Women must occupy front seats on post-pandemic recovery train

Covid-19 has revealed some of the best human characteristics, such as the courage and compassion of frontline health-workers, and some of the worst, such as systemic and fundamentally unfair inequality.

The killing of George Floyd thrust racism to the foreground, and the response by young people to the Black Lives Matter movement has raised hope that real change could be in the offing. But according to the World Economic Forum (WEF) it will take more than 99 years to close the global gender gap.

WEF has published a global gender gap report for the past 14 years. Its 2020 report shows that it is not only countries led by women, but also countries with lower overall gender gaps, that have performed relatively better in response to the Covid pandemic.

South Africa features a credible 17th out of 153 countries on the list. (It also features in fourth position on the World Health Organisation’s list of the highest rate of women murdered in the world.)

South Africa’s strong position on the WEF list is more attributable to women’s constitutional rights, and the number of women in leadership positions, than real equality at home or work – or women’s physical and emotional safety.

“In contrast to the slow but positive progress in terms of leadership positions, women’s participation in the labour market is stalling and financial disparities are slightly larger (on average), Further, in many countries, women are significantly disadvantaged in accessing credit, land or financial products, which prevents opportunities for them to start a company or make a living by managing assets,” the WEF reports.

Some of these disparities are highlighted in a global Oxfam report on five reasons why the response to the pandemic requires a feminist response.

Among the examples invoked in the report are the textile industry in Bangladesh, where the cancellation of orders under lockdown has put women’s jobs at risk, and South Africa’s wine industry, where a disproportionate number of women are employed seasonally, and are thus the first to lose livelihoods in a crisis. Most permanent employees in the industry are men.

“More than 70% of healthcare workers are women. It is also women who carry out more than 70% of the unpaid work, performing three times as much unpaid work as men. This blatant injustice is intensified by school closures and increased illness, which leads to a growing burden for carers,” Oxfam states.

“During the pandemic, the climate crisis has taken the back seat. Individual voices in politics and industry are already calling for existing environmental protection measures to be reversed for their own benefit. But that would be a step in the wrong direction. The crisis requires sustainable answers. These also include strengthening global gender-equitable social and healthcare systems, that address specific risks for women and thus contribute to lasting change,” the report concludes.

Since the killing of George Floyd, demonstrators around the world have carried placards containing Archbishop Tutu’s wise words: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Those words are as applicable to gender inequality as they are to race and to the environment.

In South Africa it is said that the face of poverty is that of a Black woman. The country’s crime statistics show that women are profoundly unsafe – even in their own homes.

Our post-pandemic recovery must take cognisance of the profound imbalances that have led us to this point of unsustainable human inequality, and the unsustainable management of our earth.

It cannot take another 99 years to get rid of the gender gap. A new generation of revolutionary voices and leaders must rise to the fore and act.

* The Tutu Legacy Foundation will host the next of its courageous conversations series – titled, Gender-Based Violence: Doing the Difficult Work – on 13 August 2020 at 16H00 GMT+2. Panellists Keitumetse Fatimata Moutloatse, Khadija Patel-Allie, Toni Solomon, Judy Hermans and Siv Ngesi will be facilitated by Dr Jude Clark.

To register: