Putting women and girls at the centre of the Covid-19 response is crucial to rebuilding, says Gates Foundation – msnNOW


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Maverick Citizen had a Q&A with Matshidiso Masire, the foundation’s representative for southern Africa, to discuss women’s empowerment in the region, while she was attending the forum.

Is childcare the main driver for the economic disempowerment of women in South Africa? 

Caregiving is one of the biggest barriers, along with gender-based violence. In South Africa, many of the challenges that women face are deeply rooted in patriarchal norms and practices. Certainly, a lack of childcare support limits the ability of women to seek and find income-generating activities. 

The pandemic has exposed the fact that women do caregiving work every single day. Across the world, women took on a larger share of childcare due to lockdowns, where schools were shut for long periods. If we look at the statistics, those with a child under six reported spending nine or more hours on childcare per day before the pandemic. After the pandemic, this number has risen to an average of seven extra hours per week. 

Do education and qualification play a role in women’s economic participation, based on the fact that men generally are more educated and as a result would have access to better economic opportunities?

According to UN Women, the education, upskilling and re-skilling over the life course – especially to keep pace with rapid technological and digital transformations affecting jobs – is critical for women’s and girl’s health and wellbeing and for their income-generation opportunities and participation in the formal labour market.

The challenge we are facing is not only to access education and better economic opportunities, but to ensure women are heard, their opinions and contributions valued and accepted, so they are able to reap the full benefits of these opportunities. To get economies back up and running again, it will be essential to bring women back into the workforce. Indeed, women can have an outsized impact on the recovery. In Niger, for instance, GDP would be more than 25% higher if gender inequality was reduced.

The education decisions made today will have an impact on a generation of students, and so we are thinking in terms of near-term challenges and opportunities to strengthen our education systems for the future. Because schools are going to be closing on and off, we need to ensure that infrastructure for virtual learning becomes a reality for all young people, especially girls, in South Africa. 

While South Africa is in many ways a progressive country, particularly in relation to other African countries, we are still quite conservative. What (if any) role do you think culture and tradition play in women’s economic independence?

Economic independence is heavily influenced by traditional gender roles and norms. Conventionally, women are expected to be responsible for the care and maintenance of the household and all responsibilities associated with it. The unpaid care work gap and the lack of acknowledgement of it as “work” exists across the world, though it is more pronounced in some countries, including in South Africa. So, when we talk about economic independence, there is a need to take into account multiple variables, restrictions and norms which are at play – culture and tradition often being some of the major variables in deciding a woman’s “work” life. It is also great to see countries committing to gender equality. South Africa, for instance, is co-leading the Economic Justice and Rights Action Coalition, building on the growing trade network in Africa, to push for prioritisation of women-owned businesses in procurement. Moves like this are important steps in our efforts for equality, but we must not become complacent – there is still much more work to be done.

What would be the advantages of getting more women into the workforce? Is it solely about increased GDP?  

Workplace equality is central to realising women’s rights. This includes their ability to participate equally in existing markets; their access to and control over productive resources, access to decent work, control over their own time, lives and bodies; and increased voice, agency and meaningful participation in economic decision-making at all levels, from the household to international institutions.

Research by the Centre for Creative Leadership highlights that women in the workplace and gender diversity are key for organisations’ bottom lines. It highlighted how Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women on boards financially outperform companies with the lowest representation of women on boards. When you have women in positions of power, they use their role to push forward policies and resources that make a difference for women. 

Do the employment stats in the report also take into account informal work like hawking and other forms of informal trade work women do as this often goes overlooked? 

The importance of the informal sector can never be understated. Women’s increased participation in informal work has meant that the pandemic has affected this group particularly hard. The data collected focused on mothers who listed “unpaid care” as the reason for being outside the labour force – therefore this will include those outside of any formal or informal work.  

At the heart of women’s disempowerment is patriarchal conditioning. What do you think it will take to shift from this system and do you think the world is ready to do that? 

We have made immense progress in the past few years, but we need to “shift the system”, and this cannot just be at the global or national level. For women to be empowered, we must reach the deepest parts of our countries and change mindsets that perpetuate inequality. I am not saying this can happen tomorrow, but that should be the end goal. 

The World Health Organization’s Commission on Social Determinants of Health provides some recommendations and actions that can be implemented even outside of health. These include challenging gender stereotypes and adopting multilevel strategies to change the norms and practices that directly harm women’s health. A very important recommendation, which also speaks to platforms like the Gender Equality Forum, underscores the importance of supporting women’s organisations that are critical to ensuring women have voice and agency. At the foundation making these changes has been our endeavor. As part of this we have made a new commitment in three areas worth $2.1-billion over the next five years. This includes $650-million to economic empowerment (economic justice and rights) to expand our work on women’s economic empowerment, in sub-themes such as women’s empowerment collectives, reducing barriers to decent work, the care economy, and women’s financial inclusion.  

Although it is a global crisis, what opportunities do you think Covid-19 presents to address issues of gender inequality?

We have not had a moment like this for gender equality in a quarter-century, and it comes at an important time, as women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. 

Covid-19 revealed the extent of gender inequities that continue to exist in the world and has also unleashed a parallel pandemic – gender-based violence. It has brought to the fore the urgency with which these issues must be addressed, and showcased how a crisis should not exacerbate the existing crises of gender equality. 

Putting women and girls at the centre of the Covid-19 response is crucial to rebuilding from the crisis and creating more productive, inclusive economies. The Generation Equality Forum is an opportunity for leaders around the world to commit, act  and be held accountable. It is not just the right thing to do, it will also be critical to the world’s economic recovery from this pandemic.   

We must make the case for placing gender equality at the centre of global economic response plans; gender equality is essential to any “build back better” agenda, increasing resilience, equality and sustainability for the long term.  

In South Africa, the issue of inequality is along racial lines, so black women tend to be bottom of the totem pole. How do you think this can be changed?

The pandemic has further highlighted inequalities across a number of groups, including across racial lines. The complexities of gender inequality are vast and driven by many factors, including race. When you add the unfair impact of Covid-19 on ethnic minorities, this creates a situation where the need for change is more urgent than ever. We will not have equality until all women have equal access to the same services and, most importantly, that they have control over their own bodies and futures.

Oxfam SA released a similar report in 2020 showing how women are deliberately locked out of the economy, and advocated for a ‘feminist economy’ that would be more inclusive. What do you think such an economy would look like?

This is why the Generation Equality Forum is so important – it brings together women, girls, governments, civil society organisations, the private sector, donors and funders. Only together can we shape and commit to the future we want for women and girls. We know that economies need to be more gender-responsive and help ensure women’s financial inclusion – for the betterment of economies and communities. DM/MC

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