Among several setbacks that 2020 brought to life, a significant setback was the hit to the decades of progress made towards the advancement of women in the global society as well as in the corporate world. Women were tasked with several challenges that impacted their well-being, access to jobs, education as well as how the community perceives their role through gender-associated responsibilities.
The need to work with a progressive outlook supported with adequate infrastructure, policies, and cascading the criticality through the right global platforms is crucial to not lose momentum on the efforts made to date.
Throwing light upon the post-pandemic threats to women upliftment, Mohammad Naciri, Regional Director of UN Women for Asia and the Pacific, spoke to People Matters about some startling statistics that highlight the current state, the need for a gender lens in government-led stimulus packages, and suggested how corporates can work towards diluting the gender divide reinforced by the pandemic.
Prior to joining UN Women, Mohammad was the Deputy Country Director of UNDP in Yemen, where he supported the country in the formulation of its Gender Strategy and the Gender Responsive Budgeting process. He has worked in Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Cambodia, dealing with issues from human trafficking to ethnic cleansing.
Can you tell us your top three realizations from 2020 that left an impact on you and drove your ideas and work during the year and going forward?
Thank you very much for this question. It’s quite a pertinent one, I have to say that one of the first realizations that came to my mind is that this pandemic is not going to be the last.
We hope that it will be over by 2021 with the vaccinations coming in. However, with the human race tampering with the ecosystem globally over the past 60 or 70 years, means that many pandemics will be coming our way. So we need to be ready for that.
The second realization is that pandemics are exacerbating existing inequalities.
And one of the most striking facts that have come from the isolating effects of quarantine and lockdowns is how we’ve seen an increase in violence against women everywhere around the world. Women who are already among the most affected by the pandemic’s socio-economic crisis, are suffering from a second “shadow pandemic,” as the Secretary-General puts it, of violence.
For many women, social distancing during lockdown means being trapped in their homes with their own abusers. Along with physical violence, we have also seen the rise of online violence against women and girls. This is the first worldwide pandemic of the social media age. And these same digital technologies that offer so much promise can often turn them into dangerous tools of oppression, discrimination, abuse, and surveillance.
It’s a complex issue, not only due to its relative newness, but eliminating online violence against women and girls requires political will, expertise, and collaboration among internet intermediaries, technology communities, civil society, and constituents. Our research also demonstrated how this pandemic has been the source of a mental health crisis among women, not only physical health.
We were the first organization globally that has gone to do sex desegregated surveys, right after the pandemic, and we reached 27 million people in the Asia-Pacific region. We found out that the emotional labor needed to endure the situation has been ending up and unduly falling on women’s shoulders. In most countries, the totality of unpaid work, jobs, and income loss has sparked higher rates of stress and anxiety among women across the board, particularly in younger women.
In Thailand, the country I sit in, it is disheartening to see that 84% of women say their mental health has been adversely affected since the virus first began to spread.
Several reports have highlighted how the year 2020 and the circumstances it created resulted in threatening years of progress in women's upliftment. Is it really just the crisis or rigid mindsets that resulted in women facing the brunt of it all and having to stretch both at home and work?
I actually would not call it rigid minds. I would call it, simply, patriarchy. And the simple answer is that it is both. Patriarchy in the region has not gone away. And in some ways, the consequences of the pandemic have only calcified it.
In much of Asia and the Pacific, gender-based discrimination has improved somewhat over the decades. But there are still major gaps in the quest to realize gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. No country here or worldwide has realized these goals.
In South Asia, only a small percentage of political leaders are women, far lower than the global average. Although, it is fair to point out that some of these numbers have been improving over the years, including in India. And so, it is crucial to create and expand spaces for women leaders and women’s organizations to continue to take part in the decision-making processes of the COVID response plan.
Evidence across sectors, including economic planning and emergency response, demonstrates without question that policies that do not consult women or include them in decision-making are simply less effective, and can even do harm.
Yet, due to the socio-economic effects of the pandemic, we’ve seen inequalities worsen in many areas, threatening to reverse the small gains achieved so far.
