The 'old normal' was hard on women — and we need to use pandemic as an opportunity to fix that

Business Insider US
Kristin Kim Bart.
  • Kristin Kim Bart is the senior director for gender equality at the International Rescue Committee.
  • The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the inequities that made the "old normal" difficult for so many — including women.
  • This crisis has shown the need to build back better, and create the appropriate support and infrastructure for women — which includes having them at the table for coronavirus response.
  • It's imperative to put money where rhetoric is, view reproductive health services as essential, and to include women in Covid-19 testing and research.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The time immediately following a crisis creates a window of opportunity to reimagine what the next phase of life can look like. With Covid-19, this opportunity seems more pressing than ever before as the pandemic has highlighted the inequalities that have made the "old normal" not work for so many, particularly women.

In every country, women face gender discrimination and often, this intersects with other forms of inequity stemming from disability, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, creating additional barriers for accessing services, education, and employment. The surging Black Lives Matter movement around the globe has thrown into stark relief just how critically important it is, especially for women, and particularly women of color, that we do not just get back to "normal," but that we actively build back better. 

Here are five things we must do now: 

1. Have women at every table, every time

A recent analysis found that the percentage of women on the United States' Covid-19 national response team was 8.7%. To ensure that the needs of women are included within rebuilding plans, they need to have active roles in the process. This can be done by employees demanding better policies from employers, calling elected officials, and even looking for ways to ensure better inclusion within your own communities. Women, especially those that represent local organisations, must be at every table with equal voice and decision-making power.  

2. Match rhetoric with money

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, over one in three women experienced gender-based violence (GBV) in their lifetimes. During lockdowns and quarantine measures, the number of women facing violence in their homes is skyrocketing. Half of the US offices of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) providing specialized survivor services have seen an increase (of about 25%) in the number of disclosures of GBV, namely intimate partner violence. Yet, surprisingly little governmental funding is being allocated for these lifesaving services.  Money means commitment, so if we want to see change happen, we need to see prevention and response prioritized in funding efforts.

3. Count women

If data is not collected on the different experiences of women, we cannot possibly budget for, or effectively design, recovery efforts that are responsive to the needs of them. While men are suffering higher mortality rates from Covid-19 than women, we know women are more likely to be exposed to the virus given their traditional caregiving roles and participation in the healthcare workforce. IRC analysis points to gender discrepancies in Covid-19 testing and treatment, with women potentially having their health needs deprioritised. As work on treatment and vaccines are underway, it is critical that women are equally represented in research and trials, and that their everyday experiences are counted. 

4. Recognise that sexual and reproductive health services are essential

The needs of women and adolescent girls do not suddenly stop during an emergency.  During the Ebola outbreaks across West Africa, the IRC saw an increase in maternal and newborn mortality — largely due to the disruption of sexual and reproductive health services.

Sexual and reproductive health services — including access to contraceptive methods and respectful maternity care — are essential and often life-saving services that need to be made easily accessible, safe, and open to all women and girls, regardless of where they live. As resources continue to be funnelled to Covid-specific health responses, attention needs to be paid to not only prevent any roll backs to sexual and reproductive health services, but to also expand them at a time when women and girls need them most. 

5. Refuse to leave women behind

The grave economic impacts women are facing must not be ignored. Women are already experiencing higher rates of job loss than men as they hold the majority of jobs within heavily-impacted sectors such as those within retail, the service industry, education, and more.

Women have also been forced to drop out of the workforce to take care of children and other family members in need, leading to concern about the erasure of previous labor force gains. As states begin to reopen economies, it is imperative that tailored livelihood programs and services are created to consider the needs of women. Reentering society cannot leave anyone behind nor can it be designed on past structures that have held women back. 

Covid-19 has completely changed the world as we know it. As we grapple with large-scale loss, economic challenges, and isolation, it is important to look ahead at the opportunities for women. We must build back better by taking an intersectional feminist approach. The time is now to break down past thinking patterns and old structures.

Kristin Kim Bart is dedicated to addressing inequality and violence in the lives of women and girls in developing and humanitarian contexts around the world. Since 2003, she has worked for the International Rescue Committee both in the field programs and at headquarters. Kristin played a central role in the growth of the IRC's programs to address violence against women and girls and raise the humanitarian community's attention to this critical issue.

Currently she is the Senior Director for Gender Equality, where she serves as a catalyst for change and overseas IRC's commitment to break down gender-based barriers for clients as well as for staff and within IRC's internal operations.  Kristin holds a masters degree in International Affairs from Columbia University's School for International and Public Affairs and a bachelors degree in Sociology from the University of Iowa.  She lives in Washington D.C. with her husband and two daughters.  

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