Felicity Hawksley, journalist

It is already clear that there will be long-lasting impacts from Covid-19. Around 196 economies so far have rolled out relief packages to provide aid to their citizens, and it seems likely that they will have to do much more for much longer.

But it is also clear that the impacts of coronavirus are not being felt equally, and that the targeting of aid and assistance is failing to address this fact.

Women shoulder burden – again

Women are bearing the brunt of the pandemic. Although they make up only 39% of the global workforce, they have shouldered 54% of the job losses. They make up 70% of the world’s healthcare workforce, and are many times more likely to be an unpaid carer for children or the elderly. For minority women and women with a disability, the picture is even grimmer.

In other areas, too, women are suffering disproportionately. Domestic and intimate partner violence against women has surged, with many regions showing a reporting increase of more than 25%.

‘When women lose, everyone loses, and those governments that put gender at the heart of their economic decision-making will reap the benefits’

Even though the need for a speedy and continuing response to the pandemic is pressing, governments need to take the time to tailor economic recovery packages to ‘build back equal’ – if not ‘better’, according to ACCA public policy expert Rachel Bleetman.

‘Statistics show that it makes little sense to ignore the facts on this score,’ she says. ‘Pre-Covid data from the World Economic Forum suggest that if the labour force participation rate of women were equal to the labour force participation rate of men, France would have an economy 17% larger, Japan 14% and the US 8.7%. When women lose, everyone loses, and those governments that put gender at the heart of their economic decision-making will reap the benefits.’

Employment security ignored

Some governments have acknowledged the difference in impact, but most responses so far have targeted women with cash assistance and increased funding for social protection. Few policies have addressed women’s employment security or unpaid care roles – such as home schooling.

Bleetman says the response requires adequate and targeted public investment, with spending reprioritised towards addressing gender inequality. ‘Ministries of finance have a key role to play here: they can set the budgets, modify spending rules and, importantly, mainstream gender into the budget cycle,’ she says. ‘It is for this reason that the UN is advocating gender-responsive budgeting as both a policy commitment and a technical process.’

What is GRB?

It is perhaps best to first say what gender-responsive budgeting (GRB) isn’t. GRB is not budgeting specifically for women. It is, says the UN, budgeting that assesses the implication for women and men of ‘any planned action, including legislation, policies, and programmes in all areas, and at all levels’. It is budgeting that recognises the cold, hard fact that the global economy does not produce gender-equal, or even gender-neutral, outcomes.

All UN member states have signed up to the SDGs, the fifth of which is a commitment to gender equality, but most have a way to go to ensure women don’t end up worse off

So how can governments regear their budget towards equality? Bleetman says that there are four concrete steps to take.

First, they should define the policy objectives using qualitative and quantitative sex-disaggregated data.  ‘This part of the process involves asking the right questions in a bid to understand the crisis through a gendered lens,’ says Bleetman. ‘What are the unemployment figures for each sector by sex? What happened to the levels of domestic violence during lockdowns? Understanding where the problems lie means policymakers can then target resources to better mitigate the effects of the pandemic.’

Into this data mix they should also feed in the results from citizen engagement and work with researchers to complete a holistic picture. ‘Different types of data are important, too,’ says Bleetman. ‘Time-use data tells you about unpaid labour in the home, which standard labour market data doesn’t.’

Second, governments should design and scrutinise policies and budgets with these data-backed objectives in mind. This stage should include steps such as budget call circulars to outline how ministries should draw up and submit their requests for funds, and carrying out equality impact assessments to assess the likely effects of the policies on different groups.

Third, governments should ensure that the tools for implementation adequately support the policies and their budgets to achieve the intended outcome. This might include taking steps to align budgets with performance data, tracking resource allocation and keeping an eye on real-time expenditure.

The final step is to evaluate and audit policies and budgets to ensure that they meet their objectives. This means adding a fourth and final ‘E’ to the standard ‘economy, efficiency, effectiveness’ test: equity.

Some way to go

Some governments have started to take steps – most notably, perhaps, a state commission in Hawaii, which has promised more investment in state social infrastructure and is advocating the avoidance of austerity policies as part of the recovery since they typically have the greatest negative impact on women.

At a national level so far, according to UN tracker data, only 25 countries have taken a holistic approach to addressing inequities across unpaid care, domestic and intimate partner violence, and economic security. Since all 193 member states of the UN have signed up to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, the fifth of which is a commitment to gender equality, most have quite a way to go to ensure women don’t end up worse off.