Home » Global Inequality, the SDGs and COVID-19: What About Women (and Girls)?

Global Inequality, the SDGs and COVID-19: What About Women (and Girls)?

Kathryn Robinson

Australian National University


The COVID-19 pandemic is not only a health crisis. For most people, its immediate effect has been an economic crisis. Health policy responses in 2020 focused on preventing transmission by shutting down social movement and interactions—and so, for most people, economic impacts have been the most immediate. As noted by Peter Sands, the Executive Director of the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, COVID-19 has “delivered a very powerful lesson on the interdependency of health and the economy” (Saldinger 2020). The lockdowns and enforced social isolation, as well as the principle public health policy tools deployed across the nations of the world to limit the spread of the virus, have revealed particular economic vulnerabilities in sectors of society, not to mention fundamental shortcomings of both national and global economies in the neoliberal era.

While the last few decades have brought prosperity and growth across the globe, they have also increased and entrenched social inequalities. Precarity for workers is an important feature of the neoliberal order, including, notably, for those whom the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed as “essential workers”—service providers in often low-paid and insecure work, such as food provision, transport and cleaning services. The “labour flexibility” of the gig economy “in developed economies shares many features with the informal sector long identified as a critical feature of the economy in developing economies” (Gerry 1987). Precarious employment—characterised by low wages or poor remuneration, and which does not provide the benefits of permanent employment such as sick leave, paid annual leave and so on—leaves such workers particularly vulnerable to the public health response to the pandemic. They cannot afford not to work, and the service-oriented nature of their labour makes it all but impossible to practise social isolation or social distancing—even when unwell—unlike many middle-class workers who have been able to continue in paid work in socially isolated conditions in their homes. Both the informal sector and the so-called “gig economy” have been revealed as high risk: to the workers themselves, and also to society at large as their everyday work conditions mean they are potential reservoirs of transmission.

The public health measures used to fight the epidemic have revealed (and reinforced) class inequalities, but have they also deepened gender inequalities? Many commentators have claimed that the impacts of social containment policies, the principal policy tool prior to the roll-out of vaccines,  have been worse for women and girls, and that as a consequence, women and girls need to be the specific, even privileged, focus of government and NGO interventions. Why is it argued that there should be a particular focus on women and girls, and what is the evidence that such focused targeting can address gender inequalities?

Invoking the concepts of “developed” and “developing” economies (see above) may seem old-fashioned, but the pandemic’s immediate economic impacts threaten to reverse many of the gains that have been made towards eradicating global poverty and inequality in the post-World War II era (The Lancet Public Health 2020; UNDP n.d.; Samudra and Setyonaluri 2020), in particular, the gains made towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); this issue can be seen in the Asia Pacific region (UNESCAP 2020). Adopted by the UN members in 2015, the seventeen SDGs provides policy settings for governments to achieve a more sustainable future by 2030, and can be applied to all nation-states regardless of economic status. The fifth SDG goal specifically aims to “[a]chieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” (United Nations n.d.).

The SDGs superseded the Millenium  Development Goals (MDGs) of 2000, which were focused on eradicating poverty (and hence inequality) by 2015. The optimism of global development agencies that there would be progress towards the MDGs on the back of economic growth in the global economy is evident in reports on progress towards achieving the goals. The World Development report, for example, no longer divides the world into lower, middle and upper-income nations, but instead measures all the nations of the world on a single scale in terms of their progress towards these goals.

Government, market—and family: Managing the crisis

The economic impacts of the disease and especially the policy responses of prevention starkly reveal the quotidian importance of the family unit in which all social lives are embedded. Under the conditions of social isolation (“iso”) and lockdown during the pandemic, the household/family has become the focus of everyday life and survival. COVID-19 public health measures throw into relief the importance of households as unheralded partners in policy implementation in a way that mirrors the similarly critical role of the family in welfare provision. Orloff (1993) points out that the public debate about welfare focuses on the market and the state, and ignores the critical role played by families/households, which are defined as  “private” in contradistinction to “the public.” The family is the principal site for social reproduction, the household bearing the cost of childrearing and, in particular, of the provisioning and care of workers. It is also the primary site of personal relations and emotional life. Lasch’s book title, for example, describes the household as a “haven in a heartless world” (1995 [1975]) since it is the focus of emotional sustenance for workers in market economies.

