COVID-19 — Adverse effects on gender equality and trade’s role in limiting the adverse effects on women



Terence P. Stewart | Current Thoughts on Trade

The UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development agreed to in 2015 includes 17 broad sustainable development goals (“SDGs”). The fifth SDG is achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls. The UN’s Sustainable DevelopmentGoals Report 2020 paints a grim picture of the challenge to meeting the gender equality SDG and the complications flowing from COVIDE-19. See Specifically, pages 34 and 35 of the 2020 report review progress towards the fifth SDG. The text (but not the tables and charts) from pages 34-35 is copied below

Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

“International commitments to advance gender equality have brought about improvements in some areas: child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) have declined in recent years, and women’s representation in the political arena is higher than ever before. But the promise of a world in which every woman and girl enjoys full gender equality, and where all legal, social and economic barriers to their empowerment have been removed, remains unfulfilled. In fact, that goal is
probably even more distant than before, since women and girls are being hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis is creating circumstances that have already contributed to a surge in reports of violence against women and girls, and may increase child marriage and FGM. Moreover, women are likely to take on most additional care work owing to the closure of schools and day-care centres. They are also on the front lines in fighting the coronavirus, since women account for nearly 70 per cent of health and social workers globally.

COVID-19 is intensifying the risk of violence against women and girls

“The coronavirus pandemic lockdowns have confined many women and girls to their homes, sometimes with abusive partners, putting them at greater risk of domestic violence. Even before the pandemic, physical and sexual violence against women were all too common. According to surveys conducted between 2005 and 2017 in 106 countries, 18 per cent of ever-partnered women and girls 15 to 49 years of age experienced such violence by a current or former intimate partner in the 12 months prior to the survey.

“Already, data from several countries show an increase in reporting of domestic violence to helplines, women’s refuges and shelters, and the police. When considering such data, it is important to keep in mind that less than 40 per cent of women who experience violence report this crime or seek help. Being confined at home with an abusive partner and, in some countries, lacking access to mobile phones or the Internet, makes it more difficult for women to safely reach out for help. According to data from 66 countries over the period 2016 to 2018, mobile phone ownership among women was 6.8 percentage points lower than for men, on average. Women are also more likely to have their phones monitored by abusive or controlling partners. In addition, because of service disruptions and closures, women experiencing violence have less access to support and may not seek or be able to receive medical care, if needed.

The global pandemic could set back progress to end child marriage and female genital mutilation

“Marriage before the age of 18 is a human rights violation, mostly affecting girls, and can lead to a lifetime of disadvantage and deprivation. One in five women (20.2 per cent) between the ages of 20 and 24 was married before the age of 18 around 2019, compared with about one in four (23.8 per cent) 10 years earlier. Southern Asia has seen the greatest decline over this period. Today, the risk of child marriage is highest in sub-Saharan Africa, where more than one in three women (34.5 per cent) between the ages of 20
and 24 were married before the age of 18. School closures and widening poverty as a result of the pandemic could put more girls at risk.

“FGM is another blatant violation of human rights. At least 200 million girls and women have been subjected to FGM in 31 countries where the practice is concentrated; half of these countries are in Western Africa. Although this harmful practice has been declining, there are still countries where FGM is
almost universal – where at least 9 in 10 girls and women aged 15 to 49 years have been cut. Even in countries where the practice has become
less common, progress would need to accelerate by a factor of 10 to meet the global target of elimination by 2030, owing to population growth. COVID-19 is interrupting programmes to end FGM, which could threaten progress.

Women spend more time than men in unpaid work, a burden that is likely to get heavier during the pandemic

“In an average day, women spend about three times as many hours
in unpaid domestic and care work as men, according to the latest data from 89 countries and areas between 2001 and 2018. Time spent in these activities tends to be even higher for women with young children at home. In roughly 75 per cent of countries with trend data, a small decrease has been observed in the time spent by women on unpaid domestic and care work compared with that spent by men.

“The COVID-19 crisis is radically changing how people, particularly women, spend their time – often with a negative impact on their well-being. A poll conducted in 17 countries shows that both women and men are taking more responsibility for household chores and the care of children and family during the lockdown, but the majority of work continues to fall on
women and girls, reflecting a pre-pandemic pattern.

Women are increasingly assuming positions of power, but the world is still far from parity

“As of 1 January 2020, women’s representation in national parliaments (lower chamber and unicameral parliaments) had reached 24.9 per cent – up from 22.3 per cent in 2015. The share of female representation ranged from more than 30 per cent in Australia and New Zealand, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Europe to only 6.2 per cent in Oceania (excluding Australia and New Zealand). Data from 133 countries and areas show that women now have better access to decision-making positions at the local level, holding 36.3 per cent of elected seats in local deliberative bodies.
Only 13 per cent and 15 per cent of countries, respectively, have reached gender balance (40 per cent or more) in legislative bodies in national parliaments and in local government. This progress is largely attributed to legislated gender quotas.