Strict patriarchal values often begin even before the birth of the child, and the inequalities persist from there. Whether that be gender-based or intimate partner violence, sexual harassment, and the lack of women’s participation and leadership roles, are only intensified during crises and conflicts. It is something we have seen time and time again.
Yet, we are committed to addressing the underlying issues that perpetuate these social ills. And why we can and must address the symptoms, it always comes down to the mindset or the patriarchy, as I call it. If these values and norms don’t change in the long term, it makes it that much more difficult to face the challenges of short-term crises such as COVID.
I believe that existing gender bias, gender stereotypes, and deeply ingrained, outdated social norms are a root cause of why we are still years away from reaching gender equality.
We are not going to reach equality and change the mindset unless we tackle four main issues, as I always say: first, education; second, media; third, cultural norms; and fourth, the religious narrative.
From progressive to regressive, that's the shift in a majority of households across the globe. As work and home lines blur, is there something that corporates can do to reverse the damage borne by employees at home?
I’m really very grateful that you’re asking these difficult questions because they are definitely not easy to answer.
A major issue in the business world is that women’s jobs are less secure. The crisis has hit women’s unemployment rates hard, especially in the most vulnerable economies, including retail, hospitality, and tourism, where women are overrepresented. Many women work in the informal economy with little or no social protection. The situation is particularly dire in low-income countries.
One of the bright sides we’ve seen in this area, where working from home is increasingly relevant, is that many stakeholders from the business world have been responding to their needs. We’ve never seen so many companies signing up to the Women’s Empowerment Principles in the Asia-Pacific. This year, we’ve welcomed more than 300 newly joined Women’s Empowerment Principles signatories, making a total of over 900 signatories registered in the Asia-Pacific region. Small- and medium-sized enterprises in Asia make up 96% of all businesses, and women, for example in Thailand, play a key role in business accounting, for over 40 percent of all small- and micro-enterprises in the country.
However, women persistently get less credit and face difficulties accessing credit and funding. To demolish these barriers, companies have the responsibility to promote more gender-inclusive workplaces, whether in the office or at home, by providing a safe space for all employees to address the challenges they may be facing.
From an individual perspective, individual business leaders can use their power in the field of marketing and advertising by mobilizing their company’s assets and network to disseminate the message on gender equality and pay attention to other existing platforms and movements to create synergy.
One way that the private sector’s innovation can contribute, to respond to the pandemic and promote gender equality and human rights, is to apply big data and artificial intelligence when appropriate. That could come in the form of identifying which healthcare and other public services are overloaded, track and counter the spread of misogyny, xenophobia, and misinformation, and measure the impact of the crisis on vulnerable populations, showing where help is most needed. It is also crucial for organizations to take steps to bring more women into senior leadership roles. Diversity in leadership is not only good for business, but it ensures that companies are responsive to the needs of the female employees, as well as the communities they work with.
How do you see the role of women, male, and non-binary leaders in shaping the way forward for sustainable inclusion and equity?
This ties back to the need for a change in mindsets a couple of questions back, not only in the corporate sphere but among political leaders as well. It comes down to the recognition that inclusion and equity carry benefits, not only for those most affected but for the world at large.
Consider some of these projections: By 2021, for every 100 men aged 25 to 34 living in extreme poverty, there will be 118 women, and this gap will rise to increase to 121 women per 100 men by 2030. In fact, the 2020 Global Gender Gap Report showed that South Asia’s gender gap is the second-largest among the eight other regions of the world, with East Asia falling in the middle.
According to a recent McKinsey study, global GDP growth will be an estimated $1Tn lower in 2030 than it would be if women’s unemployment matched that of men, if no corrective measures are taken now. Conversely, taking immediate action, deliberate counteractive measures could add US$13Tn to global GDP in 2030.
Delaying these measures until the pandemic stabilizes could risk $5Tn of those potential gains.
It is crystal-clear that the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic should be considered a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fix key structural obstacles to women's participation in the workforce.
Have you observed any demographics related impact of the damage brought on by COVID-19? Are there any particular pockets that you sense require greater focus in bringing back the lost progress?
