Women and conflict in West Africa and beyond

By Dr Diene Keita, Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director (Programme), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)

Photo: Fred Marie

Women are deliberately targeted in conflict

When conflict happens, the rule of law breaks down, freedom of movement is restricted, institutions and services are weakened, creating a lack of access to social services and information, and to food and livelihoods. This situation affects the entire population, but it disproportionately affects women. Research has shown that female-headed households are more vulnerable to stress and less capable of absorbing shocks, due to gender inequality, cultural restrictions and the feminisation of poverty. Conflict affects women and men differently and existing gender inequalities are compounded in times of conflict. Women and girls make up a large proportion of internally displaced populations (IDPs) and refugees. In Burkina Faso, 51% of IDPs are girls under the age of 14. Moreover, gender norms that associate masculinity with aggression make men more likely to perpetrate violence against those over whom they have power – usually women and children.

Overall, conflict increases women’s exposure and vulnerability to sexual and gender-based violence. The Sahel and West Africa Club’s publication on Women and Conflict in West Africa, shows that Islamist organisations and militias deliberately target women. In north-eastern Nigeria where Boko Haram has its roots, women are victims of systemic attacks and kidnappings, and are forced into slavery as sex slaves, informants and even fighters. Additionally, women in conflict are victims of rape and forced prostitution, pregnancy, abortion, sterilisation and marriage, as well as many other forms of sexual violence. The higher risk and exposure to sexual and gender-based violence during conflict leads to increased reproductive health problems, which, compounded with the lack of access to health services in particular in conflict settings, have a severely detrimental effect on women and girls. Age compounds gender discrimination and disparities: in conflict and post-conflict contexts, adolescent girls and young women face even higher risks. Moreover, conflict widens the gender gap in school enrolment and retention.

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Think global, act local: unpacking progress towards ending child marriage and averting the setbacks of COVID-19

By Chiara Orlassino, Research Adviser and Gabrielle Szabo, Senior Gender Equality Adviser, Save the Children UK1

In 2021, over 28,000 girls got married on International Women’s Day. Ten years from now, the number might still be as high as 26,000 – a far cry from the net zero target of Agenda 2030 (Fig. 1). The grim estimate for 2030 doesn’t even take into account the impact of COVID-19 on child marriage rates, although evidence shows that the pandemic is having a detrimental effect on girls’ rights. With only 10 years to go to 2030, we reflect on progress made on one of the most important Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and call for urgent action on inequalities in particular, which COVID-19 is exacerbating. The Generation Equality forum convened by UN Women is a timely process to prioritise gender equality in recovery efforts, building momentum around economic and political investment in girls’ rights.

Last year, Save the Children’s Global Girlhood Report 2020 shed light on progress towards key targets since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action 25 years prior. Among others, child marriage emerged as one area where strides forward had been particularly fragile and at risk of a dramatic reversal due to COVID-19. Our analysis estimates that the economic impacts of the pandemic alone will put up to half a million more girls at risk of child marriage worldwide by 2025, although the real effect will likely be much larger.

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Dewi’s story: discriminatory social institutions hold women back in Southeast Asia

By Pierre de Boisséson, Economist, OECD Development Centre and Alejandra Meneses, Policy Analyst, OECD Development Centre

Human development relies on three fundamental building blocks — health, education and income. A recent report from the OECD Development Centre shows that in Southeast Asia, women’s human development remains severely constrained by discriminatory social institutions, in other words, formal and informal laws, practices and social norms. These socially and culturally embedded norms, attitudes and behaviour limit women’s ability to control and make decisions on their own health, education and access to labour opportunities. Dewi’s story is especially telling.

Dewi’s teen pregnancy: putting her health at risk and her life on hold

Dewi is 16. She lives with her family and spends most of her time helping her mother with household chores, visiting her friends and doing her homework. Dewi does not know it yet but her life is about to change. She finds out she is pregnant. She never had proper access to sexual and reproductive health education and services, and now her parents and community want to marry her to the father of the child.

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Aux racines de la violence contre les femmes : comprendre ses causes profondes et comment y remédier

Par Hyeshin Park, Coordinatrice du programme Égalité femmes-hommes, et Gabrielle Woleske, Analyste de politiques publiques, Centre de développement de l’OCDE

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Chaque jour, 137 femmes sont tuées par leur partenaire ou un membre de leur famille. Une femme sur trois dans le monde a déjà subi des violences conjugales au cours de son existence. Alors que la violence à l’égard des femmes demeure un problème mondial persistant, nombreux sont ceux qui continuent de n’y voir qu’une simple affaire personnelle ou ne concernant que « certains hommes mauvais ». La nature généralisée de ce phénomène indique toutefois qu’il s’agit aussi d’un problème social collectif, prenant racine dans les normes sociales largement répandues et liées au concept de masculinité – c’est-à-dire les constructions sociales qui définissent la façon dont les hommes se comportent et, surtout, sont censés se comporter dans des contextes spécifiques pour être considérés comme de « vrais » hommes. Pour comprendre pourquoi certains hommes sont violents envers les femmes et y mettre un terme, il nous faut donc identifier et questionner les normes qui conduisent à ce type de comportements, et dépasser le discours qui voudrait restreindre ce problème à l’action individuelle de « certains hommes mauvais ».  

