Follow-Up Q&A: Gender Justice in the Global COVID-19 Response

Full Q&A with Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka:

Are there times when an important case/issue you wanted to put across the table did not see through? And how did you take it/handle it?

When working on advancing women’s empowerment and gender equality, there will be, unfortunately, occasions when you cannot reach the desired outcome because the resistance is too strong. Therefore, we need a unified movement with strong allies and be innovative and apply different strategies. And importantly, never to give up. Image removed by sender.

Sometimes it seems that when we talk about “gender” we use it synonymously with the word “women.” Can you talk about the importance of involving men and male gender roles in the conversation about gender?

Men and boys must be engaged in order to achieve gender equality and empowerment of women and girls. We all have, regardless of sex and gender identity, a shared responsibility of advancing human rights for women and girls and making sure that we are not leaving anyone behind. Image removed by sender. Men and boys have a role to play in all aspects of life, as partners, friends, parents and leaders. UN Women’s HeForShe movement calls on men and people of all genders to commit to gender equality, and to do this in all aspects of life, at work, in their communities and within their families. Over 2 million people have committed to the movement, including Heads of States, CEOs, and Vice-Chancellors. During the COVID-19 outbreak, UN Women launched a the #HeForSheAtHome campaign to encourage men and boys to help balance the burden of care in their households.  When we all work towards the same goal, women and girls can live to their full potential, free from violence and discrimination – we all will also enjoy a just society built on feminist principles.

How do grassroots organizations mitigate losing donor funding during this pandemic, especially on SRH?

Grassroots and community organizations are doing remarkable work for SRH and continue to do so during this pandemic. It is grassroots organizations that will ensure that no one is left behind and all men, women, and children, regardless of their background, have access to accurate information on COVID-19, including how to protect themselves and their communities.  Grassroots organizations need to voice their role and value in the fight against the pandemic, and governments and donors need to listen and amplify these voices. Image removed by sender.

Urban and rural poor grassroots women’s organizations are providing extraordinary leadership – public and private – in addressing basic needs, supporting women shouldering extreme caregiving burdens, and defending women’s rights as informal marketers and small farmers. How are your agencies publicizing these actions to ensure these women’s organizations are seen as key to the recovery?

UN Women is bringing the voices and stories of women into the spotlight. We are sharing human interest stories of women and their role in the pandemic, as frontline workers, caregivers, entrepreneurs and leaders. For example, Libyan Women’s Network for Peacebuilding are meeting online and staying connected via their phones to continue to rebuild peace in their communities. Rohingya refugee women are preventing the spread of COVID-19 in Cox’s Bazar, and women living with HIV in Tajikistan managed to supply over 23000 masks in 10 days. We are working closely with women’s organizations to support them to carry out their work and to broker space for them to share their knowledge and experiences to inform the response.

How do you make sure that your good advocacy work is working for improving access to services at the ground for the marginalized women and girls? What do you really do? We have seen the girls not receiving contraceptives, abortion cares and even starving.

UN Women work to address barriers that are preventing women and girls from demanding and realizing their rights to health services. This is done by ensuring that rights-based normative frameworks and policies are established, advocating to change laws that are discriminating against women; equal gender norms, attitudes and practices on women’s rights promoted, and women and girls are empowered to exercise their rights and seek services. UN Women together with partners recently launched an assessment that examines how COVID-19 impacts women’s access to justice. UN Women is working closely with women’s community organizations to support them in their work with communities on rights education and to promote equal gender norms, and for their voices to be heard at the decision-making tables. Women’s organizations are critical to supporting women and girls, especially those who are hard to reach. In Nepal, UN Women convened 17 leaders representing women’s and marginalized groups’ organizations and networks, including organizations of persons with disabilities, LGBTI organizations, and Dalit women from different provinces who strategized on key priorities and advocated with the government and the Humanitarian Country Team. A platform that includes more than 30 women’s organizations and partners in Gaza and the West Bank in Palestine was created to amplify the voices of women’s organizations in COVID-19 preparedness and response plans. A recent report by UN Women describes the impacts of COVID-19 on women in Palestine. Based on a rapid survey and gender analysis, the report describes how 68 percent of Palestinian women have reported increased unpaid care work, and a women’s organization reported in a 2-week period over 510 calls for support, including from survivors of domestic violence.

