We must protect girls and women from the lasting economic impacts of COVID-19

1 JUNE 2020

We rely on women during crises. Their commitment must be seen and rewarded, blogs Maria McLaughlin, Senior Policy and Advocacy Advisor for Economic Empowerment.

The COVID-19 pandemic is posing a global challenge on a massive scale. The most marginalised and deprived households are not only the most vulnerable to infection from the virus, but will be most impacted by the economic shutdown. Up to 25 million jobs will be lost because of the COVID-19 pandemic with vulnerable groups, including women and girls, bearing the brunt of unemployment. 

As we rely on women during crises, making up a huge number of health, care and service industry workers globally, it’s vital their livelihoods are supported via adequate protection and decent pay. If these issues are side-lined during crisis response, the COVID-19 pandemic will have disastrous effects both in the short term and on girls’ and women’s ability to rebuild their lives when the virus has passed.

Care and domestic duties hinder paid work

Girls and young women carry the greatest burden of unpaid care and domestic work, caring for small children and elderly relatives. Globally, women perform over 3 times the amount of unpaid care work of men, a figure gleaned before the onset of a global pandemic.  

The strength and commitment of young women workers must be met with protection and decent pay. 

During disease outbreaks, the domestic burden is greatly increased when all children are out of school and when other responsible adults fall ill. This responsibility makes it difficult for adolescent girls and young women to have time for paid work, which has both immediate and long-term economic implications. 

Aside from the issue of shared domestic responsibility, girls and women are facing more specific economic threats during this time of crisis. 

We must protect girls from exploitation 

Economic stress is likely to increasingly force girls and young women into negative coping strategies for their economic survival and that of their family, such as child labour, sexual exploitation, or child, early and forced marriage. This increases risk of adolescent pregnancy leading to further lifelong economic impacts. 

Governments must support girls and women economically to protect them from negative coping strategies and exploitation. Protection, sexual health and safety net measures must be put in place so girls and young women can protect themselves and their families from the worst effects of the pandemic.

We must support young women entrepreneurs 

Girls and women who are employed are facing serious threats to their income during lockdown measures. Young women entrepreneurs are particularly vulnerable to ruptures to their supply chains locally and nationally. Many depend on their daily income from street and market businesses, from catering and retail to clothes making and beauty products. Most of these businesses are being halted as part of lockdown measures, drastically affecting cash flow to the young entrepreneurs and their dependents. 

Social protection payments for young women employers and workers and business support measures are vital to buffer business operations during the crisis so they can recover their business activity and employment after the outbreak has subsided.

We must support healthcare workers

Health and care sectors are dominated by women in every country. 70% of the global healthcare workforce is made up of women, who earn 11% less than men in the same field.  Care workers are the most vulnerable to exposure to the virus and younger women are likely to be active in the highest risk public health roles, including washing patients and cleaning workspaces. 

Governments must ensure the health and wellbeing of vital care workers is a core part of the response

Governments and health service actors must ensure that the health and wellbeing of vital care workers is a core part of the response to the outbreak. We must ensure that young women workers’ needs are equally prioritised and that they are equipped and protected to reduce their risk of exposure to the virus.

We rely on women and girls in times of crisis – we must not let them down

Girls and young women are highly represented in the service sectors deemed essential during this crisis including health and social care, retail and food growing and preparation. The strength and commitment of these young women workers and entrepreneurs must be met with protection and decent pay. 

Girls and young women are also in a key position to provide leadership in their communities on measures to prevent infection, as a crucial majority of the public health, care and food workforce. But they must be supported to make the most of these leadership possibilities in a safe and sustained way. 

Communities and countries rely on these young women during times of crisis, we must not let them down in this time of need.