pandemic and the measures, such as stay-at-home orders aimed at containing its spread. A critical area for vulnerability is women’s land and property rights which is often tied closely to their husbands and whose death could trigger land grabs by relatives. Informal and precarious work also lack the job security and social protections which could smooth income shocks and reduce impacts on household food and water security. As experience from similar past crises shows, food scarcity disproportionately affects the food security and nutrition outcomes for women and girls who often eat last and least in their households.
Economic distress also contributes to increased risk of intimate partner and domestic violence as well as sexual exploitation of women and girls. Child marriages also spike during economic shocks as parents marry their daughters to reduce the economic burden on their families. The health, social, and economic impacts of all these forms of gender-based violence stand to undercut mitigation and recovery efforts of COVID-19.
Sex and age disaggregated data are fundamental to fully understanding how women, men, girls, and boys are affected by the virus, for evidence-based inclusive policy formulation and implementation as well as accountability. Equally critical is to ensure women have a voice and leadership at all levels of decision-making. All policies and actions must be informed by the local context through community consultations, that include women, older and younger persons, those with disabilities, and any marginalized groups, and respond to the specific (and often differing) challenges, needs, and preferences of all people who play varying roles as producers, marketers, and consumers.
We can point to the PITA governance principles — participation, inclusion, transparency and accountability — as necessary conditions in formulating a policy response that prevents the erosion of, and strengthens the resilience of, people and food systems. People marginalized from participating in policy development — women, youth, persons with disabilities, ethnic and religious minorities, indigenous peoples and more — are too often excluded from the benefits of the interventions and systems developed because careful targeting of vulnerable groups and policy interventions inclusive of the most rural are taken for granted and omitted. This increases the impact of shocks like COVID-19 on those people. If we are to improve policy systems to “Build Back (food systems) Better,” food systems must be made more inclusive and one way to do so is to increase people’s participation in creating policies that do increase food and water security for all. Decentralized development planning that is transparent and includes local representatives from marginalized groups is key to right-sizing the prevention of, preparation for, and response to avoid COVID-19’s second-order impacts.
If policy processes are not informed at the local level by a representative group of stakeholders, the wide array of impacts due to COVID-19 is assumed rather than known and interventions are poorly targeted to those most vulnerable people and groups in most need, thereby increasing the magnitude of the shock on people and systems. For example, a wholesale lockdown and shelter-in-place is the best public health policy response to prevent the spread of COVID-19 but yields unintended economic effects due to restrictions on markets, restaurants, trade, etc. — exacerbating food insecurity, worsening nutrition, increasing poverty, and eroding development gains to save lives. Augmenting the public health response to allow for the free but safe flow of a necessary dietary diversity of foods, sanitation and hygiene goods, and other necessary supplies in time of crisis that, along with other effective policy interventions such as social safety nets, cash transfers and even tax holidays for small and medium-sized enterprises, can minimize the second-order impacts of COVID-19 and strengthen, rather than erode, the resilience of people and systems.