pandemic-induced inequality in latin americaFrom 2002 to 2018, Colombia, “one of the most unequal countries in an extremely inequitable region,” cut its poverty rate in half. This reduction of poverty accompanied massive economic uplift throughout Latin America that saw wealth inequalities diminish rapidly. Before the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, economic and social inequality in Latin America had reached its “lowest point in recorded history.” Millions of families lifted themselves out of poverty, job opportunities soared and the quality of education increased. However, the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to destroy this new progress toward equality. Although the situation is dire, there are simple steps that anyone around the globe can take to help reverse the trend of pandemic-induced inequality in Latin America.

Economic Inequality

The World Bank predicts that due to the pandemic, the economies of Latin American countries will contract by 9.4%. This will cause 53 million Latin Americans to fall below the poverty line of less than $5.50 earned per day. With further reduction of jobs, COVID-19 will undoubtedly continue to destroy opportunities vital to the incomes of Latin America’s poor. This “setback of two decades” will further inequality between the rich and poor in Latin America, because it eliminates many jobs that poor daily wage workers depend on while hardly touching the incomes of the rich.

Francisco Ferreira, Professor of Inequality Studies at the London School of Economics, stated in an interview that “the inequality of COVID doesn’t just take place between the states of nations, but rather in neighborhoods of the same city.” Francisco commented further that “when this type of disaster arrives, poverty necessarily rises because the rich are better equipped financially to deal with it, and this causes inequality.”

Manual laborers in Latin America constitute 53% of the overall employment force. However, these individuals face especially high unemployment risks because of COVID-19. If they do manage to keep their jobs, these workers also face a higher risk of getting infected with the virus. Infection could lead to medical bills that can plunge people further into poverty and thus increase pandemic-induced inequality in Latin America.

Unequal wages also lead to worsened living conditions, like a lack of piped water and sanitation. In Brazil, as much as 50% of the population has no access to improved sanitation. For Bolivia, 30% of the population has no access to piped water. A lack of adequate sanitation facilities has the potential to start a vicious cycle of poverty and poor health conditions. This is especially concerning during a pandemic.

Gender Inequality

The pandemic also has the potential to severely reduce gender equality in Latin America. Women hold 55% of the most vulnerable informal jobs in Latin America. This means that when economies crash, women may be among the first to lose their financial independence. Unemployed women may be forced into care roles in communities, which may lead women to permanently leave the labor market. In the long term, this will greatly damage the economic capabilities of Latin American countries.

Overall, the pandemic stands to cause catastrophic long-term damage to the progress of equality in Latin America. By eliminating jobs and reducing the number of financially independent women in Latin America, the COVID-19 crisis has begun to retrench economic gains and further steepen earnings gaps between the rich and poor. However, those outside of the region can quickly and easily contribute to the reversal of pandemic-induced inequality in Latin America.

How to Help

Even though the pandemic stands to undermine decades of progress towards social and economic equality in Latin America, there are simple steps that every person reading this article can take to help reduce the impact of pandemic-induced inequality in Latin America.

  • Raise Awareness: By spreading awareness of pandemic-induced inequality in Latin America, anyone with a phone or social media account can draw attention to how decades of economic progress are being reversed. Taking this step towards combatting inequality is as simple as posting a link to this article. Making more people aware of how the coronavirus stands to eliminate jobs in Latin America makes policy and aid attention toward this problem becomes more likely.
  • Contact Congress: By contacting Congressional representatives and telling them to support foreign aid initiatives, anyone reading this article can help direct funding toward reducing pandemic-induced inequality in Latin America. Only by contacting senators and representatives can individuals demand increased foreign aid spending. This money would go toward creating economic stimulus, expanded shelters and better healthcare.
  • Donate to The Borgen Project: By donating to The Borgen Project, one can contribute to a cause working to increase foreign aid spending and by extension working to reduce pandemic-induced inequality. Donating to The Borgen Project means contributing to an organization that will continue to fight for U.S. legislation that will increase foreign aid spending and funding. This is vital to eliminating social and economic inequality in Latin America.

Overall, COVID-19 threatens to reverse decades of progress toward equality in Latin America by eliminating jobs that create social mobility. Nevertheless, anyone can quickly and easily help reverse the trend of pandemic-induced inequality emerging in Latin America. It’s as easy as spreading awareness, contacting their congressional representatives and donating to The Borgen Project.

– Nolan McMahon
Photo: Flickr

Microfinance on Gender Inequality
Many women around the world struggle to stay afloat and support their families. However, the effects of microfinance on gender inequality are significant in that a loan could help women start businesses to financially support themselves.

The Story of Nicolasa

At the age of 4, Nicolasa’s mother died, leaving her in the care of her father and older sister. Though Nicolasa’s father did his best to provide for his daughters, they both had to abandon their education in order to keep the family afloat. Nicolasa and her sister worked on the streets of San Antonio Palopó, Guatemala selling a variety of food items.

