March ushers in Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day — the second that the world will honor during a pandemic. Throughout history, women have always been on the frontlines — as leaders, medical experts, caregivers, engineers, as journalists — this past year was no different.
I want to draw particular attention to the women who have been on the frontlines of healthcare as well as in research laboratories developing vaccines and treatments. They are the women at the forefront of scientific endeavors that are advancing our knowledge about this virus. Let’s get familiar with their names: Özlem, Kizzmekia, and Anika.
While we celebrate these brilliant women, we also must face the reality that this pandemic and its long-term effects will disproportionately impact women and girls. After a year of lockdowns, economic downturns, and school closures, the data are emerging — and the setbacks faced by women and girls are staggering.
Women bear the greatest burden
Across all aspects of life—from health, to education, to employment, the pandemic is taking a heavy toll on women.
Women comprise 70% of the global healthcare workforce — ranging from disease specialists to community healthcare workers. A year into this crisis and healthcare workers are facing high levels of burnout and experts predict an oncoming wave of mental health and post-traumatic stress disorders resulting from witnessing so much loss. On a daily level, women healthcare workers continue to adjust to an industry where personal protective equipment is designed for men and therefore can place women at greater risk of exposure.
In the US, one in three jobs held by women is considered essential. School closures and caregiving for children or aging family members has strained parents and caregivers around the world. However, women are bearing a greater share of childcare responsibilities and potentially losing or sacrificing careers as a result.
Women are facing significant job loss compared to men. By some estimates, women have lost decades of economic gains in just a few months. In December 2020, the U.S. reported job losses at 140,000 — every one of them by women.
Globally, 132 million girls are not in school. In some cases, girls are kept at home to do chores while other families simply can’t afford school fees and supplies. School closures in communities around the world further threaten girls’ education as families face additional economic strain.
The West Africa Ebola outbreak in 2014–2016 proved just how dangerous additional strains on the healthcare system can be for women and girls. As healthcare was diverted to focus on the outbreak, reproductive health and other basic services were disrupted. Maternal mortality in the region increased by 75% during the outbreak.
Disasters and crises increase the risk for violence against women and girls. Intimate partner or domestic violence is a particular risk under lockdown measures. In addition, millions of girls are at risk for early or forced marriage, particularly as families face economic hardship.
We are the catalysts of change
As Melinda Gates recently shared with Time magazine, this pandemic has cracked open our policies and systems and exposed how many people are disadvantaged by our existing systems — but we have the tremendous opportunity to rebuild with gender equality and racial justice embedded in the way we all move forward.
When we give, we vote with our resources about the issues most important to us, our communities, and the world. When you couple giving with your voice, you are a catalyst for change.
From communities to countries, we will need new policies, research on how women and girls are impacted, and accelerated programs that create educational and economic opportunities. The Gates Philanthropy Partners Empowerment & Opportunity Fund supports Gates Foundation investments in issues impacting women and girls. Our portfolio of grants includes supports projects ranging from maternal health to women’s leadership in low income countries.
We cannot be complacent and simply hope that outcomes for women and girls improve when the pandemic begins to wind down. The evidence is clear that the world is already atrisk of backsliding on decades of progress toward gender equality. Now is time for action. We know that when we invest in women and girls communities and countries thrive. With an inclusive and intentional response to this devastating pandemic, there is an opportunity to rebuild a more equitable world for everyone.
Let’s make history for women everywhere.