COVID-19 and the Kafala system: protecting African female migrant workers in Gulf countries

By Mona Ahmed, Junior Policy Analyst, OECD Development Centre

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected women and men differently depending on the sector they work in, their employment situation and their access to labour and social protection measures. Domestic and care work, traditionally female-dominated, form one of the most marginalised, undervalued and least protected employment sectors. It therefore comes as no surprise that the current crisis has not reinvented the wheel, but rather amplified persistent vulnerabilities faced by female migrant workers.

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are home to the world’s largest number of international labour migrants. According to a study carried out by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), 12% of the 28.1 million migrant workers in GCC countries in 2017 were African, with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait hosting almost 90 percent. Historically a destination for South and Southeast Asian workers, the growing demand in domestic labour has attracted a considerable number of East and West African women, mostly from Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Ghana. Despite their economic contribution in both origin and destination countries, the duties of child and elderly care, cleaning and food preparation are culturally devalued and receive limited social recognition.  

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Three root causes of violence against women and how to tackle them

By Hyeshin Park, Gender Programme Co-ordinator and Gabrielle Woleske, Policy Analyst, OECD Development Centre

Every day, 137 women are killed by their partner or a family member. And one in three women worldwide have experienced intimate partner violence (IPV) in their lifetime. While violence against women remains a persistent, global problem, many continue to view it only as an individualistic issue or the actions of “some bad men”. However the widespread nature of the problem indicates that violence against women is also a collective, social problem, rooted in the widely-held social norms surrounding masculinities – socially constructed notions about how men behave and importantly, are expected to behave in specific settings to be considered ‘real’ men. To understand why some men perpetrate violence against women and to end it, we must uncover and address the drivers that lead to such behaviour and move beyond the discourse that simply attributes it to the individual actions of “some bad men”.

Driver 1: The norm that ‘real’ men are breadwinners

Masculine norms are diverse and can be harmful and restrictive – like those associated with “toxic masculinity” – or gender-equitable and flexible. The critical issue is that some masculinities promote very rigid understandings of what it means to be a ‘real’ man, thus putting pressure on men and boys to live up to the ideals of a socially constructed idea of manhood. Indeed, the men who accept and internalise these norms are more likely to commit violent acts1. One such ideal is that ‘real’ men have to be breadwinners and financial providers for their family. In fact, this is one of the strongest and most universal social expectations that societies have for men. Data from EU-28 countries shows that in 2017, 43% of respondents declared that the most important role of a man is to earn money, and up to 80% said so in Bulgaria for example. Moreover, in 2016 in Azerbaijan, a majority of men declared that a man who does not have an income is of no value.

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Preventing a child marriage pandemic

By Gabrielle Szabo, Senior Gender Equality Adviser and Chiara Orlassino, Research Adviser, Save the Children UK


This blog is part of a series on tackling COVID-19 in developing countries. Visit the OECD dedicated page to access the OECD’s data, analysis and recommendations on the health, economic, financial and societal impacts of COVID-19 worldwide.

Shumi, 16, avoided child marriage with the support of Jasmin, a neighbour and Save the Children-trained peer leader who runs an advocacy group for girls in the village. Photo: Tom Merilion/Save The Children/Bangaladesh

By New Year’s Eve, half-a-million girls may already have married as a result of the economic crisis caused by COVID-19. New analysis from our Global Girlhood Report suggests that by 2025, 2.5 million girls may marry as children. These marriages will add to the estimated 12 million child marriages that take place every year, 2 million of which involve girls under 15 years of age.

These increases will continue over the next decade, but they are not a challenge for future leaders and communities – they are a challenge for today. The risks that set girls on a path to child marriage are already mounting, and materialising. Decision-makers and gender equality advocates must ask ourselves what we can do to stop COVID-19 triggering a child marriage pandemic now. Fortunately, our history already holds many of the answers and we are learning more about how to respond to new challenges from each other every day.