Women’s association with nurturing also makes them the key providers of emotional “services” of households, which in turn form the key sites for the reproduction of gender relations, especially in market economies (Robinson 2018). Early on in the pandemic, some media reports claimed increased risks of violence and abuse to women and children in households under lockdown (Kennedy 2020; Taub 2020).  Such reports, however, “demonise” the household as a private space outside the public gaze, and hence a dangerous place for women and girls.  Moreover, they obscure the place of the household as the site of everyday life as well as the space where affective connections are fostered under the conditions of lockdown. Hence, it is important for government policies to support the role of the family/household in social survival and social reproduction.

Picking up this theme of the gendered risks of COVID-19, governments, development agencies and NGOs in Asia Pacific have proclaimed differential impacts of the pandemic response on men and women, boys and girls (see UN Women Asia and the Pacific 2020). For example, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs (who is also Minister for Women) published a joint media release announcing a programme called “Partnering with our neighbours to respond to COVID-19,”  which was co-signed by seventeen Foreign Ministers from around the world, including countries in Europe, Africa, the Americas and the Pacific. It proclaimed:

COVID-19 affects women and men differently. The pandemic makes existing inequalities for women and girls, as well as discrimination of other marginalized groups such as persons with disabilities and those in extreme poverty worse and risk [sic] impeding the realization of human rights for women and girls [ie SDG 5]. Participation, protection and potential of all women and girls must be at the center of response efforts. …The restrictive measures designed to limit the spread of the virus around the world, increase the risk of domestic violence, including intimate partner violence (Australian Government 2020).

The policy’s emphasis on women and girls invokes the framing of policies for gender equity that has been in development for over three decades, beginning with the United Nations (UN) Decade for Women  (1970–1980) and International Women’s Year (1975). The 1975 World Conference on Women was a signature event in developing a global policy agenda for member states, and there were follow up conferences with outcome declarations in 1980 (Copenhagen), 1985 (Nairobi) and 1995 (Beijing) (Robinson 1998, pp. 206–208; 215–218).

The UN Decade for Women (1970–1980) was a product of the heady debates and social action of Second Wave feminism (Women’s Liberation) that erupted in the 1960s. Development debates were profoundly influenced by Boserup’s book Women’s Role in Economic Development (1970), which argued that development discourse and practice ignored women’s economic and social roles.

The UN approach emphasised the need to “bring women in” to government policies and development practices that had previously ignored their social and economic contributions as well as their development needs (Rathgeber 1998, pp.5-7). This was termed the Women in Development (WID) approach. Initial responses had member nations establishing “women’s machinery” within their governments to craft and implement women-specific policies (see Robinson 1998).

However, a subsequent approach known as Women and Development [WAD] that had emerged in these UN-sponsored consultations also argued that, rather than hitherto being left out, women had always been a part of the economic processes of development, and this relationship had to be revealed and understood, especially in relation to the roles of women in households (Rathgeber 1998: 9). But Marxist critiques of development and the emergence of gender relations approaches to understanding gender inequality (as opposed to social role and “categorical” theories of gender difference—see Connell, 1987) led to the articulation of the “Gender and Development” (GAD)  approach, which argues that, rather than focusing on “women” per se, the situation of women and girls must be understood from the vantage of “the totality of social organization, economic and political life in order to understand the shaping of particular aspects of society” (Young 1987: 2, cited in Rathgeber 1998: 12), rather than in contradistinction to men-as-a-group (categoricalism). These approaches have been used globally by national governments in crafting policy as well as by multilateral organisations, donors and NGO actors in development thinking and planning (see Rathgeber 1998).

A significant elaboration of the WID approach emerged in the 1990s, with economists advocating for a development approach in non-Western contexts that emphasises the needs of the “Girl” (Murphy 2017). Emerging from the neoliberal economic discourse, this apparent marrying of liberal (WID) feminism with economics concluded that “educating girls quite possibly yields a higher rate of return than any other investment available in the developing world” (Summers, cited in Murphy 2017: 10.). Benefits included delayed marriage and hence, reduced fertility, and a better-educated low wage work. Investing in girls’ education was argued to be more cost-effective than direct fertility programmes. Hence, Murphy (2017: 113-114) argues, “a new tabulation of the economization of life was assembling around the figure of the poor non-Western girl, and the emphasis on higher rates of return from investing in girls has come to dominate development programs” (Murphy  2017: 116).  In this vein, a media release from NGO Plan Australia has proclaimed that “[m]illions of girls face life-long ripple effects of COVID-19.” The report emphasises the risks to girls, which ranged from the loss of access to education to the associated threats of pregnancy and early marriage (Plan 2020). The neoliberal logics identified by Murphy (2017) are used to frame the NGO’s response to COVID-19. This embellishment of the WID lens focuses on girls-as-a-group facing specific problems that are assumed to be not significant to boys’ experiences, or assumed to directly intensify gender differences experienced by girls.

