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Op-ed: Investing in women and girls is a smart investment

25 Nov 2020

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UNFPA/Luca Zordan

The following op-ed by UN Under-Secretary-General Mark Lowcock, Natalia Kanem (UNFPA) and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka (UN Women) was published online today by The Telegraph:

Anyone who thinks we’ve come close to achieving gender equality is kidding themselves.

The COVID-19 pandemic has helped reveal the full extent of gender inequality while creating a set of circumstances that threaten to reverse the limited progress that has been made. Women who have been displaced from their homes whether through conflict or natural disaster are especially vulnerable.

Everyone who is serious about gender equality and women’s rights must speak up. Then those with the means to do so need to back up their words with funding.

The cracks appeared at the start of the pandemic. Reports of intimate partner violence skyrocketed as women were trapped with abusers in their homes, tents or refugee camps. Venezuela reported a 65 per cent increase in femicides in April 2020 compared to the previous year. In Iraq, calls reporting gender-based violence, mainly domestic violence, increased by 40 per cent after the outbreak of COVID-19. The UN projects that every three months of lockdown could bring an additional 15 million cases of gender-based violence globally.

The threat the pandemic poses to women’s rights and freedoms goes beyond physical violence. It is undermining their economic independence and pushing millions into extreme poverty.

The pandemic affected access to antenatal and postnatal consultations, safe childbirth and newborn care. Stocks of contraceptives ran out as they were deprioritized and procurement chains became disrupted.

Opportunities evaporated. As businesses shuttered and economies nosedived, millions of women’s jobs were wiped out. Women already doing 76 per cent of the world’s unpaid care work saw their care duties increase dramatically.

A third of the world’s schoolchildren – more than 460 million students – remain cut off from education. Many girls currently unable to go to school will never go back, especially if they have become pregnant in the meantime.

Falling household incomes, protracted school closures, and risks associated with displacement put adolescent girls at a higher risk of child marriage and female genital mutilation. Already one girl in five marries before she is 18.

But let’s be clear. The virus cannot be held responsible for the state of gender equality and gender-based violence. People are responsible for that – mostly, but not exclusively, men.

Behavior, values and attitudes are at the root of the problem.

There are no simple answers to these problems. But there are several things we know do work. Making a financial investment in women’s and girls’ rights and opportunities works. Having women in decision-making roles works.

Funding supports centers which help women protect themselves from violence. It gives them access to health, psychosocial and legal services. It helps victims and survivors of gender-based violence get justice. It helps give women access to family planning. It helps get girls into school.

Yet the needs of women and girls in humanitarian settings continue to be overlooked and underfunded. Too many women and girls are still deprived of lifesaving services.

Today we have released $25 million from the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund to tackle the pandemic of sexual violence.

This is not enough. We need everyone to join the effort.

Wealthy nations who help fund the UN’s humanitarian work tell us they’re focused on ending gender-based violence. Yet to this day their funding for this is far less than what is required.

The benefits far outweigh the cost of investment. At least 70 per cent of health workers and first responders are women. It has been the shelters and helplines run by women’s organizations that have been the primary support for women in most countries.

It is a smart investment, as global studies suggest that every dollar invested in women and girls generates a significant return. For example, every $1 spent on contraceptive services saves between $1.70 and $4 in maternal and newborn health care costs in humanitarian crises.

At the start of these 16 days of activism against gender-based violence we urge governments to prioritize the needs of women and girls in their COVID response and recovery efforts – and to make sure women themselves are driving the decision-making process.

The choices we make now matter.

We can only plot a successful path out of this pandemic if we do not leave half the population behind.