Do you think COVID-19 will create a new discussion on the meaning of “health care” and what new services may end up being covered by insurance companies or government programs?

In 2019, the UN Member States adopted a political declaration for universal health coverage. I believe that the COVID-19 pandemic has evidenced that universal health coverage is a precondition for all social and economic dimensions of life and the foundation for advancing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Image removed by sender. Women’s fear and experience of various forms of violence in public and private settings are likely to escalate as COVID-19 takes a foothold. UN Women is advocating for governments to include GBV services in the ‘essential services package’ to ensure that survivors of violence have access to quality services, including in times of lockdown. The UN will continue to advocate that UN member states keep their promise to realize Universal Health Coverage to ensure healthy lives and well-being for all. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which the world has committed to, makes clear that development will only be sustainable if its benefits accrue equally to both women and men; and women’s rights will only become a reality if they are part of broader efforts to protect the planet and ensure that all people can live with respect and dignity. Similarly, health is interconnected with all the development goals, and particularly to gender equality. The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded the world of this. I trust that this pandemic will teach us to take a holistic approach to health and to fight the underlying inequalities that are preventing people from enjoying healthy lives.

The pandemic response may roll back the gains made on women’s rights, whether you are a mother who needs childcare to work in New York, or a schoolgirl, abused and made pregnant in Freetown. We need a systems response because the impact and needs are so distributed. What is the first fire the panelists need to put out in the upcoming battle to reclaim any ground that might be ‘temporarily’ lost?

It is important to remember that all ‘fires’ are connected, which is why we need to tackle this on all fronts at all times. We need to ensure that women as frontline healthcare workers, carers at home, and community leaders and mobilisers, are supported and have access to personal protective equipment in order to respond to the pandemic without putting her life at risk. Women and girls who are experiencing or witnessing violence need to get access to essential GBV services. Women are often in insecure jobs without health insurance and are overrepresented in industries that are hardest hit, such as tourism and hospitality. The response must put attention to these women and make sure that they can continue to earn their livelihoods, and social protection and economic stimulus packages must serve women and girls. We have seen in previous epidemics that resources are diverted from sexual and reproductive services, resulting in increased maternal and newborn mortality. To ensure that sexual and reproductive health services remain available and accessible for women and girls saves lives. To attend to these ‘fires’ we need sex and age disaggregated data to understand how the pandemic impacts women and girls. Less than 50 countries report sex and age disaggregated data on COVID-19 cases and deaths. UN Women is collaborating with partners, including WHO, to bridge the gender data gap on COVID-19. To this end, UN Women is expanding its Women Count data portal to be a publicly available database on the impact of COPVID-19 on gender equality and women’s rights. We also need women and women’s advocates at the decision-making tables, ensuring that resources are allocated to address women and girls’ needs. Image removed by sender.

Re-opening countries/economies discussions are everywhere, but not so many women leaders are in these rooms. And, they are framed as being about economics, but we know, of course, this is about much more. What is being done to ensure more of a gender justice focus on re-opening discussions/strategies? Women leaders, etc.? What about the deep concerns of feminists and many others about the too-quick re-opening of countries, secondary/re-infections, effects on frontline workers, women already doing so much care work, etc.?

