Members' Research Service By / March 8, 2022

International Women’s Day 2022: Courage, resilience and the importance of gender-sensitive responses

This year’s International Women’s Day takes place under the dual shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic and the unfolding crisis of Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine.

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Written by Rosamund Shreeves.

This year’s International Women’s Day takes place under the dual shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic and the unfolding crisis of Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine. Both have spotlighted women’s grit and determination and their contributions to society, not least the true value of their care and emotional work. They also highlight the absolute necessity of adopting responses that are gender-sensitive and shaped with women’s participation.

A gender-sensitive humanitarian response to the Ukraine crisis

Two weeks ago, women in Ukraine were simply living their lives, studying, innovating, sitting in parliament, participating in local government, civil society, and the arts. They were already dealing with ‘ordinary’ barriers to gender equality, the impacts of eight years of conflict in the east of the country and the gendered social and economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many were on the frontline of the health crisis. Today, many more are on the frontline of a war zone, giving birth in bomb shelters and basements, taking up arms, reporting at considerable risk to their lives, and fleeing their homes to bring their children and families to safety. Many have faced or will face multiple internal displacements inside Ukraine, while women and children make up the overwhelming majority of the refugees crossing into neighbouring countries.

Aside from the horrific consequences of attacks on civilian populations, the human rights of women and girls are at heightened risk during conflict. There is also evidence that including women in conflict resolution helps to ensure that their specific situations and needs are taken into account and to achieve more sustainable outcomes. In the current situation, the international community is highlighting the urgent need to safeguard access to medical care for pregnant women, provide safe and regular pathways to safety for all women and girls, irrespective of their nationality, ethnicity and religion, and ensure meaningful participation of women in negotiations, in line with UN resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. While welcoming the outpouring of support from private individuals, associations working on the ground are calling for coordinated action to register and accompany women and girls, and for sexual, reproductive and maternal health services and services to prevent and respond to gender-based violence to be set up in Ukraine and along the refugee routes. They also stress the need for statistics on the gender, age and disability status of refugees to inform responses. At the EU level, measures adopted so far to help those fleeing Russian aggression, include guidelines on simplifying border controls for vulnerable groups and immediate temporary protection in the EU, with rights to a residence permit, the possibility to work, housing, and access to social welfare, medical assistance and education.

A gender-sensitive recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic

If this were a ‘normal’ International Women’s Day, Irpin and the other municipalities and cities across Ukraine that are signatories to the European Charter for Equality of Women and Men in Local Life, would have been free to focus on rebuilding after the pandemic like their counterparts in the rest of Europe. Research by the EU agencies for gender equality (EIGE) and working and living conditions (Eurofound) shows that the Covid-19 crisis is having negative impacts on women’s employment, caring responsibilities, work-life balance and mental wellbeing. Unlike the financial crisis of 2008-2010, there have been high job losses in female-dominated service sectors responsible for much of the recent growth in women’s employment, as well as in the male-dominated sectors typically hit by recessions. Job losses and furloughing have been especially high among low-paid women workers. In addition, the Covid-19 crisis has had an unprecedented impact on unpaid work. Over the successive pandemic waves, closures of schools, nurseries, and day-care facilities for disabled and elderly people have shifted responsibility for care back to families. While men have taken on part of the additional unpaid work, women have shouldered the lion’s share, particular in the later stages of the pandemic. EIGE and the OECD find a connection between this increase, particularly for mothers, and the fact that women have been more likely than men to drop out of the labour market. This is echoed by the results of a special Eurobarometer survey on women and Covid-19 commissioned by the European Parliament to mark International Women’s Day. Of the 26 741 women across the EU who took part, a quarter (25 %) say that the increase in work at home meant that they were not able to do as much paid work as they wanted to, while 21 % say that they have decided to permanently reduce the amount of time they allocate to paid work. An even higher share say that the Covid-19 crisis has had an impact on their work-life balance (44 %) and that restrictions have significantly affected their mental health (41 %).

The extent of the negative impact of the Covid-19 crisis on the social and economic situation of women has triggered a debate on the urgent need to take a gender-sensitive approach in recovery policies. In this context, the establishment of the EU’s biggest financial instrument supporting recovery in the Member States – the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) – is an opportunity to channel the extraordinary resources to the measures that contribute to advancing gender equality. It is also a chance to put into practice the EU’s long-standing commitments regarding the need to mainstream gender across different policies and apply gender budgeting principles to EU spending, to ensure that women and men benefit equally from investment. Economists have demonstrated that switching recovery investment from the traditional focus on construction and manufacturing to the care sector would create more jobs for both women and men, and provide a better economic stimulus. A study for the European Parliament recommends that at least 30 % of the EU funding provided through the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) should go to investment in the care economy, to put it on an even footing with the allocations of 37 % and 30 % for the green and digital transitions. In line with the RRF Regulation, all the national recovery and resilience plans adopted to date declare gender equality to be a horizontal objective, to be given consideration in all measures. However, not all Member States have included dedicated reforms or investments explicitly addressing gender-related challenges, or indicating women as the main beneficiaries.

Position of the European Parliament

In its resolution of 1 March 2022 on the Russian aggression against Ukraine, the European Parliament called for special emphasis on the needs of women and children in humanitarian responses, including evacuations to safety. Its Committee for Women’s Rights and Gender Equality has modified the agenda of its event for International Women’s Day to address the situation in Ukraine, alongside the initial focus on exploring ambitious recovery policies. Parliament’s resolution on the gender perspective in the Covid‑19 crisis and post-crisis period addresses the harmful gendered and intersectional impacts of the pandemic and sets out recommendations for overcoming them. Parliament is clear that current and future challenges will require ‘a gender-sensitive approach, with gender mainstreaming and gender budgeting principles reflected in all aspects of the pandemic response’. It is also calling for gender-responsive use of recovery funding, including investment in the care sector.

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