As Nicolasa grew up and married, she vowed that her child would not live the same life as hers. She wanted to be present for her children, yet the only place she had worked was far from home. To care for her children both physically and financially, Nicolasa decided she would start her own weaving business from home. With no capital or collateral, and no banks to borrow from in her small town, Nicolasa faced an immense obstacle.

Microfinance

Nicolasa’s problem is one that many women in Guatemala and other developing nations face every day. Guatemalan women want to become financially independent but often have nowhere to obtain even a small loan. Without the aid of a financial institution, these women have minimal opportunity to start a business, make small investments or simply support their families.

In 1976, Muhammad Yunus recognized the difficulties these women face and started the first modern run microfinancing bank. His goal was to lend small amounts to those in developing countries who did not have access to banks or had little collateral to support their endeavors. A microloan as small as $60 could now go to a woman opening a fruit stand, for example. Microloans may not cover large purchases, but just a small amount of money can go a long way for women in developing nations. A successful loan may help a woman jump-start her business and become financially independent. Therefore, the effect of microfinance on gender inequality could be very significant.

The Effect of Microfinance on Gender Inequality

Studies have proven microfinance to be a great tool for economic development and the promotion of gender equality. When women are financially independent, they often meet with greater decision making power within their households. Gender equality within households often results in women taking a more prominent stance on societal issues, which in turn, further promotes equality around the world.

Gender equality can also create a healthier and more robust global economy. A study that the McKinsey Global Institute conducted claims that if each country had equal opportunity for women, the global GDP would increase by $28 trillion, or 26% by 2025. From individual households to the global economy, gender equality results in a healthier balance of power across developing nations.

Criticism

Not everyone agrees with the impact that microfinance could have on gender equality. Many critics claim that a country’s cultural disapproval of women who work can minimize the positive effects of microfinance and prevent women from obtaining microloans. To combat these cultural norms and their negative effects on gender equality, many microfinance banks offer loans to women who are hoping to start a business from home. Nicolasa is one of these women.

Nicolasa Now

Nicolasa obtained a loan of $400 from the Foundation for International Community Assistance. She used the money to buy a loom, from which her success was significant enough to seek investment for a second loom. She currently weaves fabric and rents out her other loom to women from her village. Nicolasa is now proudly saving to send her daughter to college.

Nicolasa is one of many women in developing countries experiencing the positive effects of microfinance. She has provided herself with a sustainable income and is giving her daughter the wonderful gifts of higher education and financial support. If one small loan can change a woman’s life for the better, it is easy to see how microfinance is providing the same benefits to women across the world.

– Aiden Farr
Photo: Flickr

 

Indian women
The coronavirus is disproportionately affecting women across the globe, setting back progress for global gender equality. Confined inside homes, women are shouldering more of the housework and childcare than their husbands, fathers and brothers. In India, a country where women are expected to fulfill homemaking roles, the gender disparities in housework between men and women are only growing more apparent, especially as more women exit the workforce. For Indian women, domestic unpaid labor consumes hours of their days and limits them to a life of financial dependence on their partners or a life of poverty. In India, two-thirds of the population lives in poverty. With the unemployment rate being as high as 18% for Indian women, compared to 7% for men in India, it’s inevitable that women make up a large percentage of this impoverished population.

Women’s Unpaid Role in India

While men in India complete less than an hour of unpaid labor each day, Indian women spend six hours of their day on unpaid labor. In comparison, men around the world typically spend around two hours a day on unpaid labor, while women spend four and a half hours.

Although the time and energy women put into cleaning and caring for children and the elderly are essential roles in economies, housework isn’t widely recognized as a form of labor. As part of their domestic responsibilities, Indian women must also retrieve water from wells, a chore that spans several hours and multiple trips in one day. Often lacking the aid of technology, Indian women must cook, clean and do laundry by hand.

Because women in India bear the burden of housework, they can’t maintain stable jobs outside their homes. This requires them to rely on their partners. This is in part due to the traditional patriarchal system India upholds. From a young age, Indian women are trained to fulfill roles inside the home. As a result, Indian women are excluded from the workforce, and young girls are pulled from schools to work inside the home, jeopardizing their education.

This reality has only grown over the years, as more and more women have exited the workforce. Over the past decade, the percentage of women in the workforce has dropped from 34% in 2004 to 25% in 2018, compared to the nearly 80% of men who work.

Why Female Employment Is Declining

The decline in female employment directly impacts Indian women’s risk of falling into poverty, as they are unable to financially support themselves. But up to 64% of women said they had to be responsible for housework as there were no other family members who would perform these responsibilities.

