Gender equality, the new vaccine against Covid-19

By Hadeel Ghaddar

It is one inconvenience to be living in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region an area – submerged in political and socio-economic factors that continue to drive conflict and put the countries – at the bottom of the CPI index (Corruption Perceptions Index rank) and GDP (Gross Domestic Product) rank. However, it is another thing to be a woman in today’s gendered world, and a whole different kind of problematic situation to be both a woman and a citizen of any of the countries in this region. While I sound very shallow for predicting individuals’ faith based on two factors that depend entirely on chance: chromosome segregation during meiosis and the lottery of birth, which offers you a 12.55% chance of being born in a developed country; The combination of both a region condemned with political, economic, and social corruption in contrast with a sexist world puts the cherry on top of the never-ending piece of “gender inequality” cake that women in LMIC have to indulge every single day.

In a time when Middle Eastern and North African women are already at a disadvantage due to restrictive social norms and legal frameworks that worsen the obstacles they face daily, an unprecedented pandemic has completely given them a new desert to worry about. While most people love dessert, those women seem to be constantly served the rancid, unpalatable bits and parts of it. It is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has affected the lives of everyone around the world. Not only were death rates high, but the economic fallout was even higher, displacing millions of people from their homes and putting them at many risks of not being able to ensure their basic needs. However, while it is not intended to underestimate the severity of the situation around the world, this international crisis has deepened the conflicts in the MENA. A region that was already struggling to stay afloat, titled the world’s highest unemployment rate for youths, as high as 42.8% for women, and the lowest female labor force participation, scoring an average of 20%, the lowest worldwide.

Over the last few years, it was observed that the MENA region was making significant progress in closing the educational gender gap. In fact, according to a graph comparing women’s and men’s rates in tertiary education, between 2012 and 2017, an apparent increase in women’s rates is obvious, proving that this gender gap was closing (UNESCO, 2020). However, this progress took a backward spin the moment the pandemic hit. As social norms have restricted women to care work, girls were disproportionately affected by a pandemic that put them on the frontline to carry caregiving responsibilities and embody all three roles of a mother, a teacher, and a friend. 

While these women were already handed a large part of this pandemic’s burden, the Middle Eastern and North African region failed to equip these girls with the right tools to survive remote online learning. The digital gender gap has been growing fast in developing countries, with the “Internet penetration rate for men and women” being 14.3% and a gap of 11.2% for men, in the Arab states and in Africa, respectively (ITU, 2019). This statistic finds itself ironic as women in the MENA region have been primarily awarded jobs in the public sector that ultimately require reasonable access to the internet. While those jobs are far from being harmful, women who work in the education sectors are those same women that do not have access to the internet, and therefore do not have the right teaching tools to pass their knowledge to other younger girls. Women often occupy jobs in public health care, and – in a pandemic framework – this puts them at a greater risk of infection, with 80% of Lebanon’s registered nurses being women (UN Women, 2020).

Although fatality rates have been higher for men who have been infected with the virus from a medical perspective, women are severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.  Not only are they given the majority of the burden at home, but they are even victims of an occupational and gendered division of the labor market, handing them an “inferior status” and making them vulnerable to overall insecurity. With public services such as child care and supervision at school being shut down, women in the workforce are considered lucky if they managed to work in the first place as not only are they victims of unpaid hours and lower wages but a massive loss in jobs in general. According to UN Women, it is expected that around 700,000 jobs done by women will be lost due to this health crisis.

In an insecure context where women are stripped from financial independence, support from public services, including facilities that offer them a voice and help them overcome psychosocial distress and domestic violence, the little progress that has been made to decrease gender gaps finds itself in jeopardy. The flaws that exist in all current emergency responses and plans focus on the actual healthcare problems. While those are far from being less relevant, tackling the gendered inequality is what could solve the roots of conflicts amongst this pandemic. Gender-sensitive measures should be taken to relieve the consequences that have arisen from this global health crisis. Studies have proven that gender equality is directly proportional to higher jobs, benefiting both women and men. For that, the MENA region’s government should work on implementing measures at the micro and macro level and including women leaders at the frontline response, so women’s problems are reflected in Covid-19 responses – and this cannot begin without the acknowledgment of COVID-19’s impact on gender equality, hence the purpose of such papers.

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