UN Women on the importance of female leadership in fighting coronavirus
UN Women executive director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka speaks to the FT's Vanessa Kortekaas about the role women are playing in the fight against the pandemic, why they must be visible on the global stage and the impact of this crisis on the fight for gender equality
Produced by Vanessa Kortekaas. Edited by Petros Gioumpasis. Animation by Kari-Ruth Pedersen. Still images by Getty and Reuters.
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VANESSA KORTEKAAS: So I want to start by looking at the immediate impact this crisis is having on women. We know that UN figures show 70% of health and social sector workers globally are women. So what impact is this having on women on the front line?
PHUMZILE MLAMBO-NGCUKA: Well, women on the front, obviously, exposed to the disease. Most of them are nurses, who are handling the patients. And in this situation where countries are running out of PPE, they, obviously, in the front line, without adequate protection. Women are also working long hours. But all of the health workers are men and women.
They are therefore, very exhausted. And they go home to continue to be caregivers to their families and their children. And the level of exhaustion means that they need a lot of support to cope with the stress. They also use public transport in many cases, because in most health institutions, they are at the lower levels, which means that the pay does not enable many of them to have their own private transports. That means that in public transport, they are also exposed to potential infection.
VANESSA KORTEKAAS: So you mentioned some of the sort of risks that they face to their own health. And what about on the socioeconomic level? This is having a huge impact on society as a whole. But given that more women work in unsecured jobs, or in the informal economy, especially in developing countries what does that financial impact on them?
PHUMZILE MLAMBO-NGCUKA: Basically, means that women are driven to poverty because they do not have the means to look after themselves and their families. If they are self-employed, they usually do not have an easy conduit and a connection to the government and other providers of the stimulus that could support them. But we also saying if there's going to be social protection, and cash transfers, these transfers must go directly to the hands of women in order to make sure that they are not lost in the family. They actually enabled the women to be the one that is in control of these resources.
Even if women in the formal sector, they are still informal, if you know what I'm saying. Because if they are waitresses, sometimes they have the contracts that are not in any way binding to the employer. If they work in the tourism sector, it's also a very loose arrangement. So they are not accounted for as workers. It's not secured employment. So when the provisions and employment benefits, these benefits do not automatically accrue to them. And then women, as you know, in many African countries, also work in agriculture. In that sector, also, there isn't adequate protection.
VANESSA KORTEKAAS: Amid all the government bailouts and the stimulus packages that we've seen, are you seeing any examples where they are, where those measures are addressing women specifically in the needs that you just talked about?
PHUMZILE MLAMBO-NGCUKA: Well, it's a mixed bag. There definitely are governments who are targeting women. And the packages are meant to be for women. South Africa is one of those countries where they are doing that. But where they have a generic SMME package, a generic informal sector, it is not automatic that the women will be a beneficiary.
VANESSA KORTEKAAS: And what about the global leadership in this? I have more UN women, UN figures here showing that 25% of parliamentarians worldwide are women, and only 10% of heads of government and heads of state are women worldwide. Are there enough female leaders making the decisions about how to respond to the COVID-19 crisis?
PHUMZILE MLAMBO-NGCUKA: Well, definitely. Let alone, just women who are heads of states, just women in the health sector who are decision makers, notwithstanding that the majority of the women, of the people who work in the health sector are women. And there are lots of competent women. This is one sector where we cannot complain about a pipeline that doesn't have people who can take senior position.
You could look for yourself when you listen to briefings from different countries. Most of the time, it is not women who are talking. Women are not the ones who are framing the response to the pandemic. And we think this is the time to address the issue of representation of women in the health sector, because medium to long term, women are still going to be in the majority of those who are leading in the health sector.
VANESSA KORTEKAAS: Have you seen examples where leaders have specifically addressed that some women, that women in some ways are disproportionately affected by this crisis? Have you seen that?
PHUMZILE MLAMBO-NGCUKA: It's not strong enough. And the sector in general has already used one of the global leaders that has already been calling for that to be given attention. What we are asking governments to do and leaders in general, for instance, on the case of violence against women, is to make those who are providing services to women who are affected by violence. Those services, must be declared essential service so that they are accessible throughout this crisis.
We are also asking that there is better investment into those service providers, be they NGO, or government, or churches, or youth, or community crossroads, because they are really providing a service that is very critical at this time. And this is the service that cannot be delayed because every day we delay providing this is an essential service, a woman is at risk.
VANESSA KORTEKAAS: And I was just going to ask you about that. I've seen-- obviously, one of the horrible side effects of this crisis is a lot of reports of an increase in domestic violence. We've seen countries like Canada and France announce financial support to house women, victims of domestic abuse. What more needs to happen now, and what will it take for leaders to listen to this and address it as an urgent problem?
PHUMZILE MLAMBO-NGCUKA: Well, we have to keep on talking. I'm glad that we are doing this with us. Essential service declaration, that is so urgent and so much needed. Investment in those institutions that are providing the service, it's excellent that Canada, and France, and others are already providing a more safe houses and shelter for the women.
Hotlines are very critical because they are the ones that women can call in order to call and ask for help. And we have been able to gather a lot of data from the headlines. It tells you with the woman is, what the situation is. But we're also finding out that when women are calling to the hotlines, they are also reporting that they are hungry, that they are being beaten up because their husband or partner is hungry.