Women are underrepresented among political, health and economic decision-makers worldwide, including in spaces where decisions are being made about the reopening of economies. This is despite the fact that research shows that women are better equipped for handling pandemics and other health crises, as they outperform men in emotional intelligence[1]. Recognizing this important role of women leaders, UN Women and the OECD convened the Women Leaders´ Virtual Roundtable on COVID-19 and the Future to discuss ways of leveraging women’s leadership in the COVID-19 response and recovery, and last month together with African Union, we hosted a meeting of African Minsters for Gender and Women’s affairs to discuss a gendered framework for COVID-19. Our concern is that we backslide on the gains that we have made in the past decades of progressing gender equality and women’s empowerment, instead of building back better. Every crisis comes with an opportunity to do better; let us take that opportunity and move away from systems and structures that do not serve our objective of creating a gender just world, where everyone can live to their full potential. Image removed by sender.

As Africa faces its first economic recession in 35 years, what impact on realizing the aspirations of SDG 3,4 +5 does the panel foresee – especially in the context of Africa harnessing its demographic and gender dividend potential? What can youth leaders do to negotiate around the fiscal space to ensure that we don’t fall behind?

Young people are part of the solution of mitigating the impact of the pandemic, as community leaders in their role who are disseminating accurate information and counteracting misinformation that is fueling the pandemic. They also have a critical role in building back better and contributing to creating an economy that harnesses the power and innovation of young people. The future belongs to the youth, and leaders must listen and act to realize young people’s vision of their future. Image removed by sender. Young people need to do what they do best: creating movements, raising their voices, and building alliances with government representatives, the private sector, and other stakeholders to amplify their messages. Young people hold the key to our future, so let them lead in how we build back better!

As has been mentioned by each of you on this call, there are various factors impacting gender justice in the COVID-19 response, many of which are aimed at women and bodily autonomy, but which are also having an outsized impact on LGBTQI people, sex workers, disabled people, and youth. When it comes to SRHR, the confluence of actors – conservative domestic governments, transnational anti-gender movements, conservative US aid conditionalities, like the GGR – all of these actors are harming access to sexual and reproductive healthcare. With so little agreement among member states, how can UN agencies (and civil society allies) provide evidence-based leadership to ensure that SRH remains critical in our collective COVID-19 response?

The UN must continue to advocate for women’s rights to SRHR as basic human rights, and for SRHR as a key enabler of gender equality and women’s empowerment, as well as advocate that funding is available for programmatic interventions where they are needed. The UN must continue to protect women’s human rights defenders and support those CSOs that are in the line of fire for their advocacy, as well as those providing life-saving services for SRHR.

The UN also need to keep building the evidence base of what is working to secure positive impacts on the lives of women and girls, including lived experiences and stories.

We need to build women’s leadership and engagement as advocates and change makers. This must be complimented by the engagement of boys and men as partners and community members, including traditional and faith-based leaders. Image removed by sender.

We launched the Generation Equality movement this year, with six Action Coalitions to drive change, including one Action Coalition on bodily autonomy and sexual and reproductive health rights. The Action Coalitions are constituted by partners from different sectors and gather to accelerate a transformative agenda through increased financing, transforming unequal gender norms, policy and law reform, data addressing intersectional discrimination, and changing structural inequalities. The Action Coalitions is an opportunity to come together as one movement with all our allies to ensure that the human rights of all are respected. The Action Coalitions and fostered networks will soon start their work to implement the 5-year commitment of accelerating actions on the six identified thematic focus areas. Civil society and youth-led organizations will be equal partners in the Action Coalitions in securing transformative change for women and girls, as well as holding governments and stakeholders accountable for their commitments.

To what extent will this affect the implementation of ICPD 25 resolutions? Have the governments that committed financial aid released the money?

The UN will continue to advocate for the realization of the ICPD and Beijing + 25 agendas. As mentioned, the Generation Equality movement, which includes, governments, donors, civil society partners, and the UN, will play a vital role in advocating for funding the implementation of the commitments made in Cairo and Beijing 25 years ago. In the UN Secretary-General’s latest report on the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action, it was noted that ending preventable maternal deaths, covering all unmet needs for family planning, and eliminating gender-based violence by 2030, has a funding gap of over 220 billion USD.  Governments and Generation Equality has an important role in bridging the financing gap so all have the means and power to make their own decisions concerning their own bodies – without fear of violence or discrimination.