“In 2019, women represented 39 per cent of the world’s workers and half of the world’s working-age population, but only 28 per cent of managerial positions (up from 25 per cent in 2000). Women face higher barriers than men in accessing employment. And when they do get a job, they are often
excluded from decision-making positions. In 2019, women accounted for 41 per cent of managerial positions in South-Eastern Asia and 40 per cent in Northern America, but only 8 per cent in Northern Africa.

“In the context of COVID-19, it is critical that women are fairly represented in leadership positions related to the pandemic. This will help to avoid deepening existing inequalities. It will also ensure that gender dimensions and investments in gender equality are included in response and recovery legislation, economic packages and budgets during and after the pandemic.

Women’s lack of decision-making power extends even to their own reproductive health

Slightly more than half of all women (55 per cent) make their own decisions when it comes to sexual and reproductive health and rights, based on 2007–2018 data from 57 countries on women aged 15 to 49 who are either married or in union. The analysis also found that women have the most autonomy in deciding on the use of contraception (91 per cent). However, only three in four women are making their own decisions regarding health care or on whether or not to have sex.

“Progress on other fronts is encouraging: in 2019, countries had established 73 per cent of the laws and regulations needed to guarantee full and equal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, according to data from 75 countries. The findings were particularly heartening when it comes to HIV. On average, countries had set in place 87 per cent of laws and regulations needed for HIV counselling and testing services; 91 per cent of those needed for HIV treatment and care services; and 96 per cent for HIV confidentiality. Meanwhile, countries had instituted 79 per cent of relevant laws and regulations that stipulate full, free and informed consent of individuals before they receive contraceptive services, including sterilization.”

The challenges for the world to achieve gender equality are daunting and in many ways not trade-connected. However, inequality in education, pay, access to capital and other issues have trade repercussions. Expanded trade has helped reduced some aspects of inequality. Government policies to address education and other elements can permit greater equality of opportunity and improve national competitiveness.

Trade and COVID-19

While COVID-19 is first and foremost a healthcare issue, the pandemic is having enormous economic consequences for countries around the world. A recent information note from the World Trade Organization, which builds on a World Bank and WTO report on trade and gender, reviews how women are being disproportionately harmed economically by COVID-19. The disproportionate adverse effects are making it harder to achieve gender equality and to empower all women and girls by 2030. The information note is dated August 3, 2020. See The Economic Impact of COVID-19 on Women in Vulnerable Sectors and Economies, Information Note, 3 August 2020, The World Bank and WTO report on trade and gender was released in July 2020, “Women and Trade: the role of trade in promoting gender equality”,

While most business data are not collected on a gender specific basis, some information is available that reveals where there are higher levels of female employment. Some industries and service sectors where women have large numbers of workers have suffered serious contractions in work since the beginning of 2020 in response to efforts by governments to control the spread of COVID-19. One example presented in the information note is the textile/apparel sector where trade has been very severely affected by lockdowns and resulting reduced spending on clothing in many markets. Global value chains in the sector affect workers in many countries whether least-developed, developing or developed. Bangladesh is highlighted in the information note. In Bangladesh, ready-made garments comprised 84% of 2019 exports for the country. Eighty percent of the four million workers in the sector in Bangladesh are women. Economic reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic around the world resulted in a 45.8% reduction in business for Bangladesh’s ready-made garment companies in the first quarter of 2020 and an 81% contraction in April. Layoffs have been more than one million workers, mostly women. Depending on governmental safety nets and other economic opportunities in a country, a sharp contraction in a major manufacturing sector can set back efforts at gender equality and increase poverty as the Bangladesh example typifies.

Similarly, women have high employment levels in the travel and tourism sector around the world. Travel and tourism is another sector severely harmed by the response of countries to the COVID-19 pandemic. The UN World Tourism Organization has projected employment losses of as many as 100 million jobs in 2020 as international travel is severely restricted, governments impose restrictions on domestic travel and use of restaurants, bars, hotels, entertainment venues and more by the public and visitors is greatly reduced.

The information note provides a useful summary of the key points on how COVI-19 is impacting women. The following is copied from page 1 of the information note.


“• Women are at risk of suffering more than men from the trade disruption generated by the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the reasons for this is that a larger share of women works in sectors and types of firms that have been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic.