With a population of over 1.3 billion people, it’s increasingly difficult to secure a position in the Indian job market, and work positions designated for women are slim. On top of this, upon completing the same job as men, women earn 34% less in wages than their male coworkers. For women who manage to secure a job, their time is stretched thin as they complete both paid work and unpaid work. As a result, they are less likely to spend time on education, cultural and leisure activities.

There are exorbitant economic losses, though, when women are not welcomed into the workforce. According to an Oxfam report on female unpaid labor, the value of global unpaid labor performed by women amounts to at least $10.8 trillion annually, or, as the study suggests, “three times the size of the world’s tech industry.” By putting into context the monetary value of unpaid labor in society, the true economic loss of excluding Indian women from the workforce is undeniable.

In a step toward creating a more inclusive workforce environment for Indian women, the country passed the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act in 2017. The amendment increased the number of weeks for paid maternity leave from 12 to 26 weeks. But this act hasn’t led to a significant change in female workforce employment. Instead, the act could continue to negatively impact female employment. Newly responsible for covering the cost of additional paid maternity leave, companies may be less inclined to hire female workers.

Combined with the recent growth in female education and declining fertility rates, India’s economy is primed for welcoming women into the workforce. But the country must strike a balance between paid and unpaid labor, a gendered expectation rooted in Indian tradition.

Closing the Gender Gap: One Indian Woman’s Petition

One Indian woman is especially determined to redefine gender roles in India. Juggling unpaid labor at home along with her involvement in a charity for reproductive justice, Subarna Ghosh realized she was shouldering the majority of housework —particularly since the pandemic forced her family to stay home.

In July 2020, Ghosh decided to draft a petition on Change.org and describe her experience as a working woman in India expected to perform the majority of the housework. “Unequal distribution of unpaid household work has rendered the harshest blow to women across India during this lockdown. Yet, women’s care work continues to be invisible and no one wants to address this gross imbalance,” she wrote.

Directing her efforts at India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Ghosh concluded her petition by calling on Modi to encourage Indian men to equally fulfill their share of housework. The petition has received over 75,000 signatures, mostly from women who stand in solidarity with Ghosh and relate to her experience.

Ghosh’s petition reflects the persistent struggle for female equality in India, as one woman’s experience echoes the experience of thousands. Only when women in India are given the same opportunities as men will they be able to earn their own financial independence.

Grace Mayer
Photo: Flickr

Gender Gap in STEM CareersDigital technology has become a core asset to everyday life. The mind-boggling contributions that it affords the world are the closest to magic that we can get. This rapid progress has required the world’s workforce to evolve as well. Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education is crucial to supply every member of the future workforce with the skills needed to occupy future careers. Despite this necessity, many countries –particularly those in Africa–experience a gender gap in STEM careers and education, leaving female workers far behind their male counterparts.

According to the United Nations World Population Prospects, over 60% of Africa’s population is currently under the age of 25. Because of this, countries in Africa have the incredible opportunity to elevate their economies by producing a workforce of skilled STEM professionals. Despite this opportunity, there is still a worrisome gender gap in STEM careers in Sub-Saharan Africa–in order to take full advantage of advances in technology, this must be rectified. Here are five things to know about this gender gap in STEM careers.

5 Things to Know About the Gender Gap in STEM Careers in Sub-Saharan Africa

  1. Inconsistent Access to Electricity: Only 22% of primary schools have reliable access to electricity. This instability in electrical infrastructure makes it difficult for teachers and students to utilize technology to facilitate learning. This is a missed opportunity to expose children, including young girls, to technology and to spark a potential interest in STEM careers.
  2. Lackluster Enrollment Rates: Many children are out of school. According to the 2018 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Global Education Monitoring Report, 21% of children in sub-Saharan Africa are not enrolled in primary school. The rate of unenrolled students surges up to 57% for upper secondary education.
  3. Gender Gap in Leadership Positions: There are few examples of women in leadership positions. In most African countries, leadership positions for universities and research facilities are occupied by men. Men employed in these positions of power influence the decision-making process and tend to enjoy a higher salary than their female counterparts. Women in science typically work primarily in academic and government institutions as lecturers and research assistants. Very few women become professors or are able to contribute to major studies.
  4. Household Burdens: There aren’t sufficient frameworks or policies in place to encourage and protect women in science. Women are less likely to enter and more likely to leave STEM fields than their male counterparts. In many African societies, women shoulder the majority of the household burdens. They don’t receive the support they need to simultaneously juggle their academic ambitions and care for their families. Many women find it difficult to find adequate childcare. Additionally, if a woman decides to take a break to start a family, she may find it difficult to resume her career because of a lack of re-entry programs.
  5. Weak Support Systems: There are a lack of female mentors. In a challenging career path dominated primarily by men, it’s necessary for women to have a support system. Mentorship helps provide the potential to establish networks and grow professionally. The absence of this support system is a big deterrent for women who may find themselves feeling isolated or diminished in their field.

