By Sophie Nyongesa
Celebrated annually on 8th March, International Women’s Day offers an opportunity to reflect on the progress made in gender equality, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities. The global UN Women theme for International Women’s Day (IWD) 2021 is “Women in Leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world”. This theme celebrates the tremendous efforts by women and girls around the world in shaping a more equal future and recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Across the globe, women are at the helm of institutions carrying out effective and inclusive COVID-19 responses, from the highest levels of decision-making to frontline service delivery. Majority of women have stood and are still standing at the frontline of the Covid-19 crisis as caregivers, health workers, innovators and some as the exemplary national leaders in combating the pandemic.
Women leaders and women organizations have demonstrated their skills, knowledge and expertise to effectively lead in COVID-19 response and recovery efforts. For instance, Access to Medicines Platform, a woman-led organization, advocated for the continuity of access to reproductive health services during the onset of COVID-19 outbreak. This was necessitated by the disrupted provision and access to Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health (RMNCAH) and SRH services and commodities across various health facilities in the country. In partnership with the county government of Kakamega, we conducted a mapping exercise on the uptake of RMNCAH services during Covid-19 in 5 sub counties in Kakamega County. The reports submitted from these sub-counties showed that COVID-19 not only posed a hindrance in the uptake of RMNCAH services but also in the delivery of the services. As a result of this mapping and the findings, the county undertook rapid measures including deploying of Community Health Workers and County SRH Coordinators for a door to door sensitization that saw an increase in the numbers of women visiting health facilities to seek RMNCAH services in spite of the COVID measures and fears identified during the mapping exercise. In Narok County, our active advocacy together with our local partners saw the re-opening to the general public of the only level 5 facility to also provide maternity and other specialized reproductive health services.
While early reports have revealed that more men are dying as a result of COVID-19, the health of women generally is adversely impacted through the reallocation of resources and priorities, including sexual and reproductive health services. In addition to persistent pre-existing social and systemic barriers to women’s participation and leadership, new barriers have emerged with the COVID-19 pandemic. Across the world women are facing increased domestic violence, unpaid care duties, unemployment and poverty. Moreover, UN Women states that there is disproportionate and inadequate representation of women in national and global COVID-19 policy spaces despite women making up a majority of front-line workers.
According to UN Women, real change has been agonizingly slow for the majority of women and girls in the world despite some of the progress made. The world has made unprecedented advances, but no single country has achieved gender equality. Multiple obstacles remain unchanged in law and in culture as women and girls continue to be undervalued, have fewer choices and experience multiple forms of violence at home and in public spaces. Furthermore, the Covid-19 pandemic is a significant threat of rollback of hard-won feminist gains.
As of 2019, the Inter- Parliamentary Union organization showed that less than 25% of parliamentarians in about 200 countries worldwide were women. Moreover, one in three women still experience gender based violence, with UN Women reporting that the violence against women had intensified especially after the implementation of lockdown measures in various countries due to the Covid-19 pandemic. These are just but few challenges experienced by women worldwide.
Although there is more acceptance than ever before that women bring different experiences, perspectives and skills to the table, and make irreplaceable contributions to decisions, policies and laws that work better for all, there is still much we need to do to ensure advancement of women rights in all spectrums of life.
To uphold women’s rights and fully leverage the potential of women’s leadership in pandemic preparedness and response, the perspectives of women and girls in all of their diversity must be integrated in the formulation and implementation of policies and programmes in all spheres and at all stages of pandemic response and recovery. The opportunity to “build back better” by including and supporting women, and the organizations and networks that represent them in the decision-making processes, would ultimately shape the post-pandemic future!