Norme 1 : Un « vrai » homme doit subvenir aux besoins de sa famille

Les normes masculines sont diverses ; elles peuvent être nocives et restrictives – comme celles associées à une « masculinité toxique » –, ou équitables au regard de l’égalité des genres et flexibles. Le principal problème est que certaines masculinités promeuvent des conceptions très rigides de ce que signifie être un « vrai » homme, faisant ainsi pression sur les hommes et les garçons pour qu’ils se conforment aux idéaux sociaux de ce que serait la virilité. Les hommes qui acceptent et intériorisent ces normes sont, de fait, plus susceptibles de commettre des violences1. L’un de ces idéaux voudrait que les « vrais » hommes subviennent aux besoins de leur famille. Il s’agit en effet de l’une des attentes sociales les plus fortes et universelles à l’égard des hommes. Selon les données de 28 pays de l’Union européenne, en 2017, 43 % des personnes interrogées déclaraient ainsi que le rôle le plus important d’un homme est de gagner de l’argent, un pourcentage qui atteignait même 80 % en Bulgarie. En outre, en 2016, en Azerbaïdjan, la majorité des hommes estimaient qu’un homme sans revenus n’a aucune valeur.

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Gender-based violence: the ‘pandemic within a pandemic’ with devastating human and economic consequences

By Flavia Bustreo, Global leader for health & rights of women, children, adolescents & elderly & Former Assistant Director-General at WHO, Gabriela Ramos, Assistant Director-General for Social and Human Sciences, UNESCO and Felicia Knaul, Director, Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas, Professor, Department of Public Health Sciences at the Miller School of Medicine

Last year, in early February, we joined global leaders and Ministers from a number of countries at a landmark conference organised by the OECD on ending violence against women. The first of its kind, it reflected the rising recognition among OECD countries that violence against women is both a grave violation of human rights as well as an economic sinkhole. The COVID-19 crisis has magnified the existing ‘pandemic within a pandemic’ of violence, with devastating consequences for individuals, and for our societies and economies at large.

Even in non-pandemic times, the economic impact of gender-based violence is staggering and has traditionally been vastly underestimated. Considering only direct costs, gender-based violence reduces global gross domestic product (GDP) by 2% per year, equivalent to an annual loss of more than US$1.6 trillion. In some countries, the annual costs of gender-based violence have been estimated at more than 3.5% of GDP, nearly half of what OECD countries spend on average on all healthcare. These figures, however, are but the tip of the iceberg, accounting only for direct medical costs and immediate productivity losses. A broader model – taking account of the lost capabilities of survivors and caregivers, and how these traumas and hardships are transmitted across generations – would reveal a far higher figure of the cost of inaction.

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The sectoral and gendered impacts of COVID-19 in Africa

By Anzetse Were, Senior Economist FSD Kenya

Africa, like much of the world, is still in the throes of the COVID pandemic and related economic fallout. The pandemic has cost the continent about USD 69 billion per month and economic growth is projected to contract by 2.6% in 2020. This downturn is set to cost Africa at least $115 billion in output losses in 2020 with GDP per capita growth expected to contract by nearly 6.0 %. Additionally, the pandemic may push 40 million people into extreme poverty in 2020 across the continent, eroding at least five years of progress in fighting poverty.

Diverse sectoral impact

The sectoral impact of COVID-19 has been and will likely continue to be varied. Some sectors such as tourism, aviation and crude oil exports have been disproportionately hit in Africa, while COVID-19 is spurring certain types of digital technologies (such as mobile payments in Kenya and Rwanda), and food production in some countries has been resilient. This points to four main COVID impact-recovery sectoral performance paths (the chart is illustrative):

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Women in industry – why we need more gender-sensitive statistics

By Jenny Larsen, United Nations Industrial Development Organisation

Since COVID-19 emerged in late 2019, scientists have been poring over the data to understand better how the virus behaves and how to fight it. But studies show that many trials fail to take the sex of participants into account – meaning eagerly awaited vaccines or treatments could be less effective in the female population. Data from Global Health 50/50 show that as of December 2020 only 58 percent of COVID-19 cases reported by 186 countries had been disaggregated by sex, making it much harder to assess the impact of the virus across populations. 

From domestic violence to unpaid care work, these omissions reflect a much wider, longstanding data bias that underreports or even misreports the life experiences of women and girls, in an era when our lives are increasingly dominated by an ocean of data. In her recent book, Invisible Women, Caroline Criado Perez writes that we have unconsciously created the world as male: “Women are being left out of numbers, data, the way in which we allocate our resources, the way in which we design safety for cars, the way in which we design medicine.”

The consequences are far-reaching: without reliable sex and gender-disaggregated data and gender statistics, decisions taken by policymakers, scientists or researchers, be it about health, the economy or elsewhere, risk leaving women behind and widening inequalities. 

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COVID-19, an opportunity to build back better for women migrant workers

By Dr. Jean D’Cunha, Senior Global Advisor on International Migration, UN Women

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the systemic inequalities in our societal fabric and ethic that largely function off intersecting forms of discrimination, especially for women migrant workers. Women and girls constitute nearly half of the 272 million international migrants, and a large number of internal migrants. 8.5 million of the 11.8 million overseas migrant domestic workers and a majority of the 56 million local domestic workers worldwide are women. Women, comprise 70 percent of the global health workforce at the frontlines of response, many of whom are migrants.

Moreover, women’s contribution to all types of care, including unpaid care, amounts to $11 trillion globally (9 percent of global GDP). Protecting women and migrant women workers’ rights and supporting their full potential is critical to economic recovery. Despite this, economic packages invest inadequately in migrant women’s priorities, even though evidence also shows that the socio-economic impacts of the crisis are worse for women.

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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

Lire ce blog en français

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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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