Women and girls around the world have and will continue to suffer disproportionately from the impacts of both of these crises, with those in low-income households and communities set to bear the greatest cost. Women are on average, poorer, less educated and have less economic, political and legal clout. They are less able to cope with and are more exposed to the adverse effects of changing climates and Covid-19. Research by the UN Foundation has shown that women in poorer countries have been particularly at risk of human rights violations during the pandemic. With growing recognition that the protection and improvement of women workers’ health is also critical to business success, the disadvantages set to affect women may well cost business overall.
Agents of change
While women are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, they remain effective actors and agents of change in relation to how we mitigate and adapt to a low carbon economy. According to UN Women Watch, women often have a strong body of knowledge and expertise that can be leveraged for climate change mitigation, disaster risk reduction and adaptation strategies. Furthermore, women’s responsibilities in households and communities, as stewards of natural and household resources, positions them well to contribute to livelihood strategies adapted to changing environmental realities.
Covid-19 and gender-based violence and harassment
Today, the systemic widespread inequalities women face are compounded by increased risks of abuse and discrimination, as the economic downturn prompted by Covid-19 begins to impact jobs and businesses. According to UNICEF, actions taken to curb the spread of the virus, such as lockdowns and curfews, have seen an overall rise in gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) worldwide. With women and girls isolated in homes for weeks and months at a time, many have become ‘less visible’ and more vulnerable, with fewer opportunities to seek and receive assistance.
Women who are in work, or seeking work, are also at greater risk of gender-based harassment and discrimination, as jobs become harder to find and harder to keep. With the majority of supervisor and manager roles occupied by men, the power to determine who stays and who goes ultimately sits in the hands of one gender. Collective efforts to mitigate this kind of power imbalance have also faced increased threat, as union members describe being subject to unfair targeted dismissals, being ‘let go’ as management look to remove ‘trouble-makers’ (direct communication from Kenyan Union General Secretary, November 2020).
As women typically work in overwhelmingly under-valued, lower-paid, unstable and part-time employment, they often have little to no economic security and social protection, such as health insurance or savings. As a result, economic and health related shocks are likely to be felt much more profoundly by women in times of crisis, than by their male counterparts.
Women are also less likely to have access to and control of productive resources and properties, such as land. Food shortages and increased food insecurity due to financial instability also put women under increased strain, especially where they are responsible for household food security. These compounded impacts can also place women at heighten risk of GBVH, especially through intimate partner violence, or dependence on negative coping strategies, such as transactional sex, sexual exploitation and even resorting to agreeing to child marriages. Research has shown that crisis and poverty can force parents to resort to child marriages as a route to increase family income. “Marrying off a daughter reduces family expenses and temporarily increases family income. With the pandemic leaving many people out of work, some may take this path as the only way to gain temporary financial stability” (CARE International, 2020).
Women at the heart of change
Much like the climate crisis, where workers in fields, farms and factories are already dealing with drought, floods and fires, the impacts of Covid-19 will reverberate differently for all of us. According to IIEDD, ‘ the impacts of Covid-19 are likely to play out on different time scales, with many short-term shocks to production and trade giving way to longer-term consequences’.
Gender Day at COP26, saw world leaders focus on how the climate crisis and gender intersect. A UN report found that 80% of those displaced by the climate emergency have been women. Even so, the majority of the conference leaders at COP26 were men. Nicola Sturgeon commented:
“When world leaders gathered here last week, of the 120 or so, a tiny minority were women – that needs to change and it needs to change quickly. There is no doubt, we must ensure that climate change is a feminist issue. [But] women are not pleading to be supported. We’re demanding to be empowered.”
Alok Sharma, the UK Minister and president of COP26 said: “We know from our efforts to tackle climate change that it is more effective when we put women and girls at the heart of those efforts.” (The Guardian, 9 November 2021)
We already have the UN Climate Convention’s Gender Action Plan, which was agreed in 2019 as well as the UN Women-convened Feminist Action for Climate Justice Coalition, launched at the Generation Equality Forum in July 2021 to lay the foundation for a new agenda to address gender equality in light of the shift towards economic and climate justice. Both agreed to increase financing for gender-just climate solutions, to enable women and girls to lead a transition to a green economy, and build the resilience of women and girls to climate impacts and disaster risk, including through land rights and tenure security.
After over a year of watching the Covid-19 crisis widen gender inequalities and threaten progress on hard-won gender gains, these commitments are a major step in driving policy reform and getting the Sustainable Development Goals, including the gender goals, back on track. This is particularly vital since a lack of finances and resources are one of the reasons for slow progress in advancing gender equality.
We now have the opportunity to build on the gender empowerment work that many have already started, in particular, learning from the case studies featured in our gender equity comparison project and implementing all the actions present in our framework around Representation, Enabling and Education. In addition, areas for further development include:
- Enhancing consumer awareness of the ‘real’ cost of goods
- Working with suppliers and retailers to address living incomes, improving the environment and cutting carbon
- Leadership and financial literacy training for workers
- Tackling gender-based violence and harassment
This project has shown that whilst there are issues specific to each industry, the same systemic gender inequalities and similar challenges prevail across banana, garment, flower and tea industries. These challenges will no doubt be found in other sectors, and all can learn from each other.
Using the case studies and the framework as a starting point we feel that more companies could begin to address gender equity in all aspects of their work. Help and resources are available from all the project partners Banana Link, Homeworkers Worldwide and Women Working Worldwide, as well as support and guidance from ETI. We look forward to taking this journey together.
This blog is written by Caroline Downey, Lucy Brill and Holly Woodward Davey.