Nepal | August 08, 2020

Corona response: Why are there not enough women leaders at the forefront?

Novela Acharya
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Women make up 70 per cent of the health workers around the globe. This puts them at the highest risk, says UN Women. Although there is a high ratio of women in health care services, their percentage in the legislative body is just 25 per cent, and as state leaders it is as low as 6 per cent. This difference is especially evident during a health crisis, which includes the current global pandemic, COVID-19.

In an exemplary display of determination, women corona warriors are found to be instrumental in Nepal’s war against the virus. They range from female health workers to women in the security sector, namely the army and police. Women health workers, as always, are actively involved in tackling the disease and serving the citizens of their respective countries worldwide, but despite this, their representation is very low in the decision-making bodies. It is even lower in the fight against the corona pandemic. The major reason behind this is that the emergency-response taskforce created around the world is male-dominated, whether it be in the world’s developed nations, like the USA and the UK, or under-developed nations like ours.

The ideas and opinions of women highly matter in times of a crisis as the decisions and actions taken represent the most vulnerable groups of the society as well as those who are severely affected in and during such emergencies. Both the government and decision-makers need to make sure that the voices of women are heard, and major decisions taken to control the disease as well as planning and budgeting the resources to tackle the pandemic include the gender perspective. A gender sensitive policy that responds to the needs of women not only benefits the women but overall society at large.

Since the start of the pandemic it has been observed that countries with women executive heads have tackled the pandemic better than those countries with no women in key positions. According to a report by CNN, the early interventions made by the Taiwan government, led by Tsai Ing-Wen, a former law professor and the first female president of the country, helped control the pandemic so well that it has already started providing medical personnel and exporting millions of face masks and testing kits to the European countries and others.

Not only Taiwan, four of the five Nordic countries – Finland, Norway, Ireland and Denmark – which have women heads of government, have much lower death rates and intensity of the pandemic compared to other European nations. Sweden, the only Nordic country which is not led by a woman, refused to go into lockdown, and has seen its death rate soar compared to other Scandinavian countries.

In the East Pacific, New Zealand has been exemplary in executing the lockdown and managing the pandemic. The lady Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has responded to the crisis with clarity and compassion, and even demoted a male cabinet member to a non-cabinet ministerial rank for defying the government-announced lockdown. Seeing the success of New Zealand, Singapore has locked down the country till June to combat the pandemic. It is definitely still early and inappropriate to be making distinctions about man and woman, but the examples clearly show that the large number of political leaders who took early actions to contain COVID-19 were women leaders.

Worldwide, there are very few women in ministerial positions or in the executive body. Those women who are in the ministerial positions are also sidelined in times of crisis when power needs to be exercised for a proper response. In the case of Nepal also, the High-Level Committee formed by the Prime Minister to take timely measures for the prevention and control of the coronavirus doesn’t have any woman minister or any women experts or bureaucrats. Even the immediate advisors to the Prime Minister comprise all men. Due to this, the decisions and actions taken do not include the perception of women about the situation and the ideas that they could have given to handle the situation differently. The ongoing medical emergency has further silenced the voices of women and taken the gender inequality issue one step further.

As new corona cases emerge daily worldwide, including Nepal, we cannot afford to waste time. It is high time women’s voices were given a priority so that we could create a more equitable society as well as save thousands of lives and create a healthier future for our citizens. Women’s representation and participation, including in the leadership positions, shows just how democratic practices are being followed by our government. The government needs to step up and increase the involvement of women, not only at the manual execution level but also in the strategic planning and decision-making processes at the forefront of the crisis. This is important as women’s voices need to be heard and reflected in all major decisions to address women-specific problems and vulnerabilities, problems of differently-able, single and senior women in the larger strategic framework in the fight against COVID-19.

Acharya is an alumna of Gender and Development Studies at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), Thailand.

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