"No Women, No Recovery"

Covid-19 and Women's Political Participation
Gender Equality
Joana Mamombe is one of three women who were tortured and sexually assaulted by Zimbabwean security forces in May after allegedly staging anti-govt protest over hunger and abuse of Covid-19 resources.

At the National Democratic Institute (NDI) we focus on ‘Changing the Face of Politics’ by supporting the equal and active political participation of women, because democratic resilience requires politics to take account of the voice and agency of women and all marginalised populations. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the alternative - exclusion - undermines the effectiveness of both immediate responses to and the long-term recovery from the pandemic. 

In a statement on July 14, 2020, UN and regional experts on violence against women noted, “The global response to the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted existing gaps and deep-rooted gender-based discrimination.” COVID-19 is not only a global health crisis, but also a social, economic, and political shock for countries and communities around the world. While the impact of the dual health and economic crises disproportionately harm women, they are also on the frontlines of healthcare around the world, with the World Health Organization reporting that 70% of all paid healthcare jobs are held by women, and that 50% of women’s contribution to health is unpaid.

Systemic shocks - such as natural disasters, conflict, and pandemics - generally result in a shrinking political space as governments move from a more consultative way of operating to a 'control and command' position, instituting short- and medium-term changes in the political environment. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, NDI has been tracking democratic trends through bi-weekly surveys of senior staff in its global network. At the end of June 2020, 53% of NDI's respondents noted an increased distrust among citizens and a 71% increase distrust of the government. Further, 45% recorded an increase in the government’s suspension, modification, and/or removal of individual or collective rights and protections in the name of security (this declined from a high of 69% in previous rounds). These changes demonstrate the shrinking political space for all citizens and further limit women's ability to be politically-active.  

So, what should we be looking out for to ensure that when women's voices are most needed, they are not absent, overlooked, or silenced?  

As schools shut and the care burden for the sick and other children builds on women and girls, girls are more likely to have their education curtailed. This can have life-changing impacts such as early child marriage, a struggle for decent work, and a lack of confidence in their ability to be political leaders.

Shocks often affect gender norms, increasing women's disempowerment relative to men. Governments and civil society may utilise a conservative social agenda – such as emphasising women’s ‘proper’ domestic roles – leading to the withdrawing of rights that women have gained. 

At the same time, a heightened sense of threat in external spaces is being reinforced by increased levels of domestic sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Starting in their homes, women can face opposition from their husbands and other male family members who feel it is too dangerous for them to become or continue to be politically involved. In NDI’s survey, staff around the world observed a significant and continuing rise in SGBV during COVID-19 such that, by the end of June 2020, 70% of NDI’s responses reported an increase, with 20% noting a significant increase. In April, 78% of NDI's responses reported that the government had not responded to provide enhanced support services in response to the increase in SGBV, a figure that had decreased to 58% by June. In the April survey, 54% of NDI's respondents noted that civil society had stepped up their SGBV support services, rising to 71% of responses in June.

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FNF Africa hosted a LIVE online discussion titled "don't turn a blind eye to violence against women and children." The event was facilitated by Masechaba Mdaka from FNF Africa's regional office. Sandra Pepera was among the panelists including Keitumetse Moutloatse, the founder and chairperson of Black Womxn Cauvus and Siti Ngwal, the founder and chief executive for Zero Violence. 

Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, Sub-Saharan Africa

We have seen how more military and security focused responses have given more weight to state organs traditionally dominated by men, sidestepping inclusion mechanisms and reproducing and reinforcing masculine dominance in decision-making. According to a 2016 study of the Ebola epidemic, military actors involved in the Ebola response in Sierra Leone not only overlooked the differences between men and women’s experience of the disease, but also reproduced “gender norms in masculinised spaces of decision-making and implementation.” 

Online spaces are important in enabling women to overcome barriers of cost and reach as they participate in politics, but the digital world has become a forum for disinformation, hate speech, and harassment targeting politically-active women. For example, women’s rights organisations and activists have increasingly experienced “Zoombombing,” where their virtual meetings are hacked into and attacked with violent language. 

While digital voting is a key mechanism for elections to take place under COVID-19 movement restrictions, it can pose challenges to women’s ability to vote. There is a significant gender digital divide with 327 million fewer women than men having smartphones and access to the Internet. Voting from home also increases the potential for women to experience coercion and violence in attempts by family members to influence or to prevent their vote. 

There have been some positive developments for women as parliamentary processes went virtual, including more flexible work hours and a change in the organisational culture (e.g the UK parliament). However, moving legislative chambers online can also have negative implications for women’s participation - for example by increasing the blurring of work and domestic duties within the home. 

During a shock the ‘tyranny of the urgent’ often dictates the approach to public policy. Applying lessons learned from other recovery and transitional situations about the opportunities to transform unequal gender norms, can help determine whether this pandemic is a permanent setback for women's political empowerment. 

At NDI, we will continue to work with governments, parliaments, women's movements, and civil society partners to support gender-informed responses to and recovery from the crises caused by COVID-19. If we change the face of politics, then we will all have a greater chance to build back better. It's simple really: "No women, no recovery."