Absolutely. The research that we’ve done earlier in the year shows that migrants, especially low-skilled, undocumented and temporary migrants and refugees in South Asia and Southeast Asia, have been particularly vulnerable in the context of the pandemic as their living conditions limit physical distancing and other protective measures.
In terms of the increasing gender violence against women, it is particularly hazardous for women living in conflict areas, living in IDP camps, and those affected by humanitarian crises and who are already among the most vulnerable. Within our region, there are several countries where conflict is still ongoing, like in the Rakhine, and other areas of Myanmar, as well as in Afghanistan. Hundreds of thousands of women also live in refugee camps in Bangladesh.
While it is difficult to collect the exact data on the rise of violence against women in these areas, the COVID crisis is not making things easier for women in those places. This demonstrates the continued need for more data and research. There is still a lack of sex-disaggregated data on the impact of COVID in many nations, which is a key step in identifying those most at risk.
Now that remote work is here to stay, do you think more women can join the workforce while taking care of their families as well?
Absolutely, it is definitely possible, but only if we address the fact that unpaid domestic work is still not addressed. Unpaid care work has become even more of an essential service in the context of COVID. But it remains a duty increasingly borne by women, and for more hours.
COVID has increased domestic responsibilities for many women, particularly migrant women, as a result of the closure of schools, kindergartens, and other public and social services. Unpaid care work – which women perform at four times the rate of men – has increased, owing to the care needs of children and older persons, exacerbating mental and emotional health concerns.
This extra burden of unpaid care work on women must be addressed as part of a comprehensive response to the pandemic, something UN Women has been stressing through our interactions with governments, development banks, and civil society organizations.
But this also comes down to changing social norms, and realizing that everyone plays a part, which means raising awareness. We were proud to see that UN Women’s #HeForSheAtHome challenge campaign, which seeks to inspire men and boys to help balance the burden of care in their households, has made more than 14 million social media impressions, with help from influencers in the region. Among those is Cindy Bishop, UN Women’s newest Goodwill Ambassador.
As governments across the globe have been relentlessly working on new stimulus packages to sustain the economy through the ongoing crisis, what role can they play in fostering a more collective effort towards advancing women’s rights globally?
As of June 2020, at least 152 countries had put in place a fiscal response to COVID, adding up to roughly $10.3Tn. But an initial review of these packages shows that few if any were designed with a gender lens. It is thus urgent that governments embed gender equality into fiscal stimulus packages.
We of course applaud any efforts by states to address these urgent issues. UN Women Asia-Pacific recently held a high-level meeting where leaders from the region and around the world reignited the vision for the Beijing Platform for Action, firming their commitments to realizing gender equality.
And in September, in concert with the Asian Development Bank, UN Women Asia-Pacific announced a new collaboration aiming to protect women and girls in the region from the pandemic’s negative consequences on jobs, livelihoods, and well-being.
But a lot more needs to be done.
All social and economic measures must be grounded in human and women’s rights. This means strengthening cooperation on sex-disaggregated data collection to better inform national and regional recovery policies.
It means promoting gender-responsive budgeting to ensure accountability and transparency towards gender goals. It also means encouraging gender-responsive procurement to enable more women-owned businesses to access markets, working closely with both private and public sectors to develop tools and knowledge to focus on gender equality in their businesses and investment decisions. And it means ending gender-based violence, one of the pandemic’s most destructive consequences.
What is the one thing you most look forward to in 2021?
Hmm. That’s an interesting question. Because I really want to be hopeful, but I don’t want to be overly optimistic as well. If we find this pandemic coming to a close in 2021, as many are hoping, I would like to see a new year’s resolution for a new and better normal for women and girls in the post-COVID recovery. And we encourage all governments and development partners to make resolutions in putting gender equality front and center of this recovery.
The UN was founded in the recovery of two devastating global wars 75 years ago, with the intent to protect all human life and dignity. But the influenza pandemic of 1918 killed even more people than when World War I did. This pandemic was followed by a period of economic, technological, and cultural recovery known as the Roaring Twenties, which saw, among other things, changes to women’s welfare and independence, bringing more women into the workplace and higher education, and a worldwide expansion in women’s voting rights in many countries, India included.
It would be great to see the next decade bringing a bold, progressive era for women and for human rights.