By Alissa Ghils
[All views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author]
To cope with the unfolding economic crisis triggered by COVID-19, governments are increasingly turning to social protection to mitigate the consequences of a widespread economic downturn and to protect vulnerable populations in times of health risk and economic scarcity.
According to recent studies, a total of 106 countries have introduced or adapted social protection and jobs programs in response to COVID-19. Among the typologies of interventions, social assistance (non-contributory transfers) keeps being the most widely used (including a total of 241 programs), followed by actions in social insurance (116) and supply-side labor market interventions (61).
The primary concern of these social protection responses has been to provide rapid economic assistance, but gender considerations have not been at the forefront. This is unsurprising, as most existing social protection programs are either gender-blind or gender-neutral at best.
However, such social protection programs may inadvertently exacerbate gender inequalities. In the context of the COVID-19 response, this is particularly worrying, given that the pandemic is likely to pose or intensify different risks for men and women, including potentially widening existing gender inequalities. Examples of risks include health risks (e.g., high risk of infection due to larger shares of women in the global health workforce, reproductive health risks, and maternal mortality due to overburdened health systems); loss of jobs and livelihoods (e.g., economic impacts are likely to be more severe for informal workers and women already earning comparatively less than men); increased, disproportionate burden of care among women; and protection risks for women and girls (e.g., increased school drop-outs, pregnancy, and early marriage among adolescent girls; increased risk of gender-based violence).
Thus gender considerations in the social protection response to COVID-19 are important.
To fully ensure the protection of its citizens without creating or exacerbating existing gender inequalities, and in line with the “leave no one behind” principle of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, governments shall be guided by the following considerations when designing – and implementing – shock-responsive social protection programs:
- Many vulnerable people will be excluded by the targeting of social protection programs. For example, unemployment insurance typically does not cover informal workers, which includes a majority of women. Providing universal “household-level” transfers in areas/sectors severely affected by COVID-19 can help address this issue;
- As care burdens disproportionately fall on women, additional “top ups” to usual benefit levels should be considered for households caring for children who may be out of school and require additional resources (e.g., meals at home, home tutoring, or school supplies). Care for sick family members or relatives due to COVID-19 is also likely to directly fall on women and girls, with additional considerations for time and compensation;
- Where universal healthcare is not in place and social insurance models exclude many, consider advocating for automatic enrollment, waiving copayments and advocate for women’s needs alongside emergency COVID-19 needs, including for informal sector workers, pregnant women, single parents (mothers and fathers), and widows who will continue to need essential healthcare;
- Design new or scale up existing cash transfer programs, and urgently consider specific design and implementation features that may be adapted in an inclusive way, for instance by:
o removing conditions which may add additional burdens and unnecessary risks to women and children as well as staff monitoring compliance;
o considering gender breakdowns of literacy rates, access to mobile technology, economic decision-making, mobility restrictions, etc in delivery mechanisms;
o ensuring specific delivery mechanisms for pregnant women going into isolation;
o streamlining processes for changing nominated representatives to collect transfers as household situations change (for example so that women are able to change their nominated representative if they become abusive);
o removing the administrative requirements for enrollment and collection (with particular consideration for refugees, displaced people, migrants and marginalised children and adults without documentation);
- In the design of in-kind assistance – from food, to soap, to nappies, to menstrual hygiene kits, to sexual and reproductive health needs – ensure that gender and age differential needs are considered at different life stages;
- Adopt gender-responsive and family-friendly action from governments and businesses, including where possible paid parental leave, flexible working policies, and the introduction of or increase in child/family benefits;
- Ensure that domestic violence shelters for women and children remain open and capacity is increased as part of essential services that are unfortunately in higher demand, together with necessary measures such as the introduction of an emergency telephone number, and training of police officers;
- Achieve gender equality in decision-making processes leading to the adoption of shock-responsive social protection programs during Covid, as according to a study carried out by CARE International, in a total of 30 countries surveyed, on average women made up only 24 percent of national response committees.
The time is now for gender equality in Covid response…including in social protection!
 Gender-sensitive social protection. A critical component of the COVID-19 response in low- and middle-income countries, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFRI) Issue Brief, April 2020
 Gender-Responsive Social Protection during COVID19: Technical note, UNICEF, April 2020