Now that we are all going virtual, another barrier to engagement for AGYW is access to internet. What is being done to ensure that this inequality is dismantled?

The crisis has exposed the technological gaps that continue to be exacerbated because of the lockdowns, restrictions on gatherings, and social distancing. Technological companies are now working to provide solutions to the different modalities of working, education, and innovation. There is a need to ensure that these advancements do not disproportionally continue to marginalize adolescent girls and young women, particularly those that live in developing countries.

A study by UNESCO in late April found that half of all students currently out of the classroom do not have access to a computer, which makes up nearly 830 million learners globally. Additionally, more than 40 percent have no internet access at home, which leads to a lack of continuity of education during school closures, severely impacting the learning of young people. In homes where there is minimal capacity for remote learning, the education of boys may be prioritized over that of girls. 433 million women are unconnected, and 165 million fewer women own a mobile phone compared with men. Boys are 1.5 times more likely to own a phone than girls in many countries, and among those who do own phones, boys are more likely than girls to own smartphones. The global internet user gap is 17 percent, and the digital gender gap exists in all regions of the world — and continues to grow[2].

UN Women is working hard to draw attention to this and ensure this gendered digital divide is reduced. We believe that to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and leave no one behind, we need digital literacy for everyone. Image removed by sender. Giving girls and women access to digital resources, as well as the knowledge, training, and confidence to design and use them, will assist in reducing the gendered digital divide.

The majority of girls won’t be able to go back to school post COVID-19 because many African governments don’t allow teenage mothers to access education. Is there a plan to ensure post COVID-19 that all girls will go back to school?

Adolescent girls and young women are often less likely to have their need for contraception met than older women. Pregnant adolescent girls face stigma and are more vulnerable to complications of unsafe abortion and pregnancy. It is therefore important to address the education around SRH for adolescent girls and offer contraception in order to prevent adolescent pregnancies and the subsequent implications faced.

Discrimination against pregnant adolescent girls and teenage mothers is a major issue for AGYW. In most cases, policies that restrict pregnant teenagers or adolescent mothers from returning to school have the negative implications of ending a girl’s chances of ever going back to school, which in turn leaves young women and girls vulnerable to child marriage, hardship, and abuse. This further exacerbates the gender education gap.

The right to education should not be conditional to marital or motherhood status. Government policies must protect AGYW from being excluded and further marginalized, as well as ensure re-entry and continuation policies are properly implemented and do not have any punitive or negative impacts on adolescent girls and young women. Support must also be provided to adolescent girls and young mothers, including counseling for young mothers, affordable or free day care near schools, and accommodating practices such as leniency with time off schooling.

Another form of support that can be provided to adolescent girls is education on SHR, particularly on contraceptives, in order to prevent adolescent pregnancies. Currently, only about 42 percent of 15-19-year-old girls, compared to 66 percent of older women have their needs for contraception met. This needs to be addressed in order to support adolescent girls.

As we are navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, AGYW are further being left behind. As one of my friends and advocate said, “We are not even on the menu but slowly becoming appetizers.” What institutional steps are you driving to ensure that AGYW remain a priority, and what kind of support from AGYW leaders would you require to make these visions a success?

Adolescent girls are at the heart of Generation Equality Campaign and Generation Equality Forum that will take place in Mexico and France. UN Women has actively been working with various partners and stakeholders to ensure that the issues facing adolescent girls are made visible. UN Women is supporting the design of 6 Action Coalitions that will work towards ensuring a transformed future by 2025. They will ensure that there is one concrete action within each Action Coalition that will specifically and intentionally focus on the rights of adolescent girls and young women. This means that AGYW will actively engage in setting priorities and will be involved in monitoring results. Support from AGYW leaders can be expressed through championing the Generation Equality Campaign and the Gender Equality Forum. This vision aims to amplify the voices of and issues facing AGYW and is committed to the principles of leaving no one behind.

