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The pandemic has hurt women's health. This is why that's bad for everyone

Healthcare access for women and girls has been disrupted.

Healthcare access for women and girls has been disrupted. Image:  Photo by Francisco Venâncio on Unsplash

Amira Ghouaibi
Head, Global Alliance for Women's Health, World Economic Forum
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SDG 05: Gender Equality

This article is part of: Sustainable Development Impact Summit
  • The pandemic undermined women and girls’ fundamental rights and we must learn lessons about its impacts to build back better and ensure these groups aren't left behind.
  • Empowering women and girls has proven to increase the health and well-being of the entire family and community.
  • Seize the opportunity to transform education by integrating new teaching methods addressing girls and young women’s unique needs for safety, health and well-being.

The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated lives around the world, 4.6 million deaths and counting. The pandemic has exposed sharp economic and social inequalities and has widened the already existing gap with the most vulnerable in society, including unequal impacts affecting women and girls by virtue of their gender.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report 2021 estimates there has been a step back of 39 years due to the pandemic.

The state of gender gaps, by subindex Percentage of the gender gap closed to date, 2021
The state of gender gaps, by subindex. Percentage of the gender gap closed to date, 2021 Image: World Economic Forum
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Healthcare access for women and girls has been disrupted, confinement measures increased gender-based violence, and girls disadvantaged and marginalised. Worryingly, it seems we are not learning from the past, as women and girls have encountered similar issues experienced during previous health crises. During the Ebola epidemic, increases in abuse, violence and exploitation faced by women and girls were also reported.

Access to adequate health services, the ability to exercise rights and freedom, and claiming equal chances irrespective of gender are fundamental women’s rights and human rights. We must learn lessons from the pandemic to ensure these rights are upheld and respected.

Impact on sexual and reproductive health

Health systems across the world have been overwhelmed by the COVID-19 pandemic trying to keep up with the care demands, resulting in collateral damage to women’s health. Many countries failed to keep sexual and reproductive health services available, resulting in neglect and an increase in risks to women’s health.

A systematic review and meta-analysis of 40 studies on maternal and perinatal outcomes has been published in The Lancet, which concluded that there had been significant increases in stillbirth, maternal death and maternal depression during the pandemic.

The United Nations Population Fund has identified that in 115 low- and middle-income countries an average of 3.6 months disruption was faced by women who couldn’t access family planning services, resulting in a projected 7 million unintended pregnancies. In Nepal, the pandemic weakened maternal health services, with an increase in maternal deaths as 258 women died as a result of pregnancy or childbirth between March 2020 and June 2021, compared with 51 maternal deaths in the year before COVID-19.

Impact on gender-based violence

Violence against women is defined as “physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women.” The UN released a policy brief reporting an increase in violence towards women by 25%. The context of the pandemic has made it complex and difficult for women to access support, with legal, police and health services overwhelmed by focusing their efforts on pandemic management and response. Women had no choice but to stay locked up with their abusers.

The United Nations Development Programme has shared frightening data: globally, 243 million women and girls suffered from physical/sexual violence in 2020. A number of countries have even proclaimed a state of emergency over gender-based violence and feminicides. In France, reports of domestic violence increased by 30%, in Turkey 36 women were killed just in July 2020, and Quebec reported 10 women killed in the first quarter of 2021 versus 12 women in the whole of 2020.

Impact on girls and young women

During times of crises, girls and young women are amongst the most vulnerable groups in society and therefore exposed to higher risks. Recent studies report devastating impacts: a study conducted in India by the BMJ Paediatrics shows that gender discrepancies aggravated during the pandemic were noted in areas such as marital rape, family violence and threats into forced marriage, with girls and young women disproportionally affected. In Uganda, increased reports of child neglect and physical and sexual abuse against children were reported, with girls being the most affected.

While the World Bank has demonstrated that investment in and promotion of girl’s education results in reduced rates of HIV/AIDS, teenage pregnancy and infant mortality, and improved maternal health and economic growth, as well a a path to social justice, UNESCO estimates that 11 million girls might not have the chance to return to school due to the pandemic – jeopardizing their future.

A gender-responsive recovery

All countries around the world have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, undermining women and girls’ fundamental rights, and their value and place in society. It’s crucial to recognize that women and girls are subject to higher risks and so disproportionally suffer from discrimination, neglect and abuse.

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What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

How can we learn from the COVID-19 pandemic and build back better to ensure women and girls are not left behind?

  • Give a voice to women and girls: policymakers and stakeholders must include women and girls at the centre of recovery processes and listen to their needs, challenges and solutions. Empowering women and girls has proven to increase the health and well-being of the entire family and community.
  • The right to sexual and reproductive health: recognize and normalize women’s health services as essential health services during outbreaks and crises, and support the World Health Organization’s operational guidance for maintaining essential health services during an outbreak.
  • Shift mindsets and embrace positive changes: women and girls from developed and developing countries are facing inequalities and neglect and it’s everyone’s task to wake up, recognize the hard reality and become an active actor in the solution process.
  • Bring girls and young women back to school: seize the opportunity to transform the education system by promoting distance learning programmes for everyone including the most marginalized, and integrate new teaching methods addressing girls and young women’s unique needs for safety, health and well-being.
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Institutional update

World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

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