And they expect her to be the one who's finding the food. So it is important that every country must have the Healthline that is attended by social workers. They also have to educate the police at this time to know how to respond and to make sure that when they're contacting the police, they do not get a run around that leaves them frustrated.
VANESSA KORTEKAAS: So it sounds like there are many parts to that solution. And the governments really need to address all of those factors to solve this problem.
PHUMZILE MLAMBO-NGCUKA: No, absolutely. And the cost of giving this support to women compared to some of the costs that governments are attending to rescuing airlines, which I'm not saying is not important-- but to the cost of servicing women is a fraction of that cost. This is some of the interventions that can be done immediately. And it is needed immediately.
VANESSA KORTEKAAS: That's a really good point. And looking back at the bigger picture, what lessons do you think have been learned from previous pandemics? So, for example, Ebola, that could be applied here to making sure that the issues that women are facing are being addressed more.
PHUMZILE MLAMBO-NGCUKA: Well, first, let me just talk about women who are migrants, who are also in a very difficult situation in the countries that they're in away from their countries. They are likely to be the ones that lose their jobs first. And they're left with no income, and far away from their relatives and loved ones.
The remittances that these women, and in most cases, are sent home to support families, to support children, to support old people. So their suffering is extended also to the people they are supporting at home. And we are finding that in the countries where the women also do not have NGOs that are strong in advocacy, and they've got to advocate individually for themselves, their voices can fall into deaf ears.
So the importance of having organised institutions that are raising the voices on behalf of those women who are not being heard becomes very critical. We also need to include women in the addressing of the issues and project that publicly. If you see all men talking about the pandemic, you are giving the impression that women are not doing anything.
Women reject the fact that they just should be seen just as victims because they are actually providing services, responses, and contributing just as much. So we need to create spaces for them to play a role in showing to the nation that their justices with support in their communities as everyone else.
VANESSA KORTEKAAS: And just following on from that point, what about the role in data in all this. The figures that we see every day are more focused on number of deaths and infections. But what about data in relation to the knock on effects for women of this crisis? Is there a lack of that data, and is that part of the problem?
PHUMZILE MLAMBO-NGCUKA: Yes, it is part of the problem. We are trying to get on top of that. We are still struggling. We are reaching out to governments and ministers, asking them to desegregate the data so that we are able to do a better analysis. I think that in the next two weeks, we may be in a better place to give data that is much adequate and data that we can use in making intelligent analysis.
VANESSA KORTEKAAS: And specifically, what are you asking governments for, and what sort of data are you referring to?
PHUMZILE MLAMBO-NGCUKA: Well, even when we are just talking about deaths, we would like it to be said. If how many men, how many women died, if we are providing a stimulus and cash transfers, we would like it to be said, how many recipients were men, how many recipients were women.
If we're talking about people who are calling on hotlines to report-- because this also is a very important way to talk directly to the women. We would like to ask them questions. How many are you in that house? How many women are in the house? Who else is at risk? Are they children? All of that is helping us to put together the puzzle.
VANESSA KORTEKAAS: And just in terms of the knock-on effects of resources being diverted-- so obviously, there is a huge diversion of resources right now. What does that mean for access to, for example, pre and post-natal care for women, or other reproductive services that they need?
PHUMZILE MLAMBO-NGCUKA: Well, whenever there is a crisis of this nature and magnitude, we tend to lose out on the critical services that tend to benefit women. We have austerity measures. And usually what goes out of the window first are those services that cushion the women from poverty. Food parcels, support for shelter, as well as the help that is needed for women's health and for women's sexual and reproductive rights.
We are worried, for instance, right now with the overextended health systems, women who needs to deliver babies, not able to access hospital, because babies will be born. Even in the midst of a crisis, we now do not have midwives in our community. The way, maybe, in the last generation, that was a service that was common.
Women, we have done relatively well in maternal health, that more and more women have been accessing maternal health in formal settings. And now, all of a sudden that is gone. And women have to see how they cope with it. And that puts their lives at risk. I will not be surprised if after this, we'll find that our numbers, which reflect what has happened to maternal health, illnesses, or deaths, have actually been dented. So that is also a concern.
VANESSA KORTEKAAS: And finally, I just want to look at the long term effect of the coronavirus crisis on the fight for gender equality. So this comes at a time when there was good momentum, it seems, with the me too movement in recent years, and a lot of public debate about gender equality. Of course, UN Women's own Generation Equality Forum this year had to be cancelled. How do you regain that momentum after this crisis is over and life hopefully returns to normal?
PHUMZILE MLAMBO-NGCUKA: We are trying to link our response to COVID-19 to the ongoing work that we need to do. When we are responding, for instance, to gender-based violence that is come out of COVID, we are saying that governments must make this an urgent response, an essential service, and must sustain that, and not take it we once say we no more having COVID.
We think that gender-based violence has to be declared a pandemic, because it's a shadow pandemic, which was there before the outbreak of this pandemic, and will be there after. So we need to sustain it. But also, we're now talking about representation of women in decision making, in the economic sphere, where different interventions about the economy are being decided. We feel that this is the time now to continue that fight, and fight for women's participation at every level.
VANESSA KORTEKAAS: Phumzile, thank you very much for your time.
PHUMZILE MLAMBO-NGCUKA: Thank you. Thank you so much.