A country’s ability to fight disease, protect its environment and produce necessary products for its citizens is largely dependent on its citizens’ technological prowess and skill. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa have a wonderful opportunity to tap into their youth and produce a workforce of highly skilled professionals. Women’s participation in sciences and technologies will be a key driver in this development. There are many organizations taking a stance to address the gender gap. The African Ministers of Education adopted the Gender Equality Strategy for CESA 16-25, a detailed strategy and plan to bridge the gender gap. The future is looking brighter with each passing day. If African governments continue to support ambitious young women, the gender gap in STEM careers in sub-Saharan Africa will surely begin to close.

Jasmine Daniel
Photo: Flickr

Flaviana Matata FoundationInternational fashion model Flaviana Matata survived malaria and studied electrical engineering in college. In 2007, Matata was the first-ever Tanzanian woman to compete in the Miss Universe pageant. In 2016, after learning that house paint is often passed off and sold as nail polish in Tanzania, she founded Lavy Products, a nontoxic nail polish company whose products appear online and in stores and salons across Tanzania. As she breaks records and embarks upon entrepreneurial endeavors, Matata has made philanthropy a priority, founding the Flaviana Matata Foundation in 2011.

Matata’s foundation is a nongovernmental organization that supports women’s education in Tanzania. The foundation also helps women establish their own businesses and find employment opportunities.

Education in Tanzania

In Tanzania, less than 56% of children move onto secondary school after completing their primary school education. While the Tanzanian government abolished school fees for primary and secondary school education in 2015, costs such as transportation, lunch and exams still make it three times less likely that students from poor families will attend primary school when compared with children from wealthy families. As of 2016, the poverty rate in Tanzania is estimated to be 26.8%, meaning that more than 13 million Tanzanians live in poverty.

“A lot of kids do very well in school but have to quit or stop because they can’t afford school fees, uniforms or even books—the little things we take for granted,” Matata said in an interview for the Diamond Empowerment Fund, which has helped sponsor many of the Flaviana Matata Foundation’s initiatives.

The Foundation’s Approach to the Gender Gap

Girls are less likely than boys to receive a secondary-level education in Tanzania. The literacy rate for adult women in Tanzania was approximately 67% in 2009. Laws banning child marriage and fee-free education at the secondary level have been important steps toward increasing access to education in Tanzania, but more progress still needs to be made.

The Flaviana Matata Foundation aims to achieve this progress and make education in Tanzania more accessible for women. To date, the Flaviana Matata Foundation has helped over 5,000 students in Tanzania, providing school supplies, improving school infrastructure, adding desks and giving toiletry boxes for girls to use while on their menstrual cycles.

Ongoing Activism

The foundation has prioritized various projects since 2011. The Clean and Safe Water Project, completed in 2018, provides 319 students and teachers with a supply of clean water. The Stationery Back to School Project, completed in early 2020, equipped 304 students with stationery kits to last the academic year. The foundation’s ongoing project, Education Sponsorship for Young Girls, currently sponsors 25 girls from secondary school to college or university age with full scholarships and vocational and educational training.

Matata, whose Instagram following is 1.5 million as of July 2020, regularly shares information about Lavy Products and the Flaviana Matata Foundation online. Her work proves that social media can be used to make a positive impact and combat education inequality. As 24 million girls in sub-Saharan Africa remain unable to afford an education, the Flaviana Matata Foundation’s initiatives continue to play a crucial role in bridging education gaps.

Zoe Engels
Photo: Pixabay

Women’s Access to Healthcare in Iraq
Iraq, a nation that war and devastation have plagued, has a healthcare system in a state of crisis. Doctors are fleeing the country and drugs are running low. Of a nearly $107 billion budget in 2018, only about 2% went to Iraq’s health ministry. As a result, healthcare quality is very poor, and women’s access to healthcare in Iraq is particularly limited. Many doctors attempt to purchase supplies and technology from private manufacturers, but laws require that the government provide all medical supplies.

Violence Against Women

About 96% of Iraqi citizens do not have health insurance, but 85% of women over the age of 15 are unemployed and cannot afford to pay out of pocket. Iraq’s long history with misogyny, honor killings and religious ideas promoting the use of violence against women exacerbates the situation for Iraqi women, 37% of whom will experience violence from a partner or acquaintance.

Women in Iraq have little to no access to female-centered health such as OB-GYNs, counseling and crisis centers, which are generally secret or hidden. WHO has called the issue of violence against women a “global health issue of epidemic proportions,” and has created effective measures so that doctors can become more aware of abuses. In Iraq, where women are unlikely to see doctors sensitive to women’s issues, there is no guarantee of receiving assistance.