“• Women make up a larger share of the workforce in the manufacturing sectors, such as textiles, apparel, footwear and telecommunication products, that experienced some of the largest falls in export growth during the first months of the pandemic. For example, female employees
represent 80 per cent of the workforce in ready-made garment production in Bangladesh, in which industry orders declined by 45.8 per cent over the first quarter of 2020, and by 81 per cent in April alone.

“• A larger share of women than men works in services, such as tourism and business travel services, that have been directly affected by regional and international travel restrictions.

“• A large share of firms owned or managed by women are micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs), and lower levels of financial resources and limited access to public funds are placing the survival of such businesses at greater risk.

“• The economic impact of the pandemic is expected to be particularly significant for women in least-developed and developing economies because fewer women than men are employed in these economies in occupations which can be undertaken remotely, and a larger share of women is employed in sectors highly exposed to international travel restrictions.

“• The effects of the pandemic are aggravating existing vulnerabilities. Many channels through which COVID-19 is having a greater impact on women are those at the heart of gender inequalities, such as lower wages for women, fewer educational opportunities, limited access to finance, greater reliance on informal employment and social constraints. Limited access to digital technologies and lower rates of information technology (IT) skills further reduce women’s opportunities for teleworking and e-commerce, and thus for adapting to the current crisis.

“• Many governments have adopted a broad range of support measures to help individuals and businesses. Some of these measures, mainly social protection initiatives adopted by some central or local governments, are specifically targeted at women.

“• Maintaining open trade during the economic recovery period is key to building faster and more inclusive growth.

“• The joint World Bank and World Trade Organization report on trade and gender, “Women and Trade: the role of trade in promoting gender equality”, published in July 2020, highlights ways in which trade can continue to benefit women in the post-COVID-19 recovery period.”

Keeping trade open will increase trade flows, increase jobs in agriculture, manufacturing, and services and will increase income of people around the world. With the sharp contraction in trade in the first half of 2020, a rapid rebound in trade is critical to support efforts at achieving gender equality.

For countries who don’t have the pandemic under control, the school year presents additional challenges

As the UN 2020 report points out, women bear the brunt of child care. In countries with households where both parents work or where there is a single female adult household, child care and school are critical elements of the infrastructure needed for the parent or both parents being able to work outside of the home.

In the United States, where we are still struggling to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control, parents now face the additional challenge of how to respond to the coming school year. While the Administration is urging all states to open all schools for in-school attendance immediately, the reality is likely to be significantly different based on the science and current rate of spread of COVID-19 in many states. Some school districts have indicated that school openings will be delayed several months. Others will handle school for at least the fall semester remotely. Some are looking at doing part of the school semester remote for each student and part where each student attends the school in person. Finally some schools intend to open requiring students to attend in person. Many school teachers are striking to keep schools closed where it is viewed as unsafe to reopen.

The experience of some school districts that have already opened is mixed in terms of whether a large number of COVID-19 cases arise. Problems with the rise in number of new cases following school reopening have also been reported by at least some countries who have done a much better job of controlling the COVID-19 pandemic than the United States. Israel, for example, has had a sharp increase in infections since reopening schools despite earlier good progress in controlling the spread of the coronavirus.

What U.S. federal stimulus programs will look like going forward for the rest of the year is not presently known. Parents are facing many challenges including whether to send children to school during the pandemic and if not how child care will be handled and who will provide in-home education/support.

News reports indicate that many mothers are making the decision to take on the child care and home education responsibilities, which will mean reduced outside-the-home economic activity for the mothers.

The most important action for the U.S. is to double down on getting the pandemic under control as quickly as possible, something we don’t have a national game plan to actually accomplish at the moment. In addition, government policies and assistance programs that get adopted/extended and private sector support of employees to permit greater telecommuting and flexible hours may hold the key to reducing the negative effects of women during the pandemic.


The COVID-19 pandemic has caused massive health challenges around the world and seen countries suffer the greatest economic contraction since World War II. The economic fall out from the efforts of governments to control the pandemic is harming the ability of the world to make progress on many of the UN’s sustainable development goals. SDG #5, achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls is one of the SDGs being negatively affected.

Both during the pandemic and afterwords, it is critical that countries, businesses, multilateral organizations and others focus on pursuing actions that will minimize the loss of forward movement on achieving the SDG dealing with gender equality. In the trade arena, reducing uncertainty by keeping markets open, identifying steps that can be taken to expand liberalization particularly in goods or services employing large numbers of women, seeing that access to financing and trade finance has a focus on MSMEs, expanding infrastructure and education for broader internet access for populations with limited access at present are some of the needs for minimizing the global economic damage from the pandemic and helping promote greater gender equality.

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