End Poverty Day 2020 heightens the urgency of fighting global poverty, particularly in light of setbacks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. As highlighted by the Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2020 report, we’re not only far from achieving the goal of ending extreme poverty by 2030, but rather moving in the opposite direction. The goal of this year’s theme – achieving social and environmental justice for all – is also likely to be unmet, thwarted by persistent gender inequalities holding half of the world population back. While devastating for all, poverty – much as the COVID-19 crisis – is not gender blind. Women represent a majority of the poor in most regions and the gap may further widen: according to recent analysis an estimated 121 women per 100 men will be living in extreme poverty (living on USD 1.90 a day or less) by 2030.
As the pandemic continues to crush global labor and financial markets, more vulnerable groups – among which the already poor and women – are bearing the brunt of the crisis. In many countries, women’s economic opportunities are already limited by unequal access to economic assets, education, and paid work. With 740 million women globally in informal employment and a majority employed in services – which have been hit hardest by lockdowns and slowdowns – job losses resulting from the crisis have particularly affected female employment and income. In addition, confinement measures have further added to the disproportionate burden of childcare and unpaid domestic work taken on by women, and created new threats for women. In many countries, women and girls have been exposed to increased risk of violence and child marriage, in a context of limited access to services due to court closures and restrictions on public mobility, among others.
In order to prevent an even greater number of women from being pushed into extreme poverty in the years to come, specific measures are needed to safeguard women’s economic empowerment and job opportunities during Covid-19. Examples include tackling the childcare crisis, helping women navigate family law issues, addressing gender-based violence, and designing social protection programs that empower women during the pandemic. Beyond immediate measures, strong action must be taken to reduce persistent gender inequalities, including occupational segregation, asset ownership and unpaid labor, which risk leaving women behind on the run to reduce global poverty. Other pervasive forms of gender discrimination – also a key constraint to women’s economic opportunities – include the unequal treatment of women and men by the law.
While much progress has been made over the last 50 years, persistent gaps remain. As evidenced by the Women, Business and the Law research, in many countries women’s economic rights are – still today – limited in certain areas. In the face of increased exposure to violence at home during Covid-19, women in 35 economies have no legislation in place to protect them. In trying to ensure their livelihoods and that of their families by entering the labor market, women in 90 economies face at least one restriction on the jobs they can hold. If pregnant, and thus in need of even greater protection, laws in 38 economies do not prohibit their dismissal. And if trying to ensure their financial security through asset ownership, the laws in many countries are not on women’s side. In 19 economies, women face unequal ownership rights, and in 43, their access to assets through inheritance is limited in comparison with men’s.
As we reflect upon the challenges facing the world to make progress in ending poverty, effective responses must include the specific needs of women for a resilient recovery post-COVID-19. Strong action to promote inclusive growth and investing in reducing gender inequality must go hand in hand if we are to reverse the impacts of COVID on poverty reduction. After all, evidence has made clear that economies can only reach their full potential with the full participation of both women and men.