Access to Education

Another issue affecting women’s health is a lack of female doctors due to a very low rate of education among girls in Iraq. Unfortunately, little data is available to measure the number of girls who attend in school in Iraq — which is itself proof of the lack of attention to girls’ education. As of 2010, according to the last published report about female education in Iraq, only 44% of girls were enrolled in school. The report also revealed that 75% of girls dropped out before the end of primary school, and only 25% of girls who stayed in primary school made it to intermediate school.

Women’s lack of access to education has proven to be a direct link to child marriage and the exploitation of young women. About 33% of girls who have to marry have no education, and 13% only have a primary school education. Girls who are educated are more likely to recognize the signs of abuse, which gives them a chance to escape, pursue careers and experience lower risks of poverty.

US Efforts to Help

The Girls Lead Act (S.2766) aims to make education more accessible for girls in nations like Iraq. This bill will strengthen young girls’ involvement and participation in education, specifically in math, science and politics. A lack of women in leadership roles is a major factor behind misogyny and sexism in developing nations, as well as in women’s health. According to the bill, “Despite comprising over 50 percent of the world’s population, women are underrepresented at all levels of public sector decision making. At the current rate of progress, it will take over 100 years to achieve gender parity in political participation.”

Writing to leaders in support of the Girls Lead Act, participating in initiatives to ban child marriage and raising awareness of gender-based violence are key ways to increase women’s access to healthcare in Iraq. These efforts may be the greatest chance that Iraqi girls have at living a prosperous life.

Raven Heyne
Photo: Flickr

Women's Rights in Yemen Women in Yemen are enduring one of the worst humanitarian crises in history. After a 2011 Arab Spring uprising forced longtime dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh out of office, deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi took power and enlivened Yemenis with hope for change. In contrast to these expectations, however, civil unrest and development setbacks like corruption crippled Hadi’s government. The Houthi movement, a militant Shiite group, capitalized on this political disarray in 2015 and seized huge territories throughout the country, including the capital in Sana’a. Soon after, a coalition of U.S.-backed, Sunni-majority countries deployed troops to eradicate this Shia influence in Yemen. A brutal war followed that has expelled Hadi from the country, killed thousands and deepened extreme poverty and food insecurity for millions. The conflict has subjected women, who are already victims of deeply rooted prejudice, to increasingly unjust gender roles and violence. Fortunately, numerous organizations and legislation are working to advance women’s rights in Yemen.

Gender Inequality in Yemen

Patriarchal norms have long prevailed in Yemen. For 13 years, the Global Gender Gap Index has identified women’s rights in Yemen as the worst in the world. As the fighting continues, widespread instability is magnifying the country’s vast gender inequality.

Educational and economic opportunities for Yemeni women are severely limited. According to the World Economic Forum, only 35% of women are literate compared with 73% of men. While a majority of women receive primary education, only 40% continue on to secondary schooling. Such educational gender disparity, coupled with misogyny in the job market and burdensome responsibilities at home, contributes to women’s shockingly low labor force participation rate of 6.3%.

Beyond economic injustice, Yemeni women face a bleak social landscape. Tasked with managing the domestic sphere, women strain to procure even basic necessities such as food. This is especially true recently, as the civil conflict has subverted conventional supply lines. The concept of males as female guardians further jeopardizes women’s safety in Yemen, as a woman is considered safer when escorted by a male. With working husbands and pressing needs at home, however, women are forced to venture out unaccompanied. Without effective laws to defend them, women are left vulnerable to sexual assault and physical violence.

Years of conflict have eroded the institutions that once might have protected these women. The urgency of national stability has also relegated women’s security to a position of low priority. Even in previous times of peace, however, women had little means to voice grievances and even less power to enact change. Today, Yemeni women’s political participation remains low, with women making up a paltry 0.3% of parliament.

Amid the global push for gender equality, traditionalist insecurities drive men to violent retaliation against societal change, exacerbating the challenges women already face. But the outlook is not entirely hopeless. Here are four forces that are working to advance women’s rights in Yemen.