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The gender dimension of COVID-19: a wake-up call for business

By Bathylle Missika, Head of Division – Networks, Partnerships and Gender, OECD Development Centre, and Mathias Vicherat Secretary General of Danone and co-chair of the OECD Development Centre’s EMnet Working Group on Sustainability


This blog is part of a series on tackling COVID-19 in developing countries. Visit the OECD dedicated page to access the OECD’s data, analysis and recommendations on the health, economic, financial and societal impacts of COVID-19 worldwide.


covid-19-gender-impactAlthough men seem to be hit harder by COVID-19 than women from a medical perspective, the economic and health impact on women is becoming increasingly severe as the disease spreads around the world, and may well prove particularly devastating in emerging and developing economies. When crafting responses and recovery plans, governments and businesses must pay special attention to how the pandemic and the resulting crisis affect women and girls and how to address their specific needs. This will be key to both containing the economic and social fallout of the crisis, but also to facilitating recovery.

Women are at the forefront of the battle against the pandemic as they make up almost 70% of the healthcare workforce, while being largely under-represented in leadership in the healthcare sector. Women also work in sectors largely impacted by the crisis such as the hospitality business or the garment industry, the latter employing 60 million workers around the world, nearly 75% of whom are women. For example, in Bangladesh, as brands and retailers declared force majeure and cancelled orders, about 1 million of the 4.1 million mostly women workers in the sector lost their jobs. Moreover, lockdowns worsen the risks of violence, exploitation, abuse or harassment against women. Finally, and most importantly from an economic perspective, women are disproportionately affected by the crisis due to their position on the margins of the economy. Indeed, nearly 60% of the world’s workers make their livelihoods in the informal economy, and in many of the world’s poorest countries, it is working women who are most likely to be found in informal employment. In Africa for example, 90% of employed women are in informal employment compared to 83% of men. Tens of millions of informal workers have already been affected by COVID-19. Many of these women will not be rescued by social safety nets, as access to benefits frequently depends on formal participation in the labour force. Continue reading

COVID-19: time for gender inclusive decision-making

By Salma Al-Rashid, Women 20 Engagement Group Sherpa for the G20


This blog is part of a series on tackling COVID-19 in developing countries. Visit the OECD dedicated page to access the OECD’s data, analysis and recommendations on the health, economic, financial and societal impacts of COVID-19 worldwide.


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Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India. 30 March 2020. Photo: Shutterstock

Mainstreaming gender equality is an intrinsic part on the road to recovery from COVID-19.

2020 is a pivotal year for public policy, with the COVID-19 pandemic affecting at least 183 countries. Countries and multinational institutions are struggling as the pandemic not only tests our healthcare systems but creates chaos in our economies with implications far beyond previous financial crises. There is a danger, illuminated by the absence of any language around gender at the G20 Extraordinary virtual Summit on COVID-19 that the important strides made in the last fifteen years to balance women in policymaking are at risk. The consequences of this would be short-sighted as we start to rebuild economic sectors and labour forces.

In the immediate term, we know that women are a vital part of the healthcare infrastructure that is battling the pandemic head-on. Women comprise almost 7 out of 10 health and social care workers and contribute $3 trillion annually to global health, half in the form of unpaid care work. This includes highly skilled workers – in OECD countries, just under 50 percent of doctors are female, and this proportion has been increasing as the share of female graduates continues to rise – and those in lower-skilled positions. Continue reading

To be it, girls and boys need to see it

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By Gabriela Bucher, Chief Operating Officer, Plan International

Domestic-violence-kidsWhy representation is key to eliminating gender-based violence.

We entered Women’s Month during a landmark year for girls’ and women’s rights, when a number of hallmark standards for women’s human rights globally — from the Beijing Declaration to the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 — are being reviewed and renewed. But decades after these agreements were signed, millions of girls and women remain subject to gender-based violence. 84 million girls worldwide are trapped in child marriages and subject to intimate partner violence. 3 million girls are still at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM) every year. It’s time for drastic action.

Gender-based violence is rooted in outdated, entrenched and deeply harmful attitudes about gender that pervade in our societies. The Social Institutions and Gender Index shows that intimate partner violence, for example, is higher in countries where it is most socially accepted. To eliminate gender-based violence around the world we must tackle the problem at its source by unpicking harmful gender norms, beginning at an early age and empowering young people to becoming ambassadors for gender equality within their own communities. Continue reading

Are Men Frozen in Time? We Need to Transform rigid Masculinities

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By Ravi Verma, Regional Director, International Center for Research on Women (ICRW)

man-brain-in-cageA friend told me recently, “While I am able to fight against the rules set for me and continue my struggle to do so, I feel helpless about my father and brothers. I realise and openly acknowledge how they have also been victims of rules and norms set by what we call “Patriarchy”. Unfortunately, the rules for them have remained unchanged, they seem to have been frozen in time.”

