For an equitable recovery from COVID-19, the key is to listen to women

March 11, 2021

Photo: UNDP Iraq

Women across the Arab States region want and deserve an equal future free from violence and conflict; a future that is inclusive, sustainable and peaceful, with equal rights for all. To get there, stakeholders across the region need to listen to women in all their diversity and support women to make their voices heard.

Today is International Women’s Day, and this year’s theme is Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world. The theme celebrates the enormous contributions women and girls have made around the world in shaping a more equal future and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is a theme that is highly relevant in the Arab States region, where women have stood at the front lines of combatting the crisis, be it through their work in the health and social sectors, as essential workers, or their contributions in communities and family life.  The crisis has underscored both the centrality of their contributions, often invisible, and the outsized burdens women carry, as they have been stretched thin through their efforts while also bearing the brunt of social and economic impacts – in a region where even before the crisis, women in the region have been hit by the highest regional unemployment rate in the world, at 41.8 per cent.

Women leading for change

Globally, the crisis has shown that countries with women in positions of national leadership have been relatively successful in the tough battle to stem the tide or mitigate the impacts of the pandemic. The same holds true at local levels or across different types of institutions, with women’s organizations demonstrating their skills and knowledge to secure better outcomes for people and communities.

While the Arab States region has not enough women in decision-making positions in the public sector, there has been no shortage of strong examples of women leaders at all levels pushing for change over the course of the pandemic.

In Jordan, women’s groups successfully lobbied to have child-care vouchers distributed as part of COVID-response social protection, in a step towards recognition of the economic value of care work.

In Morocco, women’s groups engaged the Ministry of Justice to roll out innovative programmes that enabled women to safely report domestic violence and access support.

In Libya, a network of women’s peacebuilders spread awareness of COVID-19 through radio stations, and teamed up with a legal aid network to provide masks to inmates, distribute food and provide information to vulnerable migrant and refugee communities.

In Djibouti, the Ministry of Women persuaded the Ministry of Budget to slash taxes on feminine hygiene products, diapers and infant formula to zero.

Women driving results

What these examples underscore is that where women of all walks of life have a seat at the table, or are able to make their voices heard, the result can be decisions, policies and laws that work better for all. Looking ahead, the key is to fully leverage the potential of women’s leadership in pandemic preparedness and response, first and foremost by listening to women and girls and engaging their insights in policy and programme development, including women with disability, who have been hit harder by the pandemic - while also moving to scale.

Across the Arab States region, and with support from core donors, UNDP works closely with partners and supporting institutions to listen to women’s voices, and to facilitate spaces at all levels for women from all backgrounds and contexts to make their voices heard. An example of this is a global sensemaking exercise that UNDP in the Arab States region initiated to capture the voices of grassroots women, peace and security advocates around the world on their role in economic and political decision making, to drive forward the Women, Peace and Security agenda.  Similarly, our Gender Justice and the Law initiative with UN Women,  UNFPA and ESCWA took into account perspectives of women leaders across the region, and our Regional Elections Project has partnered with the Organization of Arab Election Management Bodies to launch the Arab Network For Women in Elections. At the country level, UNDP is working in Jordan and Lebanon on initiatives to explore and promote positive masculinities, in light of increases of gender-based violence across the region.  And work is underway to support women supporting communities in crises and fragility settings,  such as an initiative to support a group of women in Yemen to set up and manage solar-powered mini-grids – providing affordable renewable energy to the local community in a country where half the population has no access to electricity, and at the same time creating economic opportunity for women.

Walking the Talk – With Women

UNDP also seeks to lead by example. Across the region, we have reached gender parity at senior levels within our own ranks.  Yet we must continue to engage more and more diverse women at every level of our work – so that our work continues to become more reflective of the good ideas of women of all backgrounds in our ranks and in the societies we serve. I strongly identify with the priority of supporting women within our ranks because it rings true with my own experience. I began my career as a National Officer in UNDP Algeria, and I have found within the United Nations a universe of opportunities to grow professionally, contribute ideas and serve the cause of sustainable and inclusive development.

An example just in from one of our Country Offices in the region makes clear the link between engaging women internally and in our work: During the early stages of the pandemic, a group of women staff at UNDP Tunisia County came together virtually to brainstorm priority ideas to support women across the country hit hard by the  pandemic.  The resulting initiatives provided targeted and rapid support for business continuity of women-headed small businesses, support for value chains benefitting 850 women entrepreneurs, and the kick-off of discussion on a strategic partnership with a large private-sector company to promote women’s entrepreneurship in the COVID-19 context and beyond. The colleagues recognized that the ideas would not have come to fruition had they not taken it upon themselves, with management support, to forge a way ahead.  It is one example, but one of many across the Arab States region—all of which started with listening to women and enabling women to lead.