The Gendered Impact of COVID-19: What Policymakers Can Learn from Gender and Conflict

By Bethan Saunders and Courtney Bale Dunlevie

During this global public health crisis, leaders have used conflict-based language to describe the COVID-19 pandemic. From President Trump’s declaration of becoming a “wartime president” to Xi Jinping’s “people’s war,” they have cast the coronavirus as a metaphorical foe to be vanquished. Rhetorical flourishes aside, this public health crisis has important parallels with conflict, such as community upheaval, personal tragedy, and long-term consequences for security and economic stability.

However, there is another important, albeit less frequently noted parallel between conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic—the disproportionate impact crises have on women. Much like the devastation inflicted by conflict, this pandemic will exacerbate gender inequality and women’s physical and economic insecurity. Despite these challenges, in both cases women should be empowered as key decision-makers to result in improved outcomes. Security scholars and practitioners have found that including women leaders throughout conflict-prevention and peacebuilding processes achieve more equitable and longer-lasting peace. Similarly, supporting women’s leadership in local pandemic responses can be critical to devising effective mitigation policies.

The gendered impact of conflict 

Humanitarian crises and conflict disproportionately affect women and exacerbate existing gender inequalities. In conflict-affected states, women are more likely than men to have their education interrupted, experience displacement and sexual violence, and have less access to formal employment and income opportunities. At the first Global Women’s Forum for Peace and Humanitarian Action, hosted by the UN Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund in Vienna in February, 70 women peacebuilders adopted a declaration stating how their lives are disproportionately threatened by violent conflict. This Forum lifted the voices of women living in conflict zones and highlighted the importance of recognizing the gendered impacts of conflict. Critically, it also highlighted how women can provide crucial local context to build long-lasting peace. 

Women shoulder an incredible burden in conflict, but more importantly, they are essential to advancing stability. Including women in peace negotiations makes the resulting agreement 64 percent less likely to fail and 35 percent more likely to last at least 15 years. Women bring unique context and diversity of perspective not only to peace agreements but to all aspects of rebuilding society. For example, the Global Study on the implementation of UNSCR 1325 found that “conflict-affected communities that experienced the most rapid economic recovery and poverty reduction are those that had more women reporting higher levels of empowerment.”

Despite women’s contributions to mitigating and resolving conflicts, they are often excluded from negotiating tables. Between 1992 and 2018, only 13 percent of peace negotiators, three percent of mediators, and four percent of signatories in significant peace processes were women. Additionally, severe under-funding continues to limit women’s inclusion in peace processes: less than one percent of international aid is directed explicitly to women-focused initiatives, and less than 0.2 percent of total bilateral aid was directed to local women’s organizations. Peacebuilders who attended the Global Women’s Forum emphasized that funding has restricted their peacebuilding work scope. The continued failure to fund women-focused initiatives ignores a vital strategy to respond to security threats and build resilient communities. 

Parallels between conflict and COVID-19

The current COVID-19 pandemic has many parallels with conflict’s devastating impact on women. Women bear a disproportionate share of the consequences of COVID-19, partly because they make up the vast majority of those serving on the pandemic’s front lines. Globally, women comprise 70 percent of health and social sector workers and do three times as much unpaid care work at home as men. As a result, women are both more likely to be infected due to their role as primary caregivers or healthcare workers and are less likely to have their own economic and healthcare needs met. Additionally, academic research has shown that recent pandemics have significant and enduring negative impacts on gender equality, access to education, frequency of domestic and sexual violence, and access to healthcare. 

Despite the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has on women, they do not have an equal voice in the decision-making process. Women from low- and middle-income countries make up only five percent of leaders in global health organizations. The World Health Organization’s Executive Board has even recognized the need to include women in decision making for effective outbreak preparedness and response.

Amid the public health crisis, it is critical that women, who are the majority of caregivers and healthcare workers, have a seat at the table. During the Ebola outbreak, UN Women leveraged existing networks of grassroots organizations trusted by the community to disseminate information on Ebola prevention and anti-stigmatization. Empowering women’s organizations to educate their communities had a significant impact on the successful regional containment of the Ebola crisis, especially in light of the low public trust in government in many hard-hit nations. On an international level, the countries with some of the most successful responses to COVID-19 and a lower mortality rate (approximately one percent versus a global estimate of five percent), including Germany, New Zealand, and Norway, all have women leaders. Women enable a more effective public health response when it comes to disease surveillance, detection, and prevention in their communities. 

Women’s leadership and enhanced community recovery

Policymakers must recognize the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has on women and increase their leadership in the pandemic response. The international community must also mobilize support for local women’s organizations responding to COVID-19. For example, the Global Women’s Forum has quickly moved from the frontlines of conflict to the frontlines of COVID-19. Grassroots organizations are already providing jobs for women through manufacturing masks and hand sanitizer, supporting domestic violence survivors, providing access to maternal health care, and working with healthcare organizations to educate their communities. Supporting women’s leadership as key decision-makers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is critical to ensuring peace and security in a post-COVID world.

Bethan Saunders is a graduate of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. As an undergraduate, she interned for the White House Council on Women & Girls, the U.S. State Department, and Georgetown’s Institute for Women, Peace & Security. She now works in financial services and focuses on client strategy and impact investing. Bethan volunteers with the Women Peace and Humanitarian Fund where she is working on building private sector connectivity and support for women peacebuilders. She is also a United State of Women Ambassador for New York and a founding member of Restore NYC’s Young Supporters Network board.

Courtney Bale Dunlevie is a CFA charter holder and 2020 recipient of the 100 Women in Finance/CAIA Scholarship. She earned a Master’s in Commerce-Finance from the University of Virginia and a B.A. in Economics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She currently works in the financial services industry as an electronic derivative trading specialist. Courtney also volunteers with the Women Peace and Humanitarian Fund, the New York Junior League, and as a Student Sponsor Partners mentor. Courtney is an alumna of the Morgan Stanley Strategy Challenge, where her advisory services were leveraged to win a $1 million Communities Thrive Grant from the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, Rockefeller Foundation for Urban Youth Alliance, and BronxConnect. 

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.