Choose to Challenge 

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Meera Tenguria

The theme for International Women’s Day 2021 – Choose to Challenge – is especially relevant and vital in a post-COVID scenario. The COVID-19 crisis has far-reaching social and economic consequences, both immediate, and stretching into an unpredictable future.

From Challenge Comes Change, So Let Us All Choose to Challenge

The paradigm shift due to COVID means that every element of the ecosystem is changing fundamentally. The pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing gender division of labour and added to women’s double burden of paid and unpaid care work. National and global crises often exacerbate gender inequality. How do we make this crisis different? How do we ensure that the new ecosystem that we are building is sustainable? What do we challenge, and what do we change?

Recognising that the pandemic has, directly and indirectly, exacerbated gender inequities is crucial to creating new paradigms. Globally, female employees find their distress compounded as they are also primary caregivers for their spouses, children, the elderly and infirm, while also taking on household work. Regardless of class status, women and girls are increasingly at the receiving end of physical and emotional abuse.

Different experiences and needs policy analysis must consider the differing impact of the pandemic for men and women, for adults and children, for rural and urban, for the different economic classes. The old way of seeing the world through one filter needs to change. The differential impact of the pandemic has put women at risk, removed from critical multi-level discussions to find solutions to the socio-economic problems the world faces.

Recognising that the pandemic has, directly and indirectly, exacerbated gender inequities is crucial to creating new paradigms. Globally, female employees find their distress compounded as they are also primary caregivers for their spouses, children, the elderly and infirm, while also taking on household work. Regardless of class status, women and girls are increasingly at the receiving end of physical and emotional abuse.

On the frontlines at work and home, women are getting the short end of the stick again.

For addressing a changing world, we need to bring in new perspectives, new issues and new needs to the table.

Women’s Voices in Leadership

The success of women leaders in addressing the pandemic has been well recorded and discussed. The ability to empathise, practical approach to solutions and the ability to have a holistic approach has proved that a women’s role in leadership adds value in governance, policies and on-ground management. The new ecosystem must ensure that women are included in leadership roles whether as CEOs and senior business managers, entrepreneurs, or at the highest levels of governments to make a change.

Having a seat at the table makes all the difference. More women taking the lead on global health policies and emergency response will inevitably translate into positive change.

Healthcare Frontlines

Whether as frontline health workers, nursing home caregivers or community activists, women are managing the fallout of COVID-19 while juggling their childcare and family responsibilities throughout the pandemic. World Health Organization data estimates that while women comprise 70 per cent of the global health workforce, they hold only 25 per cent of leadership positions. Women need to be involved in leadership roles shaping health systems at every level.

Though the picture of accolades and claps of heroism on the frontlines is a reality, beneath that, the roles that women do in the health sector – professionally and as part of the social service sector – is quite the opposite as women are currently poorly paid.

Although women are at the frontline and are more liable to be affected – the design of the PPEs, including full-body gear, is designed by men and is often not adaptable to women’s bodies, nor does it consider their menstrual needs.  

This Needs to Be Challenged and Changed

Having a seat at the table makes all the difference. More women taking the lead on global health policies and emergency response will inevitably translate into positive change, says Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AID (UN AIDS).

Digital Divide 

2020 pushed technology adoption by several years. “The digital gender divide has become “a matter of life and death,” in the words of António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, in June 2020. As healthcare information (particularly about COVID-19), education, and economic activity move online, the digital divide is the new face of inequality, discrimination, and socio-economic marginality, mirroring the systematic exclusion of women from access to critical infrastructure. From skill development to reskilling; from access to technology to make the internet safe for women; from policies that promote and support women in the digital marketplace to mentoring women for the digital market; and most importantly, to redefining the digital space. Women are seen as customers in the digital landscape; the technology and eCommerce areas rarely see women leaders. This needs to be challenged. This needs to change. Significant ground is to be covered to create a new digital economy that provides equitable work for all.

As the world moves towards addressing the pandemic’s immediate and future impact – women need to be at the table – the language has to be of sustainable development. Let us do it differently this time.

Self Help Groups 

“SHGs started by making masks but are now engaged in a range of interventions. District administrations are involving SHG women because of their ability to respond so well in times of need. In the past, too, they played a big role in the Swachh Bharat Mission,” said Nita Kejriwal, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Rural Development in an interview to Mint. This ability should be harnessed. SHGs can play a critical role with their insights and understanding of achieving the SDGs.

From SHGs to SDGs – we must choose to harness women power.

As the world moves towards addressing the pandemic’s immediate and future impact – women need to be at the table – the language has to be of sustainable development. Let us do it differently this time.

Meera Tenguria is a Stakeholder Engagement Strategist and Trainer with over 20 years of experience in Corporate Communications, Crisis Communications, Stakeholder Communications, Content Strategy, Sustainability and CSR Communication. She has completed a GRI Certified Training programme on The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI).