Gender advocate and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Melinda Gates, has called on leaders and policymakers to ensure that women and girls are not left behind in the global response to COVID-19.
She made the call in a paper she released titled “The Pandemic’s Toll on Women and Girls,” where she explored how the COVID-19 pandemic has exploited pre-existing inequalities and drastically impacted women’s lives and livelihoods.
To recover fully from this pandemic, she said, leaders must respond to the ways that it is affecting men and women differently.
This is as she lists practical policy recommendations that governments should consider in their pandemic response – to improve health systems for women and girls, design more inclusive economic policies, gather better data, and prioritise women’s leadership.
Ms Gates described how previous disease outbreaks, including AIDS and Ebola, tended to exploit existing forces of inequality, particularly around gender, systemic racism, and poverty. The broader impacts of these crises, she noted, are having a disproportionate impact on women and girls.
“In Africa, for example, women account for around 40 per cent of COVID-19 cases. However, African women and girls are disproportionately affected by reduced access to health care services and are at greater risk of gender-based violence.
“Women make up the majority of workers in the informal sector, which leaves them at greater risk of losing their income.”
Describing the impact of stretched health systems on maternal care, she noted that in low and middle-income countries, cutbacks could claim the lives of up to 113,000 women.
“We know from the past that this threat is real. During the 2014 Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, the number of mothers and babies who died during or after childbirth was higher than the number of deaths from the Ebola virus.
“That is what epidemics do: they not only overwhelm immune systems; they also overwhelm the health system. And because the parts of those systems devoted to caring for women are often the most fragile and underfunded, they collapse first and fastest.”
She, therefore, urged policymakers to recognise the opportunity to replace old systems with new and better ones, outlining practical recommendations around health, economics, and decision-making that could help build a more equal and prosperous future.
Her recommendations include making maternal and reproductive healthcare an essential service, protecting the contraceptive supply chain, and using the pandemic as an opportunity to integrate women’s healthcare.
The paper also highlights the importance of designing emergency economic relief programmes that reach women who need them the most and ensuring women’s voices are included at all levels of decision-making in the response to this crisis.
“This is how we can emerge from the pandemic in all of its dimensions: by recognising that women are not just victims of a broken world; they can be architects of a better one,” Ms Gates concluded.