Women leaders have provided a guiding light for the world in responding to the COVID-19 crisis – as a majority of the frontline healthcare workers and as heads of government to coordinators of grassroots social movements. They have reminded the world how crucial it is to have critical numbers of women, in all their diversity, in positions of leadership.
The COVID-19 crisis has seen progress towards equality pushed back. It has widened the gap between women and men in wealth, in income, in access to services, in the burden of unpaid care, in status and in power.
Globally, there has been a dramatic increase in violence against women. In Nigeria, at the height of the lockdown in 2020, the reported cases of gender-based violence increased significantly, and states like Lagos saw a three-fold increase.
Up to 20 million more secondary-aged girls could end up out of school following the crisis. Up to 2.5 million more girls are at risk of child marriage.
Pandemics like COVID-19 and HIV magnify the fissures in society and exacerbate vulnerabilities.
Even before COVID-19, over 7.9 million girls were out of school in Nigeria. In sub-Saharan Africa, 4,500 adolescent girls and young women between 15 and 24 years old become infected with HIV every week. In Nigeria, young women aged 20-24 years have four times higher HIV prevalence rates than their male peers.
Recovery strategies post COVID-19 cannot be gender-blind or gender-neutral: they must overturn the inequalities which hold women back.
UNAIDS is working with allies across the world to challenge all forms of discrimination against women, and to support women’s groups in claiming equality – in access to services, in income and rights at work, in representation in decision-making, and in status.
Together, my sister leaders at the UN Women, UNESCO, UNICEF and UNFPA and I have convened a broad movement called Education Plus to work with governments to secure the transformative changes that will enable all of Africa’s adolescent girls to be in school and to be safe and strong.
We know that completing secondary school reduces a girl’s vulnerability to HIV infection by half.
Education Plus is catalysing commitments to provide girls with free secondary schooling in a violence-free environment, along with providing them access to comprehensive sexuality education, linkages to sexual and reproductive health services, and support for school to work transitions to advance young women’s economic empowerment.
Overcoming the COVID-19 crisis, and ending new HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths, require that we take on the inequalities which drive vulnerabilities.
In the end, patriarchy isn’t good for anyone.
It weakens us all. We must therefore work to dismantle this oppressive system.
A more equal world will be better able to respond to pandemics and other shocks; it will leave us all healthier and safer.
The United Nations stands ready to help advance a world where women and girls in all their diversity will thrive and take their rightful places – as equals.
- Winnie Byanyima is the Executive Director of UNAIDS