Covid-19: a year on, women's rights have been set back

24 March 2021

Women’s History Month is usually a time to celebrate women's rights movements, and renew our efforts to advance women's rights. This Women's History Month, we reflect on what has changed after a year of Covid-19.

Francisca, 29, has received support from ActionAid following conflict in Mozambique during the pandemic

Francisca, 29, has received support from ActionAid following conflict in Mozambique during the pandemic. Photo: ActionAid

Women’s History Month is usually a time to celebrate hard fought wins by feminist and women’s rights movements and to renew impetus to advance women and girls’ rights; not this year!

As we mark the one-year anniversary since the World Health Organisation officially declared the Covid-19 pandemic, the impact has been enormous.

As the pandemic has unfolded, it has laid bare deeply entrenched, systemic inequalities across and within countries and has exacerbated them further.

And it is women and girls who are bearing the brunt of the social and economic consequences.

In the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres:

Covid-19 could reverse the limited progress that has been made on gender equality and women's rights."

And it is visible all around us.

After a year of Covid-19, women and girls are picking up the pieces 

Since 2013, ActionAid has been working with young urban women activists who are leading the way to challenge unequal power structures.

They fight for equal access to sexual reproductive health rights, education and the right to decent work – making significant progress along the way.

But the pandemic put the brakes on. Lockdowns, the shutting down of schools and other public services, and overwhelmed health systems have all taken their toll.

Moreover, with children out of school and more family members staying at home, women’s already disproportionate burden of unpaid care and domestic work has skyrocketed. Notwithstanding the well documented rise in domestic violence.  

Findings for recent research by ActionAid1 to assess the impact of Covid-19 on young urban women in Ghana, India, Kenya and South Africa shed light on the extent of the crisis.  

One third of women (35%) were unable to pursue their regular paid work. Half (52%) didn’t receive government benefits such as food supplies subsidies or weren’t aware of government programmes or how to access them.

Nearly three quarters (71%) reported household chores had increased significantly including cooking, cleaning, childcare, home schooling and taking care of sick family members as health services are less accessible.

Over half (58%) believed that women and girls are at increased risk of experiencing gender-based violence due to being forced to ‘lockdown’ at home with their abusers while access to services to support survivors has been disrupted due to the pandemic. 

Unpaid work during the pandemic: a personal account

In a recent panel event organised by ActionAid UK to discuss the report findings and recommendations, we heard from Dorcas Zoogah, an activist from Ghana.

She spoke of her first-hand experience as a student who was forced to stop attending school and study online at home after lockdown measures were brought in, with challenges that the lack of public services and systemic inequalities brings to young women:

I wasn’t able to take part because of network issues in my community, a whole lot of unpaid care work in the house. You get up and have to spend all your time working.  

Then at the end of the day, I am not able to take part in the online exams, which affected me badly."

Joining the Young Urban Women’s Movement had a positive impact on Dorcas: it has opened her eyes to gender inequality.

At home, it was Dorcas, her mum and sisters who took on all the unpaid care work.

Her mum came home from work to cook for the family. Dorcas couldn’t bear the injustice of it, so she decided to speak to her father about it who agreed to help.

But she felt that this education needed to go further, and she spoke to her Community Chief about the redistribution of unpaid care. These were difficult conversations, she recalls, but finally the Community Chief agreed that she could educate the community. Slowly, Dorcas sees change happening.

Why the leadership of women's rights organisations is crucial

During the pandemic, the Young Urban Women’s Movement organised sessions to educate young women on the impact of Covid-19 and how to overcome the obstacles they were facing.

While women are impacted disproportionately by crises, they are often the first and best placed to respond – but this is also putting them at greater risk.

Too often, however, their role as front-line responders is overlooked and undervalued.

This is why ActionAid UK has long called for funding to reach women’s rights organisations that are grounded in local communities with longstanding and trusting relationships.

Without them, it would be impossible to identify, develop and deliver the life-saving services women and girls so desperately need. Yet they continue to operate on a shoestring.  

Covid-19 and women's rights: listen, empower, fund 

At the event, former Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Minister, Baroness Sugg, spoke powerfully about the need for governments to support these organisations by listening, empowering, funding and resourcing them appropriately.

This was echoed by Conservative Friends for Development Director, Katherine Mulhern who stressed that the UK’s cuts in aid spend could not have come at a worse time for the poorest, most marginalised women and girls in the global south.  

Ultimately, as ActionAid’s International Policy Advisor and feminist activist, Wangari Kinoti highlighted, we need urgent, long-term investment in publicly funded, publicly delivered, gender responsive public services.

Feminist, women’s rights and social justice organisations are at forefront of putting pressure on governments.

These movements, which consist of mainly young people, hold expert knowledge and solutions and they need to be listened to, now more than ever. 

Help us to take action 

Covid-19 has set women's rights back - but if we listen, empower and fund, we can help protect those rights in a post-pandemic world. If you agree, please share this blog on social media now.


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Image: ActionAid