One of the greatest oversights in recent times has been to equate gender with women and gender equality with women’s empowerment, ultimately leaving men out of the picture. This implies that masculine norms need not be questioned, and women should strive to be more like men. Evidence and data however show that thinking of gender equality as conforming to masculine norms is unhelpful for the well-being of both women and men. In fact, the norms and practices that men continue to associate with gender roles and relations seem outdated in the context of changing social expectations today.
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A “good wife” married to a “real man”: Three million girls still at risk of Female Genital Mutilation

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By Gaëlle Ferrant, Economist, and Estelle Loiseau, Gender Programme Officer, OECD Development Centre

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Three million girls are still at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM) every year. Twenty-five years after adopting the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (articles 39 and 93) and five years after setting the Sustainable Development Goal 5.3, which both call for the eradication of FGM, the world has failed to protect its women and girls. An estimated 200 million girls and women in Africa, the Middle East and Asia have fallen victim to FGM. However, the practice is not restricted to these regions only: 600 000 women in Europe and 513 000 women and girls in the United States have undergone FGM. These figures are unacceptable, especially when the exact total number remains unknown and is likely underestimated.

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Can hashtags hack gender norms? Seven Principles in Communicating for Gender Equality

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By Felix Zimmermann, Co-ordinator, Development Communication Network (DevCom), OECD Development Centre

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With individual actions, we can all help the world achieve gender equality. That is the message behind #GenerationEquality, the theme for International Women’s Day on Sunday, 8 March. While #GenerationEquality is easily tweeted, the 2019 Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) [1] tells us that, around the world, discrimination remains deeply entrenched. Many countries have enacted laws to protect women’s rights. But laws can be easier to change than attitudes and behaviours. Shockingly, SIGI tells us that almost 1 in 3 women around the world still believe that spousal violence is sometimes justified. Almost 1 in 2 people think that men make better political leaders than women.

To eradicate harmful practices and achieve gender equality, we need to change attitudes and shift gender norms.[2] The evidence confirms that those of us communicating for development have crucial roles to play. We can expose people to new ideas, encouraging them to reflect on their discriminatory attitudes or emulate positive role models. We can raise awareness about new laws and the benefits of gender equality, such as happiness or economic growth. UK-based think tank ODI shows how media initiatives like the interactive SSMK radio show helped transform the lives of adolescent girls in Nepal.

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Where are Men in the Drive to End Violence Against Women?

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By Gary Barker, President and CEO, Promundo-US


This blog is a part of the upcoming OECD High-Level Conference on Ending Violence Against Women, that will take place on 5-6 of February 2020


violence-women-stop#MeToo has led to an unprecedented global calling out of men’s use of violence against women — whether harassment, sexual assault or intimate partner violence. In addition, the last 10 years have seen advances in legal protections for survivors of violence and a massive expansion of research on what works, and what does not, to prevent gender-based violence. With all of this, men’s voices and actions, as allies, actors, and as partners in preventing gender-based violence are often either missing or silent. First, we should start by saying what we mean by gender-based violence (GBV). The phrase, while useful and necessary, often leads us to overlook the fact that we are mostly talking about men’s violence against women – harassment, sexual assault, physical, sexual, economic intimate partner violence in the home by male partners against female partners, and sexual exploitation, among others.

We now have decades of research on what drives men’s use of violence against women. Cultural and social norms that permit and encourage violence (as part of men’s domination and control of women’s lives in some settings); childhood experiences of witnessing or experiencing violence and other adverse early childhood experiences; complicity of men in power (as police, judges, policymakers) when other men use violence against women; and men’s greater economic and social power over women in many settings, are all factors. Poverty, war, displacement and the weakness or unwillingness of governments in responding to human rights violations also contribute to violence against women. It is important to affirm that all of these drivers of gender-based violence are human-made. Men’s violence against women is not wired into our genes, nor is it inevitable. It is both preventable and unacceptable. Continue reading