4 Forces Advancing Women’s Rights in Yemen

  1. Yemeni Women’s Pact for Peace and Security. Formed in 2015 after collaboration with U.N. Women, the pact is an association of Yemeni women aimed at ending the country’s protracted civil war. Beyond its aspirations for peace, the group has spearheaded women’s involvement in civic activism, paving the way for long-term political empowerment.
  2. Yemeni Women’s Technical Advisory Group (TAG). Also working to redress women’s exclusion from politics, the TAG comprises women from various areas of vocational expertise and serves as an advisory body. In addition to conferring on policy, TAG members participate in various peace talks. One such conference was the 2018 Stockholm consultation, in which the warring parties arranged to remove troops from Hudaydah, where fighting threatened to close off a crucial port to the Yemeni population. Though both sides have yet to observe this consensus, the Stockholm agreement set a precedent of women’s involvement in the civil negotiation of a violent, divisive conflict.
  3. Keeping Girls in School Act. Already passed in the House of Representatives, the Keeping Girls in School Act would combat global gender disparities in education. Under this act, USAID would execute a procedure to circumvent common obstacles to girls’ education, such as child marriage and patriarchal norms, and to boost female enrollment in secondary schooling. If passed, this act would abate Yemen’s severe educational inequality and equip adolescent girls with the knowledge and skills for future occupational success. Not only would the Keeping Girls in School Act enhance women’s rights in Yemen; according to Congressional findings, increasing girls’ education sparks development and economic progress. Thus, the act is both a form of social reform and a strategic necessity.
  4. Girls’ Leadership, Engagement, Agency, and Development (LEAD) Act. Referred to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in late 2019, the Girls LEAD Act has the potential to advance adolescent girls’ political involvement and civic engagement. The bill provides for USAID’s implementation of a comprehensive plan to educate and empower girls in developing nations. The Girls LEAD Act, if passed, would extend unparalleled political opportunity to Yemeni girls, helping to dismantle restrictive gender norms and molding once-disenfranchised women into agents of meaningful change.

As the civil war rages on, women’s conditions in Yemen may appear an irremediable predicament. Yet determined organizations, dynamic legislation and a country of women eager to escape society’s shackles are working to advance women’s rights in Yemen and make gender equality a reality.

– Rosalind Coats
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Women and Pandemics
Most healthcare workers on the front lines are female, but there is another pandemic that plagues women during times of health crises: gender inequality. Epidemics and pandemics further gender inequality as women struggle socioeconomically and in healthcare. Gender equality can combat world poverty, but diseases can slow societal advancement for women.

Society and the Economy

Globally, 740 million women work low-paid and informal jobs, which they are quick to lose during pandemics and epidemics. The livelihoods of women are at risk with an increase in job insecurity and job loss during times of crisis. During the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, closed borders caused women to face much higher unemployment rates than men since 85% of cross-border traders are women.

In the developing world, 70% of women work informal jobs, but women’s unpaid labor boosts global economies and should not be ignored. According to the United Nations Foundation, “women on average do three times more unpaid care work than men.” Women who work to care for their families bring in $1.5 trillion to the world GDP. Jobs without pay create even more inequality as women stay at home, complete domestic tasks and care for the sick. The burden of caring for the ill in the family puts women at a greater risk of falling ill. More West African women were affected by Ebola because they worked in hospitals or aided the sick at home.

A shelter-in-place due to pandemics can result in girls dropping out of school and puts women at a higher risk for violence. As seen from the Ebola outbreak, closures of schools put young girls at high risk for pregnancy and child marriage. During country-wide lockdowns in 2020, women have to remain with their abusers. Domestic violence against women tripled in China and increased by 30% in France. Even more shocking, some use the exposure of COVID-19 as a means of suppression against women.

Healthcare

Although 70% of health workers are women, men make most of the decisions in the healthcare sector. Only 27% of women are executives in world healthcare. This gender segregation in healthcare leaves women in lower roles and creates a bias towards men. Personal protective equipment uses male sizes and thus does not protect female workers as effectively. In Spain, 5,265 out of 7,329 health workers infected by COVID-19 were women. Data collection may ignore gender in some studies, which makes it harder to understand the current trends and how they affect women.

While most healthcare resources are focused on fighting pandemics, women’s health may be overlooked. More women in Sierra Leone died from obstetric complications than from Ebola. COVID-19 will likely cause 18 million women to not be able to acquire contraceptives in Central and South America. Providing fewer health services during pandemics has detrimental effects on women’s health.

Operation 50/50

Pandemics affect both men and women, but 80% of the WHO Emergency Committee on COVID-19 are men. In order to provide women with more representation during the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations has created the campaign Operation 50/50. The campaign aims to accomplish five goals: recruiting more women for leadership roles, valuing women’s unpaid care work, providing better conditions for health care workers, utilizing gender attentive data and funding NGOs for women. Around the world, women have a high risk of exposure to disease, whether that be in the healthcare field or staying at home with the sick. Elimination of gender inequality in healthcare will increase safety for women during global pandemics.

Hannah Nelson
Photo: Pixabay

Treating Female Genital MutilationWith female genital mutilation (FGM) victimizing more than 200 million women and girls worldwide, organizations across the globe are combatting and treating the practice through surgery, awareness, education and mental health treatment. FGM – a non-medical procedure that involves cutting, sewing or removing parts of a woman’s genitalia – creates serious health issues for women who undergo the procedure including menstrual/urination/vaginal problems, complications with sex and childbirth, mental health issues, HIV infection and in serious cases, death.

Why Practice FGM in the First Place?

