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Gender Equality Out of Reach During COVID-19?

We don’t buy it.

Those of us who have been marching, protesting and advocating for gender equality for years have already (pre-pandemic) been seeking a faster track to gender equality. If we do it right, the pandemic can be a turning point, an opportunity to truly move the dial. (Photo: AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Those of us who have been marching, protesting and advocating for gender equality for years have already (pre-pandemic) been seeking a faster track to gender equality. If we do it right, the pandemic can be a turning point, an opportunity to truly move the dial. (Photo: AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

The world has changed at a head-spinning pace. COVID-19 arrived with force and speed, throwing our lives, our work, our structures and our economies in disarray.

The issues facing women in today’s crisis are the same as they were before the pandemic. Unfortunately, experience and history show us that in times like this, things usually get exponentially worse for those who are the most vulnerable.

But what if, in the midst of the chaos and uncertainty, there is an opportunity for dramatic and significant change? 

The global pandemic has shown how truly precarious our systems are, especially for service workers, single parents, healthcare workers, domestic abuse survivors, sex workers and labor rights champions -- and particularly those of color. Crises like COVID-19 bring into focus society’s most glaring inequalities, whether based on gender, race, ability, health status, nationality or any combination of these.

Considering such inequalities in policymaking and our emergency responses to the crisis is paramount: understanding how the virus impacts women differently, addressing the potential impact strict lockdowns and “stay at home” orders have on violence against women, calling out groups that use COVID-19 as an excuse to deny women reproductive health care, and mitigating the effects of the crisis on low wage, precarious and informal types of work such as domestic work or street market traders.

Several countries have addressed the issue of domestic violence and orders to stay at home. The Government of Canada’s economic aid package announced on March 18 includes $50M for shelters and sexual assault centers to support people fleeing gender-based violence. They recognized the dangers of asking people to stay in an unsafe home and strengthened support for institutions offering safe havens in an uncertain world.

Those of us who have been marching, protesting and advocating for gender equality for years have already (pre-pandemic) been seeking a faster track to gender equality. If we do it right, the pandemic can be a turning point, an opportunity to truly move the dial.

France plans to relocate domestic abuse survivors into hotels and announced that victims could alert pharmacists if they're in danger. Spain, Chile, Colombia and Uruguay have all shored up their emergency 24/7 phone lines with more staff and social media campaigns. South Africa has similarly identified additional shelters for survivors of violence along with banning the sale of alcohol during the lockdown, and monitoring for incidents of femicide and gender-based violence during its rollout of community level health testing.

These are hopeful signs. Yet, there is so much more work to do.

Feminist communities often talk about power and how to shift it more equitably in our societies. For us, we know shifting power will ultimately mean shifting resources into the hands of those doing the work for equality on the ground.

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Money is often seen as the biggest barrier to swift change. And while equality cannot be bought, per se, money does play a vital role in fueling the next milestones in the fight for women’s rights. Because with money we can fund changemakers.

Through our work at philanthropic and non-profit organizations, we know firsthand the power of money to leverage resources and create a more equal world. Our grant-making at the Equality Fund and the Ford Foundation has supported women, girls and non-binary people to receive reproductive healthcare in Nigeria, run for political office in rural Colombia and launch start-ups in Kenya’s “Silicon Savannah.” This is the work that is changing harmful behaviors and norms around gender, providing access to vital services and creating policies that protect those most vulnerable to discrimination and violence.

Yet, the very organizations around the globe that are doing the heaviest lifting to help advance rights for women and girls are often the ones with the fewest resources -- from money to access to networks and policymakers. The average women’s rights organization has an annual operating budget of only $20,000. In Sub-Saharan Africa, that number drops to $12,000.

"Feminist communities often talk about power and how to shift it more equitably in our societies. For us, we know shifting power will ultimately mean shifting resources into the hands of those doing the work for equality on the ground.

Made thoughtfully, an investment in a grassroots organization supports and accelerates on-the-ground knowledge, local trust and an ability to scale-up more quickly to benefit the lives of entire communities."

We are already seeing organizations like this shift their work quickly and effectively to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. They know how to stem the tide and ensure hard-won gains are not clawed back in this emergency.  But in order to do this, their funding requires multi-year, flexible and significant investments to see them through the crests and valleys ahead.

To really achieve lasting equality – particularly in a crisis -- we have to activate the power of people and movements, like labour movements, reproductive justice movements, LGBTQ movements, Black Lives Matter movements, and yes, feminist movements connecting people across regions and around the world, fighting for immediate needs and long-term change. This work, when well-funded and working toward shared objectives, can take on the Goliath corporations and the naysayers.

The fight for gender equality is slow, hard work. But if we do it right, this pandemic can be a jolt that takes already-broken systems and turns them into something that works for all of us. 

The pandemic only makes our work more urgent, and we at the Equality Fund and the Ford Foundation will keep working to support transformational change. If we invest now, in this time of upheaval, in the grassroots feminist organizations and movements we know can make change happen, maybe the world will realize that equality is truly good for everyone. 

Gender equality shouldn’t have to wait until after the pandemic – it’s an essential part of the solution, now.

Jess Tomlin

Jess Tomlin is the Co-CEO of the Equality Fund.

Jessica Houssian

Jessica Houssian is the Co-CEO of the Equality Fund.

Nicolette Naylor

Nicolette Naylor is the Ford Foundation’s International program director for Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Justice and Regional Director for the Office of Southern Africa. Follow her on Twitter @NaylorNikki

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