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Gender equality must be central to Covid-19 recovery plans

While recognising that women’s and girl’s empowerment is a moral imperative, investing in academic, vocation, and life skills for girls and young women represents one of the most significant opportunities for sustainable and inclusive development
By Poonam Muttreja and Safeena Hussain
UPDATED ON JUN 28, 2021 02:14 PM IST

Even after decades of work and attention, gender inequality remains a significant barrier to human development. Women and girls worldwide are still discriminated against in accessing healthcare, education, political representation, and employment, impeding the realisation of their rights. In India, persistent gender inequality is a consequence of deeply entrenched patriarchal norms, which disproportionately impact girls and women. While these challenges have existed for centuries, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated them significantly, especially for young girls from marginalised communities.

The crucial role of gender equality is underscored by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which recognises it as not only a fundamental right but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world. Addressing gender inequality, therefore, requires recognition of the complex factors that enable it. Patriarchy and gender inequitable attitudes have ensured that decision-making power is predominantly held by men and has been observed in most societies, including India.

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Societal control on women’s and girls’ autonomy and choice is often reinforced by patriarchal norms, which is reflected in practices such as early and coerced marriage, limited contraceptive choice and preventing adolescents from receiving comprehensive sexuality education. These practices place an undue burden on women’s and girls’ bodily autonomy and agency to prevent teenage pregnancies and childbirth, unsafe and coerced sex, unsafe abortion, and intimate partner and gender-based violence.

A recent study reveals that two million adolescent girls in India have an unmet need for modern contraception and 78% of abortions among teenage girls are unsafe. Sexual and reproductive health and rights have a direct bearing on bodily autonomy and integrity for women and girls.

A girl who cannot define whether, when or how many children to have, or choose to stay in school instead of marrying at a young age, or who accepts domestic violence as her fate, stands little chance of completing schooling, faces reduced opportunities for paid employment or entrepreneurship, and experiences diminished decision-making in other spheres.

Among the most critical determinants affecting women and girls’ decision-making about their sexual and reproductive health is the education level of both partners. Global evidence suggests that there is a direct bearing of education on reducing child marriages, teenage pregnancies, and maternal deaths, in addition to empowering girls to take control of their lives. In fact, nutrition, education and health of girls are interconnected, and improvements in one area help others: Better nutrition leads to improved learning, better retention in school, job opportunities and delayed marriage.

Despite the evidence and significant progress in girls’ access to school in India’s most remote villages, an estimated four million girls remain out of school, denied their fundamental human rights. The reasons range from safety issues to deeply entrenched, discriminatory social norms, from a lack of access to toilet facilities and menstrual hygiene to poverty and the need to work. Even when in school, quality remains an issue and both content and classroom practice remain steeped in a culture that fails to recognise girls as equal.

The problem was persistent before Covid-19, but with the ongoing lockdown, progress has been reversed. Forced out of school because of Covid-19, girls are back to the old ways – they eat last and least, fall into domestic servitude, and any remote learning opportunities are denied because of a digital divide that is worse for girls. School exclusion is at its highest where patriarchy, poverty, and policy gaps intersect.

Yet programmes are often designed and implemented in silos and viewed as the domains of separate ministries and agencies. Funders often back siloed programmes, implementers work in silos, and policy makers create policies in departmental isolation. Making advances in gender equality requires facilitating convergent action across stakeholders and sectors. This in turn would increase economic opportunities for girls and women and address their health, education and safety needs.

Girls are best served when traditional boundaries are crossed. The barriers of silos need to be broken so that stakeholders – including girls and women themselves – can come together and address issues like violence, child marriage, child labour, menstrual hygiene, health and education.

Government, civil society organisations and funding agencies must identify priority issues together and link stakeholders to provide cross-sectoral, collaborative solutions to meet the multiple, intersecting needs of girls and women. Lessons from such a convergent approach to programming in India would be instrumental in developing tools for the global application of a scaled-up convergent response for gender equality.

Gender equality is a moral, economic, and health issue that demands urgent action. As such, gender equality must be central to Covid-19 recovery plans and should prioritise sexual and reproductive health and rights, equal access to education and jobs for women and girls.

The Generation Equality Forum in Paris (June 30 to July 2), which commemorates the landmark 1995 Beijing Conference on Women and Development, unveiled blueprints that illustrate the critical actions needed to secure transformation in gender equality. It calls upon governments, the private sector, civil society, philanthropies and CSOs, youth, and allies to accelerate change and intensify global ambition for gender equality.

In the future, donors, implementers, and policymakers need to adopt a unified-yet-complementary approach and put inclusion at the heart of their efforts to improve the lives of girls and the most vulnerable communities.

We need to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty and build stronger economies and social systems. While recognising that women’s and girl’s empowerment is a moral imperative, investing in academic, vocation, and life skills for girls and young women represents one of the most significant opportunities for sustainable and inclusive development and smashing patriarchy.

Poonam Muttreja is executive director, Population Foundation of India, and Safeena Hussain is founder and executive director, Educate Girls

The views expressed are personal

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