• The coronavirus could substantially widen the gender gap globally.

• Bahrain is fighting to uphold women in the community.

• Its Supreme Council for Women has put in place three policies to mitigate the pandemic's impact on women.

Much of the recent progress on women’s advancement could be at risk of collapse due to the coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, as reports from around the world indicate, the current recession could substantially widen the economic gender balance gap.

In an April report, the United Nations declared that women would be the group hardest hit by the pandemic. Women’s lives will be disproportionately and differently affected from men’s for several reasons – these include less secure jobs, less access to social protections and a greater chance of heading single-parent households.

Indicators from around the world show that working mothers are more likely to lose their jobs or be furloughed, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The economic impact of the pandemic is still being felt across the globe, and as the number impacted by the virus skyrockets in the US, so does the unemployment rate, which seems to be affecting women the hardest: with a 15.7% unemployment rate within the female workforce, compared to 13.3% unemployed men.

Figures for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are even starker, with the female labour participation rate, according to data from the International Labour Organisation, standing at barely over 20%.

Conversely, women will also be the backbone of recovery within our communities. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has urged member states to put women at the centre of rebuilding efforts and involve women in all aspects of the decision-making hierarchy.

Women disproportionately provide unpaid care work
Women disproportionately provide unpaid care work
Image: UN Women

Bahrain has made progress towards gender balance in business ownership, with 42% of all commercial registrations in the kingdom female-owned. On the enterprise front, Bahrain has the highest share of female founders in the world, with 18% of homegrown start-ups founded by women, compared to 15% in London and 16% in Silicon Valley.

Bahrain is extending a "gender balance" approach to mitigating the impact of coronavirus, ensuring that women do not become economic victims of the pandemic. Organizations like the Supreme Council for Women (SCW) help to address both the urgent and more long-term needs of women during these turbulent times. Such approaches reflect the commitment of the kingdom to upholding the progress achieved by Bahraini women both socially and economically, and to proactively contain the implications of the pandemic particularly on women.

Here are three policy changes worth celebrating:

1. Support the female workforce in and from the home

Healthcare workers are among those who have borne the brunt of the pandemic, as they work long hours in stressful conditions. Women comprise close to 70% of the global healthcare workforce, WHO data shows, and Bahrain is no exception to this given that Bahraini women make up the vast majority of frontline workers, making up 75% of the national taskforce for combating the coronavirus.

Realizing the importance of the female presence at the frontline, the Bahraini government adopted a recommendation issued by the SCW to grant the spouses of women assuming vital frontline duties the opportunity to work remotely. Additionally, from the earliest stages of the outbreak, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa directed authorities to enable mothers in the public sector to work from home, while stores have been setting aside their first hour of operation for pregnant women and the elderly.

2. Encourage psychological counselling – virtually

Through a campaign launched by the SCW early in March 2020 entitled Together for the Safety of Bahrain, a programme called Your Remote Advisor was introduced to ensure the continuous provision of the Council’s psychological, family, legal and economic consultations. The programme conducts consultations via video conferencing and instant live chats in order to respond to requests for support and remote guidance. To date, the programme has provided over 8,000 consultations. With a comparatively relaxed lockdown and with institutions such as the SCW and civil society organisations stepping up counselling for women, there has been less of a spike in domestic abuse and conflict against women in Bahrain as has been reported elsewhere.

3. Waiving women’s debts

In May 2020, Her Royal Highness Princess Sabeeka bint Ibrahim Al Khalifa, President of the SCW, extended a loan and debt waiver to women with outstanding debts - who are primarily divorced, widowed or are suffering from chronic diseases - facing court orders to repay their financial dues. In line with other national efforts, the SCW facilitated the payment of these women’s dues in coordination with the National Taskforce for Combating COVID-19. Additionally, women and men in debt were able to register with a new programme called Fael Khair (persons of goodwill), which connects those who need loan assistance with anonymous donors.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in ten countries across three regions. Accelerators are established in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Panama in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank in Latin America and the Caribbean, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East and North Africa, and Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

All Country Accelerators, along with Knowledge Partner countries demonstrating global leadership in closing gender gaps, are part of a wider ecosystem, the Global Learning Network, that facilitates exchange of insights and experiences through the Forum’s platform.

In 2019 Egypt became the first country in the Middle East and Africa to launch a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator. While more women than men are now enrolled in university, women represent only a little over a third of professional and technical workers in Egypt. Women who are in the workforce are also less likely to be paid the same as their male colleagues for equivalent work or to reach senior management roles.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and removing unconscious bias in recruitment, retention and promotion practices.

If you are a business in one of the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.

From New Zealand to Kerala, we have seen how states and ministries run by female leaders around the world have excelled in the coronavirus. Bahrain also demonstrates a prime example of this through its efforts contain the social and economic impacts of the pandemic on women and their families. These efforts stem from the firm belief that by improving gender balance and supporting women at home and at work, we can unleash some of those benefits for Bahrain's society as a whole.