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Without women in power we are only telling half the story

From COVID to climate, women must be represented at the decision making tables

Without women in power we are only telling half the story
@helenpankhurst
Helen Pankhurst is a women's rights activist and CARE International UK's Senior Adviser on Gender Equality.

It's ironic, that what is preventing millions of feminists from marching shoulder-to-shoulder this International Women's Day is the same thing causing their rights to be rolled back, eroding decades of progress. COVID-19, the blight on every human life on the planet, is not blighting all lives equally.


Like all crises, COVID-19 is impacting women in uniquely cruel ways around the world. The rise in domestic violence, the greater risk of child marriage, the sexual exploitation visited upon women whenever poverty prevails, the fact women are overwhelmingly represented on the front lines as carers – they make up 70% of the global health workforce for example …the list goes on.

Why, then, are women so glaringly absent from almost every decision-making table at every level, when it comes to COVID crisis response? When we know, we have proof, that women are disproportionately affected by this and other crises – why are we not permitted a fair say in how we respond to them?

A report published this week by CARE International shows governments are letting women down in all crises – from COVID-19 to the climate emergency and to humanitarian disasters. Governments made up primarily of men. Women are not equally present in sufficient numbers, or with enough status, at the decision-making tables. For the pandemic, they make up just 24% of national COVID-19 taskforce members.

The lack of equal, or even significant, representation of women in power is the reason women continue to be disproportionately affected when disaster strike and economic resources and physical protection are stripped away: because their voices are not being heard, therefore their needs are not being considered.

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Women are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis too, yet under-represented at global climate negotiations - most recently just 37% of top negotiators. Why is it women can be trusted to care for the sick and dying, hold a family together when disaster strikes, walk miles for water when there is none, farm the parched land where crops no longer grow – but they can't be trusted to have a say in what to do about the causes of such misery?

Furthermore, in poorer nations, at this time of COVID, of climate and other emergencies, there is the threat of the UK Aid budget cut - on top of the overall budget shrinking. In the greatest hour of global need, the most marginalised and vulnerable women in the world are in some places doubly, triply let down.

The report, 'Time for a Better Bargain: How the Aid System Short-changes Women and Girls in Crisis', shows government donors and UN agencies, including the UK, have fallen short of significantly increasing funding to women's groups in fragile and conflict affected states. Most government donors gave only a fraction of one percent of aid spend to women's rights organizations, movements, and government institutions in fragile states. The UK gave just 0.27% in fragile states to women's groups.

It is a massive, global problem that most humanitarian donors do not sufficiently fund gender equality or gender-sensitive programs. Seven of eleven government donors allocate barely 2% of funds to targeted gender equality programming in humanitarian settings. We are talking about neglecting critical issues like addressing violence against women and providing sexual and reproductive healthcare.

So what are we going to do about this, as women, as feminists? From inside our homes, separated from one another by walls, and miles, and fear, and rules – how are we to demonstrate our unity, and call out for the world to do better by women? Well, this year we are going to 'march' digitally. We're going to rally online, and march upon social media, making our voices heard and our demands visible.

This year #March4Women is highlighting the fact that without women in power, we are only telling half the story. Those in charge are only hearing half the story. We are continuously reading a book with every other word absent from the page: we cannot possibly ensure the best outcomes for the world while we're operating in this way.

It needn't be this way. The UK government could show leadership. It could do so at the G7 summit in Cornwall ensuring diverse women's leadership and priorities shape the G7 agenda on recovery from COVID-19. It could do so by ensuring gender justice and women's leadership are central to the COP26 climate agenda in Glasgow. It could do so by maintaining the 0.7% commitment to UK Aid, and increasing support for women's leadership and rights, including women's organizations responding to crises.

Only when we hear women's voices as often as we hear men's in the corridors of power – and voices coming from a diversity of backgrounds - will we be hearing the full story. Only then will the celebrations be complete.

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Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
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This post was originally written and published on November 22 by Sima Bahous, the Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UN Women.

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