In Antigua and Barbuda, as is the case with most countries in the region, Covid-19 presents an unprecedented social and economic shock which has the potential to derail significant gains made toward the achievement of the sustainable development goals, particularly in relation to hunger, achieving food security and ensuring healthy lives.
One such goal that is quite often overlooked however, relates to the promotion of gender equality and empowerment for women and girls through inclusive, sustainable economic growth. It is not just that the Covid-19 pandemic affects everyone, the fact is that it affects different groups of people differently and widens already existing socio-economic inequalities.
Basic facts derived from literature on development economics, suggest that greater female economic participation and greater gender parity grows the economy faster and more equitably. Not only are there greater socioeconomic benefits for women, but also gains in poverty reduction, environmental sustainability, consumer choice, innovation and improved decision making on a wide range of issues.
Several empirical studies have indicated women generally tend to devote more of the household budget to the education, health and general nutrition of the family than men. Moreover, most entrepreneurs involved in micro, small and medium sized enterprises in the developing world are women.
These observations bear importance for countries like Antigua and Barbuda where most of the households are female headed, single-earner types. According to a 2012 World Bank Study – The Effect of Women’s Economic Power in Latin America and the Caribbean – women have played a significant role in the decline of poverty, with female labour market income contributing to a 30% reduction in extreme poverty over a 10-year period.
With the economic uncertainty created by the pandemic, informal jobs, which account for most of women’s employment, have been the first to go. These entrepreneurs face the severe threat of income loss as women, and are more likely than men to lose their entire revenue during this period. Moreover, with children at home during lockdowns, women are shouldering most of the care work, further reducing their economic opportunities.
This also means that girls will likely end up worse off because of COVID-19. In times of financial distress, many low-income families refuse to send their girls back to schools as they need them to handle additional housework or generate extra income through informal work. Besides the economic toll, COVID-19 has also disrupted essential health services for women and children.
Some women cannot obtain the contraceptives they rely on for their health and family planning and Gender-Based Violence (GBV) is on the rise – in numbers and intensity. GBV services were already inadequate before the COVID pandemic and are now even more negatively impacted.
Considering this, it becomes clear that if there is to be any post-Covid 19 recovery, it should encompass a measured, detailed and substantial thrust towards addressing the disproportionate effects that the virus has had on women in Antigua and Barbuda. The country has been making steady advances in this respect, but further challenges remain to address the institutional, systemic and socio-cultural challenges faced by women in the society.
While the government has provided some opportunities for women to access low-income housing, work experience training, direct cash transfers and school support for single mothers through the various welfare schemes it provides, there is a need for greater reform for social protection that is more gender sensitive. Policies such as safe transport, childcare support, and anti-sexual harassment in the workplace should be given greater emphasis in the journey to economic recovery.
To help parents and other community members understand the benefits of girls’ education and encourage girls’ return to schools, awareness campaigns that use online platforms, radio, TV, and mobile messages coupled with interactive community sessions should be embraced.
To curb gender-based violence, resources should be directed to strengthen services for women in a post-lockdown scenario as a matter of priority. Technology solutions such as WhatsApp and other forms of communications can also help survivors report instances of abuse and domestic violence.
The road to recovery will be a long one, but failure to examine seriously the way will delay the country’s recovery strategy if it does not include women and girls, and will only serve to hamper and reduce its hard-fought efforts to achieve prosperity for all.