With the outbreak of COVID-19, the most voiceless are the child head of households in many countries. They exist and have special needs and are our most venerable large communities. How do you advocate for a group of young children, a majority of whom are girls?

Children and adolescents are already among the most affected by the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19, and it is critical to recognize these multiple and diverse impacts on youth, particularly adolescents and young women. Image removed by sender. Efforts to mitigate and address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic must include provisions that are responsive to these impacts and adolescent and children’s needs, upholding their rights and including adolescent- and children-specific provisions when needed.

Governments must provide targeted support to interim care centers and families, including child-headed households, as well as emphasize initiatives that emotionally support children, encouraging and creating safe opportunities to support. Providing financial and material assistance will also be of upmost importance to vulnerable households whose income-generating opportunities have been affected.

COVID-19 had adverse impacts on the lives of women and girls. In male dominant societies, social laws and cultural values revolve around women and girls. Men are staying at home and many have no work; now engagement of girls for marriages is increasing. It is expected that whenever lockdown ends, child marriages will be increasing. What is UN Women doing in this regard?

We know that levels of domestic violence and sexual exploitation, which is already an epidemic in all societies, spike when households are placed under the increased strains that come from security, health and money worries, and cramped and confined living conditions. UN Women and our partners are raising awareness of what we call the Shadow Pandemic, which is the increase of violence against women and girls who may be in lockdown with their violent partners and family members. High levels of poverty, caused by the pandemic, is adding further financial burdens onto families, causing them to marry off their daughters early. The closing of schools may result in increased child labor, transactional sex and FGM. The UN Secretary-General has called for all governments to take action to prevent and respond to violence against women as a key part of their response for COVID-19, and 140 governments have voiced their support for this call. UN Women’s response includes: prevention and awareness raising; rapid assessments; access to essential services, including helplines and shelters; ending violence against women in public spaces; and support to women’s groups.

How can we prioritize Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights among vulnerable/last mile/remote populations in the “new normal”?

Every crisis provides an opportunity to do better. By working with community organizations, especially youth and women’s organizations, we can reach adolescents who have previously been left behind. We also need to listen to young people and review policies and programmes to overcome the barriers adolescents face when seeking services. Young people are part of the solution; let us ensure that they have a seat at the decision-making table as equal partners. Image removed by sender.

How do we empower the youth to feel they can be as expressive and invested? How do women as a group encourage youth to be heard and seen? We have all ethnicities on this panel, but youth, which hold the keys to all futures, are not represented on this panel and most all panels around the world.

Despite the challenges, most marked being the COVID-19 pandemic, young feminists are mobilizing and challenging implicit hierarchies of power by fighting for equality and justice, and by accelerating change for the realization of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. In a global context of shrinking civil society space and rising conservative governments, the voice of young women and girls is at greater risk of being silenced than ever before. As you have expressed, lifting up the aspirations and achievements of young people is the key to building back better from this pandemic, and to achieving a just and equal future.

It is not enough to recognize the unique capabilities, innovation and dynamic ideas and solutions young people bring to the table. We must ensure young people are not only seen, but also heard. There are two key elements to this: The first is promoting and amplifying the voices, leadership, and agency of young people. We must create opportunities for girls and young women to forge their own networks of solidarity and mobilization, and to serve as agents of change in their communities in ending the inequities that impede their economic and social inclusion. Image removed by sender. This includes creating, promoting, and protecting safe spaces for young people. This also means lifting up and amplifying the work of young women in our networks and on our platforms.

We are also engaging young people as equal partners. This ‘partnership approach’ when working with young people means treating young people as equal stakeholders, working with them and alongside them, and valuing their knowledge, experience, expertise, and input. It means encouraging a sense of ownership in processes and ensuring they feel empowered and motivated to engage with the United Nations system in the future. This starts as representation on panels and in events and extends to ensuring that young people are continuously involved in the structure and decision-making processes. This engagement needs to be continuous, representative and meaningful.

