Jharkhand, India -Group of Indian school girls in class

Spiralling gender inequality is not inevitable: here’s how we can fix it

By Gabriela Bucher, Executive Director, Oxfam International

The more we listen to women’s rights leaders across the world, the harder it is to ignore the reality that we have been witnessing profound and staggering setbacks to gender equality.

Despite the huge progress we have made, it was already tragic that it would take an estimated 99 years to achieve gender equality. This has now been set back by a generation in the wake of the pandemic, to 135 years.

Women the world over have faced an ignored pandemic of increased gender-based violence.  Nearly 1 in 2 women have reported that they or a woman they know faced violence during the pandemic. Over eleven million girls may not go back to school after the pandemic.

Around the world, women are bearing a heavier load of unpaid care work – estimated even before the pandemic at 12.5 billion hours each day. This free labour keeps societies running but traps women at the bottom of the global economy.

Behind these data are stories of women and girls trapped with their abusers, and boys chosen ahead of girls to go to school by families who have lost their incomes.

And now, even as countries emerge from the worst of the pandemic, today’s cost-of-living crisis has become a survival test for women.  

I saw personally how the climate crisis, COVID-19 and conflict are fostering an unprecedented hunger crisis in East Africa. Women, such as Amina, who I met in Somalia, are being impacted most. Across the world, women are going hungry or eating last.

Yet we don’t seem to be asking an uncomfortable, harder question. Are these kinds of increases in gender inequality inevitable? And if it isn’t, who has the power to fix it?

At Oxfam we’re adamant: inevitable, it is not.

Take the global pandemic response – and the impact of inequitable access to COVID vaccines.

Many rich countries have undermined a proposal led by developing countries – and championed by a global ‘people’s vaccine’ movement – to enable qualified manufacturers across the Global South to sustainably manufacture and access vaccines, tests, and treatments, and break the monopolies held by hyper-profitable pharmaceutical corporations on them. A big-pharma-friendly deal has now been made at the World Trade Organization that is a far cry from the solution that was demanded.

Yet just imagine how many lives would have been saved had leaders chosen a ‘people’s vaccine’ at the start of the pandemic, bolstering health systems and getting vaccines the world over. But also imagine how many girls would still be in school, how much gender-based violence we could have prevented, how much more women could have earned, had leaders put people over profit.

Decisions have consequences. Far from an accident, time and time again we see an economic system that is extractive, patriarchal and elitist by design.

Take for example how women and girls suffer most when schools and hospitals are privatised for profit instead of run as quality public goods available to all. And when workers’ rights are undermined the world over, and women are kept at the bottom of supply chains. We know when care work is not treated as real work, women have to do it anyway.

Take now the attack on people’s rights in the United States, as the Supreme Court ended the constitutional right to abortion. This will impact all women, and fall hardest on poor women, racialized women and gender-diverse people. It reminds us we can never take our progress for granted.

The deliberate omission and discrimination of women embedded in our economies and politics is a new way of beginning to understand a structure of gender-based violence.

The time is now to deploy evidence-based and equalising policies that drive progress for women everywhere. Today’s test-of-survival crisis makes this only more urgent. And we must take an intersectional approach: recognising that an economy designed to serve the richest is one in which the poorest people, women and racialized groups face the highest barriers to progress.

We need better laws. We need parliaments and governments to end sexist laws that deny 2.4 billion women access to equal economic opportunities. Just as vital is addressing the sexist norms that devalue and discriminate against women, girls, transgender and non-binary people.

We need urgent, strategic investments, for example in social protection, and in national care systems, learning from countries like Uruguay. Nothing is more powerful than quality universal healthcare and education in reducing inequalities. That the World Bank’s private sector arm recently decided to stop investing in for-profit fee-charging private schools – a decision we applaud – is an example of how we must rein in a privatised model of education that excludes girls and the poorest children.

Resourcing can go a long way: the UN estimates that USD 42 billion could finance prevention and treatment programmes to end gender-based violence in 132 countries by 2030. We can fund this by taxing wealth – which is also a form of feminist policy – so the burden of taxation to fund universal public goods rests with the richest people, not the poorest women and racialized groups.

We need to urgently fix global rules – including on global taxation. Breaking monopolies held on Covid-19 vaccines and technologies remains vital. A technocratic fudge, today’s reality, will not do.

And let’s put diverse leadership behind the steering wheel, tackling barriers to political representation by women, racialized groups, and working-class people. Women account for only 25% of parliamentarians globally. And crucially we must support women’s rights organisations that have been hit hard.

These are all progressive and doable ideas, but we are seeing more of what has failed in the past – policies that hit the poorest hardest. Eighty-seven percent of the International Monetary Fund’s recent COVID-19 loans require developing countries to adopt tough new austerity measures, with disastrous consequences for gender equality. And if we thought today’s converging crises are driving up inequalities, it is but a trailer for the consequences of climate change.

Organize we must. That is where my hope is seeded, even in these challenging times.

There are examples from every country. Women and gender diverse people across Latin America have made immense progress in expanding the decriminalisation of abortion in recent years. Look at Argentina. My own country Colombia has fully legalized abortion. We can learn from the efforts of these movements for bodily autonomy.

We have the power to act. Inequality is not inevitable; unprecedented reversals for women and girls can be avoided. The setbacks we are experiencing during these calamitous times must be a springboard for policies to create a more equal world.