FGM is a medical issue, but it is also a cultural battle. FGM’s roots are steeped in patriarchal tradition and gender inequality positioning it as a purely traditional practice with no health benefits or reasoning. Practiced mostly in Africa, the procedure also exists in the Middle East, Asia and several South American ethnic groups. Documentations have also shown that some practice it in the U.S., Australia and Europe.

As a global public health crisis, FGM is highly difficult to eradicate. Females also often undergo the practice without consent. Additionally, if females choose to remove themselves from the practice, they may experience more risk as their community may ostracize them or they may not be able to marry.

FGM is also a direct result of poverty. In largely impoverished and uneducated societies, violence against women is highly prevalent. A United Nations report from 2015 stated that “Half of countries in developing regions report a lifetime prevalence of intimate partner physical and/or sexual violence of at least 30 percent” and cited Africa as one of the most susceptible regions for this violence. Developing regions in Africa, Asia and Oceania also are more accepting of wife-beating and domestic violence according to the report. With women deliberately unable to participate in the economy and household decision-making, they often meet with the dominant group’s traditions, including FGM.

While FGM is a largely immovable force in many civilizations around the world, measures of education/advocacy, surgical reconstruction and mental health counseling are helping the practice’s victims.

The On-site Approach: FORWARD

FORWARD (Foundation for Women’s Health Research and Development) is an African women-led organization that emerged in 1983. It works to end all types of violence against women and girls. FORWARD works on-site in African communities with girls and women to support, speak with and educate them on gender-based violence and women’s issues. In this way, FORWARD utilizes a bottom-up approach to ending FGM. By mobilizing students at a local level, communities can hopefully eradicate the practice due to enough people opposing it.

In just the last five years, FORWARD has educated 36,000 U.K. students “about their body and rights” and has “mobilized” 24,393 African “school girls and boys.” FORWARD is also unique in its quest to educate not only young girls but also young boys, encouraging them to defend the women in their lives and progress their rights.

The Surgical Approach

While one organization does not solely specialize in surgical and counseling solutions to FGM, various medical treatments for survivors are in existence around the world. The most experimental and ambitious procedure is clitoral reconstruction surgery. France’s health care system is notable in its wide-scale endeavors to create a successful surgical procedure for FGM survivors. Since 2004, the country has allowed women to undergo surgery for free.

However, the surgery is still highly complicated and is by no means a widely successful operation. Since the initial process of FGM is so variable (four main types of cutting exist within the practice), the surgical reconstruction results in similarly variable effects.

One of the largest studies and testings of clitoral/vaginal reconstruction surgery took place in France. More than 2,900 women who survived either Type II or Type III FGM received the operation. While “almost all of the women [who returned for post-op assessment] reported improvements with pain,” the effects were noticeably diverse. Some experienced clitoral pleasure while others experienced decreased pleasure. Some experienced minor complications following the surgery and some returned to almost completely normal genitalia.

Though reconstructive surgery is still potentially dangerous and may not be the best option for many women, endeavors to create a solidified and routine procedure prove promising.

The Education and Rehabilitation Approach: Desert Flower Foundation

The Desert Flower Foundation uses education to solve FGM. Its mission statement reads, “Education is the most powerful weapon in the fight against female genital mutilation.” Just as the most impoverished countries in the world are also the most dangerous, the least educated also hold the highest rates of FGM. 

The Desert Flower Foundation has distributed 10,062 “education boxes” to children in various African nations, primarily in Sierra Leone. Complete with workbooks, pencils, rulers and backpacks, Desert Flower furthers women’s education in order to make them more aware of their intersectional roles in health and gendered societies as well as help them question the archaic practice.

In addition to education boxes, Desert Flower is treating female genital mutilation through various campaigns and projects that include opening a Desert Flower School in Sierra Leone and creating a sponsorship program called Save a Little Desert Flower. The organization has also opened various Desert Flower centers in major European cities offering FGM reconstructive surgery and support groups for survivors. Mental health is also a large focus at these centers since women who have undergone FGM can experience depression, PTSD, anxiety and overarching struggles with relationships and self-worth.

The Law and Research Approach: 28 Too Many

28 Too Many emerged in 2010 and is an advocacy and research organization based out of the U.K. The 28 African countries heavily practicing FGM inspired the charity’s name and the organization hopes to stop the FGM practice completely. Through research and law expertise, 28 Too Many uses this knowledge to implement more effective legislation, policy and education systems in these countries.

In 2019, 28 Too Many published individualized reports of 29 countries, complete with extensive research on FGM. It found that a reported 22 out of the main 28 FGM countries have legislation in place banning the practice – but the countries rarely enforce these laws.

28 Too Many is looking to perform more research into how legislation is failing women in FGM countries. It is also actively working towards creating new legislation and education programs in these areas in order to protect women and girls in each country.

