Debbie Wilcox on ensuring women’s voices are core to post-Covid policy development and decision-making
In January, the Commons Women and Equalities Committee published its report Unequal impact? Coronavirus and the gendered economic impact, and in doing so raised concerns that the government’s priorities for the post-Covid recovery are heavily gendered in nature.
Investment plans are skewed towards male-dominated sectors, with the potential to create unequal outcomes for men and women. All on top of the fact that the pandemic has intensified existing inequalities in almost all areas of life, negating the hard-won achievements of past decades – both here in the UK and beyond. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres has noted: “COVID-19 could reverse the limited progress that has been made on gender equality and women's rights”.
This week in the Lords, we have begun Report stage of the landmark Domestic Abuse Bill. During the debates, speaker after speaker has noted the significant increase in domestic violence during the pandemic, referring to the multiple reports from charities and campaigners of a surge in calls to helplines and online services since the first lockdown.
A sobering insight into the levels of abuse that some people live with all the time, the pandemic and its related restrictions has clearly closed off access to support or escape. It may also have curtailed measures that some abusers take to keep their violence under control. Giving evidence to Parliament last April, the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales Dame Vera Baird gave MPs details of a pioneering project recording how many women are killed by men in the UK. Before lockdown, the average number of deaths was a two a week. It is now five – and if that’s not a crisis in abuse and violence, I don’t know what is.
When it comes to the workplace, much of the UK’s frontline response to tackling Covid has fallen upon women – including 76% of those employed in health and social care, and 86% delivering personal care. And these sectors have, of course, seen an unprecedented rise in workload, health risks, and challenges for work-life balance.
It is well-documented that women earn less and are more likely to work in insecure jobs – often in the informal sector, with less access to social protections. They also run most single-parent households, which further limits their capacity to absorb economic shocks. Prolonged lockdowns and school closures have not only seen women’s access to paid work diminish, but an increase in unpaid labour. Domestic duties, including preparing food for home schooled children and looking after ill family members, have all fallen disproportionately on women.
It is important therefore that women’s voices are at the core of policy development and decision-making on how the UK – and the wider world – move beyond Covid. The participation of women and girls is both necessary and vital at every level and in every arena: whether central, devolved, and local government, or within the community, and indeed business. Without equal participation, pandemic responses will be less effective at meeting their needs, and lead to negative consequences in both the short and long-term.
Research published last summer suggested that around the world, women leaders had been more successful than their male counterparts at reducing Covid transmission in their countries. No surprise really, when you have inspirational individuals like Jacinda Ardern outlining her approach to dealing with the pandemic: “The worst case scenario is simply intolerable. It would represent the greatest loss of New Zealander’s lives in our country’s history. I will not take that chance. The government will do all it can to protect you. None of us can do this alone.”
A lesson for others maybe, at least in retrospect, that macho posturing doesn’t get you very far.
Baroness Debbie Wilcox of Newport is Shadow Equalities Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @TheLadyWilcox
Published 9th March 2021