The gendered impacts of COVID-19 have come as no surprise for feminist activists, advocates, and humanitarian practitioners worldwide. Recent epidemics and pandemics, including SARS, Ebola, and Zika, demonstrated the need for a critical examination of the gender aspects of health emergencies and provided us with a valuable framework to begin to unpack these in the context of COVID-19. Previous research and experiences have shown that outbreaks affect women and men differently, often intensifying existing gender inequalities and their interdependence with class and race for women and girls (VOICE, 2021).
In particular, during the West African Ebola outbreak from 2014-2016, gender issues were overlooked entirely during the emergency response and the long-term planning - for instance, data disaggregated by sex was insufficient and gender indicators were not included - showing a complete male bias in the humanitarian response as a whole (Harman, 2016; Smith, 2019). Not surprisingly, lessons from the Ebola outbreak were not applied during the 2016 Zika epidemic, revealing an apparent disconnection between global health governance and the people affected by these health crises, especially women and girls (Davies and Bennett, 2016). Despite the multiple opportunities to integrate past experiences into effective crisis response, women and girls have found themselves again situated within the COVID-19 pandemic, with its response in ways determined through traditional gender expectations at every level: local, national, regional, and global. The COVID-19 pandemic has meant a push back on equality for women in many scenarios, regressing on the recent strides towards equal access to resources, education and independence (VOICE, 2021).
In her book The Curious Feminist: Searching for Women in a New Age of Empire, Cynthia Enloe declares that ‘later is a patriarchal time zone’ (2004). The humanitarian industry has manufactured the notion of ‘urgency’ around hegemonic patriarchal constructions, which leaves aside fundamental feminist concerns that seem to always come for ‘later’ (Watson and Mason). Her assessment suggests that structural gender inequalities are regarded as less important, always in addition to the universalized needs of men being seen as neutral.
VOICE’s We Must Do Better research aims to shed light on unexamined issues around women and girls’ experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic and calls for immediate action to truly integrate women and girls’ concerns into the humanitarian and Disaster Risk Reduction agenda. We have more than 20 years of significant insights around the gendered dimensions of disasters, yet they are consistently ignored by the humanitarian system. Incorporating women and girls’ needs are not only about enhancing the effectiveness of humanitarian responses, they are also about JUSTICE.
COVID-19 will not be the world's last public health emergency, so here at VOICE, we ask ourselves, what is the humanitarian sector waiting for?