A Union of Equality, but not in times of a pandemic.

Editor’s Blog: Produced in collaboration with the EU Buzz team 

Europe should not only be considering how to prevent future pandemics – there will for sure be more as warfare changes from weapons to biological and psychological warfare – but it must also ensure it has the right policies , and people, in place to deal effectively with any future crises. Discussion on public policy solutions to future-proof such incidents must take place now and with the full participation and cooperation of European civil society. We are all in this together. 

One reason to plan ahead is that in this pandemic crisis the European Commission failed millions of European’s through its poor management. They are not the only global leaders to have failed their citizens and this is not a critic of the Commission in that respect. However, the Commission has especially let down the women of Europe. With Europe being led by a woman, it was expected that Ursula von der Leyen would recognise the talents of other women, alongside the need for a balanced approach to any decision making – but not so. Mrs von der Leyen has saved the spotlight only for herself – which in this crisis has not always been a good thing! 

Across the board, women have been underrepresented in pandemic discussions and decision-making bodies. This despite the fact that on 5 March 2020, one week before SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) was announced as a global health concern, the Commission adopted “A Union of Equality: Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025.” The strategy promised the inclusion of women in policymaking and leadership positions with the aim of reducing gender inequalities whilst mainstreaming gender into all policy areas, including relief policies. Elements such as violence against women, the gender pay gap, gender balance on company boards and work-life balance were also included in the strategy. Women of Europe were expecting huge changes, and quickly.

Europe had placed gender issues high up on the EU’s political agenda and not before time! However, it was not to last. Research is now exposing how gender inequalities were exasperated by Covid-19 and we can expect that this is likely to only worsen as Member States come out of lockdown and more in-depth academic research can take place. Nevertheless we know already that women have borne the brunt of the impact of the pandemic. Women constituted the majority of front line workers who were put at risk of infection and of the service sector who lost their jobs during lockdowns. Many of these women also faced increased care responsibilities, employment prejudice, stereotyping and gender based violence. 

The impacts of the pandemic are clearly visible –  Female unemployment rates are higher than those of males and there is a higher likelihood of poverty for women in the EU. Women have also undertaken a disproportionate amount of uncompensated childcare and care obligations. Lower-income, older and lower-skilled women have especially found themselves in the vicious cycle of systematic poverty. Not only have women disproportionately lost their jobs but they have also faced greater barriers when trying to re-enter the labour market in the period between the first two peaks of the pandemic. Redundancies, due to the impossibility of transposing the female-dominated sectors to a teleworking modality, have also targeted women more then their male counterparts.

Domestic violence levels, particularly intimate-partner violence, increased significantly across the EU during the pandemic. This has been termed the “shadow pandemic” as stress, economic and social uncertainties, and long term lockdowns created the environment for perpetrators to be violent and vent their frustrations, and left the victims with no where to turn to. Healthcare systems were inaccessible due to the focus on Covid patients and reporting the abuse to law enforcement agencies was an impossibility whilst the perpetrators were present. During Covid-19, constraints were also placed on women seeking their right to abortion. The effects of such circumspections are yet to be seen in the recovery period, and those consequences will also require relevant and timely solutions. 

Surprisingly, as well noted on social media, those countries led by women tended to fair much better than those led by men. Similarly, those member states which had implemented gender mainstreaming in the years prior to the pandemic also tended to fair better. Also on the positive side, Covid lockdowns have meant that men increased their household participation in comparison to the years prior to the pandemic. This presents an opportunity for a re-arrangement of family relations and therefore for future change in household and childcare tasks. This enforces the arguments that parental leave and a more equally divided work life balance for men and women could be part of future policy considerations, ensuring that women who want to increase their participation in the labour market can do so. 

There is still uncertainty regarding a pandemic recession, and the profound effects that may result, but without gender mainstreaming and a gender lens being applied to all policy areas, women will no doubt once again be those who suffer most. Europe must accept that gender inequality exists because women are not equally represented in all areas of decision making, and society as a whole loses out as a result.  

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