The Future

FGM is still a complicated and daunting issue, but advocates all around the world are actively devoted to ending the practice for good. Any of the organizations that this article lists are performing valuable work in treating female genital mutilation. Through their continued work, hopefully, the practice of FGM will reduce and all women and girls will receive the treatment they need.

– Grace Ganz
Photo: Flickr

Women in ZimbabweThe magnitude of gender inequality in various African countries is still an ongoing concern. The Republic of Zimbabwe is a promising example of progress. The Zimbabweans’ determination to end the continued inequality in their country encourages many and provides hope for women in Zimbabwe.

5 Encouraging Signs for Women in Zimbabwe

  1. Changes in the Zimbabwean Constitution to implement multiple laws on gender equality. After gaining independence from Britain in 1980, the newly formed Republic of Zimbabwe drafted its first constitution. When the constitution began to see disadvantages toward women, it caused not only local but global disapproval. These changes, along with public activism in recent years, show encouraging signs that Zimbabwe is getting closer to gender safety. Women in Zimbabwe became legally protected in having equal status and rights as men 33 years after the original constitution. Zimbabwe’s Bill of Rights states that all “laws, customs, traditions and practices that infringe the rights of women conferred by this constitution are void to the extent of infringement.” In 2015 the government went on to initiate an institutional framework to continue working on women’s rights and gender equality. The Ministry of Women Affairs and Community Development carry out this role. However, steps taken by the nation are still not near full efficiency.
  2. Despite the late start, a rise of employment for Zimbabwean women shows great success in achieving equal status to men. Zimbabwe ranks number seven out of the 195 countries worldwide in the number of women above the age of 15 holding jobs. In this ranking, Zimbabwe even surpasses first world countries including the United States, France and Canada. Data collected on March 1, 2020, by the International Labor Organization shows women make up 78% of Zimbabwe’s working population. Although this high ratio does leave concern for possible ramifications, the benefits coming from the largely female workforce are showing promising signs of self-sustainment.
  3. The U.S. and Canada have teamed up with local Zimbabwean groups to become a part of their positive movements. The Embassy of Canada to Zimbabwe promotes Zimbabwe’s projects challenging gender inequality. Canada’s main mission is encouraging male allies to join the women’s rights movement. Canadian Ambassador to Zimbabwe René Cremonese shares the important role men play in challenging social norms by standing in solidarity with women. The U.S. Embassy in Zimbabwe participates in public affairs forums with citizens to provide direction on how the U.S. could support women advocates. For example, in one forum, embassy employees and officials heard from women in Zimbabwe who work in education, health, government, civil society and private sectors about the daily obstacles they face from sexism. These women are setting the bar for women’s involvement in Zimbabwe’s society. The movement is considered to be important to advance U.S. foreign policy.
  4. There are continuous breakthroughs for women activists thanks to the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe (WCoZ), a network of organizations and activists. Women, both independent and members, representing different rights organizations go into specific fields including education, peace-building, constitutional rights and media to improve all sectors of life for women and girls in Zimbabwe. The WCoZ, formed by women in Zimbabwe themselves, has been influential since the congressional reform in 1999. In the 2013 redraft, WCoZ’s work helped achieve the 75% of edits on gender provisions. This victory ensures women’s rights will be protected by the country’s highest level of the law. The WCoZ continuously commits to pressure local governments when gender laws are ignored. The coalition also supports campaigns led by women who lack funding for election compared to their male opponents. Platforms run by the WCoZ that respond to various gender issues continue to be a safe haven for local women to seek support.
  5. Women in politics are catching on. The minority of women who were able to hold government positions during the first constitutional redraft in 1999-2000 did not successfully pass needed gender provisions. Women who were active in advocacy and lobbying for women’s rights thought it best to form coalitions with movements focused on broader civil society movements. This was not supported by voters due to the women’s movement involvement with government-led committees, which were not trusted at the time. Women activists had to wait nearly 10 years before regaining the opportunity for legal gender protection. This time, during the 2009-2013 redraft, they singularly promoted women’s rights and concerns so that no alliances could create political divides among voters. Women who hold seats in Zimbabwe’s Parliament today continue this work. The constitutional revision from 2013 that sets aside parliamentary seats for women is due to expire in 2023. Zimbabwean advocates continue to work on solutions to create new provisions on how to include young women in Parliament since many lack resources to even get elected.

Zimbabwe is only one example of an African country that has made improvements within the last few decades and continues to do so successfully. The encouraging progress of equality for girls and women in Zimbabwe still has issues that need to be overcome. Even the successes of constitutional change, employment, international aid, women’s groups and political adaptations are laced with pitfalls. Yet, they signify valuable change. Global attention on the struggles in Africa is key to promoting change. Global attention also brings light to the important changes that have already been made.

Grace Elise Van Valkenburg
Photo: Flickr