What are the best mechanisms for young folks within the business sector (high tech and engineer fields) to support these efforts? When we are working to bring an equity and justice lens to development/deployment of technologies within our companies, it would be great to have mechanisms or processes to engage with the UN and humanitarian partners as we try to frame human rights and gender justice issues.

The best mechanisms for young people in the business sector to support gender justice efforts are to start by primarily creating environments that are conducive to discussions on gender equality and gender parity. Young people can advocate for their companies to adopt strategic and holistic plans and processes that apply an equity and justice lens.

Further, in terms of engaging in UN Women processes, young people are encouraged to join UN Women’s global campaigns, which reach mass audiences and are designed to inspire them to action, such as the Generation Equality Campaign and Planet 50-50 y 2030: Step it Up for Gender Equality. Within these campaigns there are processes that youth, the general public, civil society organizations and the private sector can all engage in the work that UN Women does.

GBV managers are not categorized as essential workers in Nigeria. We do not have PPE. How can we help vulnerable groups without exposing ourselves to the risk of COVID-19?

It is very concerning to hear this. UN Women continues to advocate for governments to recognize GBV services as essential services and that all women at the frontlines have access to PPE. Women cannot continue to risk their lives in their efforts to save others. Image removed by sender. UN Women is monitoring and/or undertaking rapid assessments of violence against women and girls to raise awareness of the magnitude of the issue. We are working with partners to strengthen access to essential and quality services for women survivors of violence during the pandemic, including supporting organizations and shelters to provide online and helpline services to support those in need in a safe manner.

We have increased cases of girls being sexually molested by their fathers, and the state is slow to respond; girls even get pregnant, plus there is shame and stigma. How can the UN fund CSO effectively?

We know from our work the home is not a safe place for many women and girls, and that adolescent girls are most at risk of sexual violence from someone they know. This is a grave human rights violation. Unfortunately, more than half of countries do not yet have laws that protect women and girls from rape. UN Women continues to advocate for the important role CSOs, especially women’s organizations, have in the pandemic, and for governments and financing partners to recognize this important role and allocate the much-needed resources. As mentioned, UN Women is working with disseminating evidence and supporting organizations to prevent and respond to the surge in gender-based violence during the pandemic.

What measures help address domestic violence in the context of a lockdown? If women have nowhere to go to escape their abuser, what must public systems offer?

We know that levels of domestic violence and sexual exploitation, which is already an epidemic in all societies, spike when households are placed under the increased strains that come from security, health and money worries, and cramped and confined living conditions. The public system must recognize GBV services as essential services, and the public must be made aware of their availability. Shelters and women’s organizations need to be supported to be able to offer helpline and online counseling and have access to PPE. UN Women is also supporting partners to update safe referral pathways and service delivery protocols, including with police and justice institutions, for example in Bolivia, Ecuador, South Africa, Sudan, Trinidad and Tobago and Vanuatu. Recently, UN Women put out a statement together with eight other organizations on violence against women and girls in the context of COVID-19. The statement calls for flexible funding that support health and social services to respond to gender based violence and that these services are regarded as essential, as well as mandate police and judicial systems, and put in preventative measures that only collect data if it will be used to improve services so that ethical and safety standard can be met.

With the impact of COVID-19 on the global economy, would you expect that international development funding will be decreased, especially for Gender and SRH programs?

In previous economic recessions, the UN has experienced a cut in funding. UN Women hopes that governments and financing partners continue to see the value and the return on investment in funding sexual and reproductive health and rights and gender equality programmes. We must ‘build back better’ and therefore we cannot compromise the human right to health. Image removed by sender. The resources that have been made available, such as social protection mechanisms and economic stimulus packages, must be used to create a better, more gender just world, where all call live to their full potential, free from violence and discrimination.




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