From: Alice Taylor
Comment: COVID-19 Pandemic Pushes Back Women’s Equality in Albania and Abroad

The COVID-19 pandemic has erased decades of progress towards equality between men and women, according to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and various other international and national organizations.

In a statement released ahead of International Women’s Day, Guterres said the COVID-19 has exacerbated issues such as unemployment, increases in the burden of unpaid care, disrupted schooling, and an escalating crisis of exploitation, trafficking, and domestic violence. Women’s rights have been upended and their rights eroded. These consequences will far outlast the pandemic, he warned.

The theme of this year’s date is highlighting the transformative power of women’s equal participation. The evidence is clear; when women lead in government there are bigger investments in social protection and greater inroads in the fight against poverty. When women are in parliament, the focus on climate change is greater, peace agreements are more enduring, and human rights are given more weight.

Guterres noted that in a male-dominated world with a male-dominated culture, gender equality is essentially a question of power but males are an essential part of the solution. He called on governments to adopt gender quotas, encourage equal participation, and offer female-targeted stimulus packages.

But the statements of the Sec-Gen have also been backed up with figures from PwC who analyzed data from developed countries, relating to women’s positions in the workplace. They found that the pandemic was pushing back progress to 2017 levels.

A recent survey of men across 33 countries found that 98% of women want men to help in addressing inequality issues, yet less than half of men were willing or ready to help.

“The problem of widespread gender inequality is no secret, but our latest research is a powerful reminder that the advances the world has made to combat this discrimination can be easily lost if we are not careful,” said Yvonne van Bokhoven, executive vice president at LEWIS. “We need everyone, men and women, to take steps now to empower women by speaking up, being allies, and working to address systemic gender inequalities.”

39% of women said men should speak out against inequality and a third said they wanted men to take on more household duties.

“You don’t need to personally be a victim of discrimination to understand why we need to fight it,” said Chris Lewis, CEO of LEWIS. “It’s clear that men can – and should – do more to help. Our hope is this research will help shine a light on the challenges women face to make all of us stronger allies in the fight against inequality.”

Again, the COVID-19 pandemic had a huge impact on findings. A quarter of women said they were more stressed due to having to take on more responsibilities. More than a quarter said they had been overlooked for promotions during the last year due to their childcare responsibilities. Furthermore, more women were furloughed during the pandemic, further exacerbating an already significant gap between employment opportunities for men and women.

Some unsurprising results indicated that men were twice as likely to say that inequality is no longer an issue for women. Only 28% said they would speak out on these issues.

“What this research emphasizes is the need to take action now more than ever,” said Edward Wageni, Global Head of HeForShe. “COVID-19 has only exacerbated gender inequalities across the globe and we each have a role to play to ensure that not only do we build back better, but we also build back equal.”

The UNDP has also been vocal on the need to support women in lower-income countries with a temporary basic income during the pandemic would help prevent rising poverty and inequality issues. They noted that women have been harder hit by the pandemic and this temporary income would provide short-term financial security for hundreds of millions of women.

The large-scale TBI scheme proposed by UNDP shows that a monthly investment of 0.07 % of developing countries’ GDP, or $51 billion PPP (purchase power parity), could provide reliable financial security to 613 million working-aged women living in poverty, providing them with much-needed income and alleviating the economic pressures they face day-to-day.

“Governments can take action right now by redirecting just 0.07 % of their GDP each month directly to women experiencing severe socio-economic stress because a monthly basic income could ensure survival in these unprecedented times,” said Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator.

“The benefits of such a meaningful investment could not only help women and their families absorb the shock of the pandemic, but also empower women to make independent decisions about money, livelihoods and life choices.“

Recent findings by the Bank of America found that full gender equality globally could increase the world’s GDP by $28 trillion by 2025.

“Closing gender and race gaps in education and employment would have generated $2.6 trillion more in economic output in 2019 and the cumulative gains from 1990 would have been $70 trillion in 2019 dollars, all else equal. Furthermore, closing the racial earnings gap resulting from disparities in health, education, incarceration, and employment opportunities would boost trend growth by 0.5% per year through 2050,” according to the report.

The gender gap had been backsliding in the US prior to the pandemic but COVID-19 provided extra setbacks. According to the report, 96 million will slide into extreme poverty, half of which will be women. It also found that women were more likely to lose their jobs and were taking on more responsibility at home.

At the current rate, the report said it will take 257 years to close the gender economic gap, a significant increase from the 2016 projection of 170 years.

In Albania, the situation remains complex. During 2020, six women were murdered and 2980  reported domestic violence to the authorities. Some 12 cases of gender-based violence were reported every single day totaling 4701, yet the police only prosecuted 13% of them. 

It’s estimated that the actual number of incidents of domestic violence increased in 2020 due to the COVID-19 lockdown. This was a trend seen globally and reported by various local NGOs. It’s likely however that women were less likely to report violence against them as they were trapped at home and unable to do so, or leave the violent situation.

Albania has one of the highest instances of domestic violence in Europe with over 50% of women experiencing a form of violence at least once in her life.

In terms of unpaid work, Albanian women spend almost a quarter of their life doing unpaid work such as cooking, cleaning, and taking care of children and family members. In stark contrast, Albanian men spend just 3.47% of their life doing similar tasks. This equates to at least EUR 27 million worth of unpaid work per month, that Albanian women are undertaking. For a poor country, this is huge.

According to a UN Women Rapid Gender Assessment survey measuring the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic on women and men in Albania, 76 % of women and 66 % of men in the country reported spending more time on unpaid domestic work during the lockdown period. The survey also revealed that the burden of household and care responsibilities were not distributed evenly, as only 46% of women versus 67% of men in Albania reported receiving help from their partner.

“Living in large families with different generations, in poor housing conditions, with low economic incomes and in challenging family relations and gender roles, and working from home in more than 70 %of the cases has increased the burden on women to simultaneously provide unpaid family care,” says Fabiola Laço Egro, Executive Director of the Today for the Future Community Development Center in Tirana.

Sadly, there was a lack of social care and protection action plans that focus on the needs of women in Albania.

The survey in Albania also revealed that women’s psychological and mental health was more affected than men’s (69 vs. 57 %). The gap was widest among employed women aged 35–44, who experienced greater psychological distress compared to men of the same age (72 versus 58 %).

But there are many other concerns as well. As of 2018, only 8% of Albanian women owned land. This is due to traditions that mean women are unable to sign as the “head of a household” in legal affairs. Sex-selective abortions are still very much a thing, and women and girls are still undergoing hymen surgery to make them appear as virgins to their husbands.

In addition to this, the COVID-19 pandemic significantly worsened access of women and girls, especially those in rural areas, who want to access abortion, contraception, and sexual healthcare. 

Leah Hoctor, the Regional Director for Europe’s Center for Reproductive Rights, has called on many governments, including the Albanian government, to intervene. She states “European governments must act urgently to guarantee safe and timely access to abortion care during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The Albanian government has done little to support the rights and equality of women and girls, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. They may boast of a high ratio of women in politics, but the reality on the ground for regular citizens and members of vulnerable communities demonstrates there is much work to be done.