It is time for women’s leadership and equality to be the norm

By Mpiwa Mangwiro-Tsanga

As we celebrate International Women’s Day on the 8th of March, we must not pay lip service to respecting, recognising, promoting and acknowledging women’s leadership, agency and contributions to addressing the challenges we face in today’s world. 

This year the world will be celebrating International Women’s Day under the theme, “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.” This is linked to the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) 65th Session priority theme, “Women’s full and effective participation and decision-making in public life, as well as the elimination of violence, for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls”. It is also linked to the flagship Generation Equality campaign, which calls for women’s right to decision-making in all areas of life, equal pay, equal sharing of unpaid care and domestic work, an end to all forms of violence against women and girls, and health-care services that respond to their needs.

It’s a peculiar world as we celebrate International Women’s Day in the face of a global pandemic, COVID 19 – a situation which has seen women take a leading role in the fight against this pandemic as front-line workers, as caregivers, health workers, etc.  According to the WHO women make up the majority, that is, 70% of the health and social care services. As the virus spread globally, it is women who have been at the fore front of providing care and social services to affected people. Yet despite making up the majority of frontline workers, women have been disproportionately represented in national and global COVID 19 policy and decision-making spaces.

When measures such as social distancing and lockdowns, which included closing of schools in many countries were implemented, it meant that mothers and other female care givers such as domestic workers had to take care of children at home to make sure that they adhere to the necessary precautionary measures. They had to adjust their schedules and programmes to accommodate care giving roles while as per the norm their male counter-parts  were less  affected by care-giving responsibilities. 

In the wake of the global pandemic women have demonstrated their ability, skills, and knowledge in addressing COVID 19. Arguably most of the countries that have been more successful in addressing the pandemic and its health and broader socio-economic impacts, are headed by women. For instance, Heads of Government in Denmark, Ethiopia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, New Zealand and Slovakia have been widely recognised for the  rapidity, decisiveness and effectiveness of their national response to COVID-19, as well as the compassionate communication of fact-based public health information.

Yet the reality is women are Heads of Governments in only 20 countries world-wide.

Despite demonstrating their ability to lead, women are perpetually subjected to a myriad of structural and systematic barriers which they have to navigate such as marginalisation and exclusion within the social, political, economic and cultural spheres. For instance, the Global Gender Gap Report 2020 shows that while some progress has been made, women’s participation in the labour market is still low. ‘On average, only 55% of adult women are in the labour market, versus 78% of men, while over 40% of the wage gap (the ratio of the wage of a woman to that of a man in a similar position) and over 50% of the income gap (the ratio of the total wage and non-wage income of women to that of men) are still to be bridged

Women’s participation in senior and managerial positions within the workspace also leaves a lot to be desired. Globally, women account for 36% of private sector’s managers and public sector’s officials. Politically, women’s participation in leadership positions also continues to lag behind. Only 24.7% of the global Political Empowerment gap has been closed in 2020.

Within the peace and security space, despite the acknowledgement that women’s participation in conflict prevention and resolution can improve outcomes during, and after the conflict, they continue to be excluded and marginalised from formal peace processes. Between 1992 and 2019, women constituted, on average, 13 percent of negotiators, 6 percent of mediators, and 6 percent of signatories in major peace processes around the world.  While some progress has been made, about seven out of 10 peace processes still exclude women. 

In addition to the marginalisation and exclusion women face in leadership, they are also perpetually subjected to various forms of structural and physical violence such as violence against women and girls (VAWG). VAWG is a global scourge with statistics showing that 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/ or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime, while 38 % of murders of women are committed by a male intimate partner .

In the wake of COVID 19, there have been reports of an increase of VAWG across different parts of the world as many women and girls found themselves in lockdowns with their abusers in private spaces, away from the public eye. A further challenge was posed by the restrictions in movement which made it hard for women to seek help and protection, while it is no secret that as the world shifted  its focus to fighting COVID, less attention and resources were availed to address abused women’s and girls’ needs. 

So much has been said about learning new ways of doing things during the COVID 19 era including new ways of working, doing business and networking, etc. It is time the world unlearnt some of the harmful behaviours and treatment that women are perpetually subjected to and learnt new ways of respecting, acknowledging, recognising and promoting women’s leadership and equal treatment in decision making spaces. It is about time our leaders confronted the inequality and violence that women are perpetually subjected to with the same vigour that they have demonstrated in fighting pandemics such as COVID 19. It is time women’s leadership and equality became a norm and not an exception!