Valorising the impacts of COVID-19 on women and girls (i.e., girls are forced to stop their education, or women lose their jobs because of COVID-19) does not provide an analysis of the gendered power relations that underline such developments in a broader political economy frame. For example, the WID approach does not adequately address the factors that cause girls to lose educational opportunities, which are usually related to aspects of their households, including how (if) income is being earned,  whether they have access to opportunities for online or other forms of learning in isolation, and if there are other calls on their time that compete with time for education. It also does not address how factors related to the work force or government policies differentially impact girls or women compared to boys and men in the same households (see Samudra and Setyonaluri 2020).

WID-type approaches focus on women (or the Girl) as if they are socially isolated individuals who comprise an identity group, in contradistinction to deploying a gender-relations approach that emphasises the gendered structures of power in managing the population; this latter approach encompasses several dimensions, including power relations, production relations, emotional relations and gender symbolism (Robinson 2009: 2). Such a line of analysis not only assists us in addressing the question of whether COVID-19 is intensifying gender inequalities and how this is happening, but also enables our understanding of the ways in which the policy responses to COVID-19 and their economic and social impacts are inflected by gendered power. A gender relations approach, for example, can be used to consider the unreflected reliance on households in public health policies.

Living in Households

Policy responses of social isolation impact especially on households and household dynamics.  Conditions of lockdown reveal their critical role in social reproduction, as household responsibilities are exaggerated under “iso” conditions where relations with the market and government agencies are disrupted. In spite of the ministerial rhetoric cited above in regards to Australian development assistance (emphasising a “WID” style focus ), official support for the Australian population has not focused on women/girls but rather taken the form of salary supplementation to employers to keep individual workers attached to jobs (“Jobkeeper Programme”) and increased unemployment benefits (“Jobseeker Programme”) to assist Australians who have lost their jobs due to lockdown. The government approach continues the same (unacknowledged) reliance on the household, as in the case of the welfare support and assistance noted above. Indonesia has also not taken a specifically gendered approach, and government assistance has taken the form of direct payments to households rather than to workers. (I have heard, anecdotally, that community support provided through neighbourhood mosques has similarly been conceptualised as a form of assistance for households in providing basic commodities.) The gender effects of these different approaches have yet to be analysed.

The oft-repeated discussion that has observed or presumed increased rates of domestic violence reflects on situations in which families struggle economically and emotionally with job losses, homeschooling and restricted mobility. Social reproduction and the cost of reproduction of labour fall on the family, and these issues are exposed in “iso”—for example, the common expectation of household gender roles in many societies is that women are responsible for the domestic maintenance and sustenance of children. Does highlighting the risks of domestic violence overtly address the issue of economic precarity that many households face in sustaining social reproduction, and the mental and emotional stresses in coping on an everyday basis under the conditions of “iso”? Raising this question in fact reveals that the solution may be critically tied up with the broader issues of economic inequality as well as gender inequality, as exposed in the pandemic.

There are moreover anecdotal accounts that, under the rapidly changing economic conditions of the pandemic, gender role expectations may be upended as women become the principal breadwinners if men lose their jobs (see Renaldi and Souisa 2020). It is assumed by many commentators that women have primary responsibility for homeschooling children, but is this always the case? There are media reports of middle-class men working from home who have become more aware of the work involved in household maintenance—and taken on more domestic responsibilities (Siregar 2020; Ruppanner et al. 2021).

Recent decades have seen changes in gender relations and the sexual division of labour in the workforce as a result of feminist-inspired social aspirations and government policies, as more women receive education and enter the paid workforce in many countries. The globalised economy has seen a huge expansion of women in the paid workforce (Migration Data Portal 2021). The economic disruption of the pandemic has revealed the extent of some of these changes as households draw on their resources for everyday survival. Notably, the gendered changes in household roles are evident in the household arrangements of labour migrants.

Migrant workers

Labour migration of one or more members who send remittances home have been a key strategy for poor households.  International labour migration was a critical feature of the pre-COVID-19 global economy and remittances have been crucial to the diminishing global inequalities noted above. The global labour market is sex-segmented and offers different opportunities for men and women. For example, Bangladeshi rural-urban migrant women find employment in clothing factories that cater to the world market while Bangladeshi men migrate overseas to the Middle East and Singapore to work in construction. At the same time, globalisation and neoliberal economic policies from the latter part of the twentieth century have led to disruptions in gender arrangements and opportunities that are independent of change driven by policies of governments and development agencies.

The COVID-19 pandemic has however revealed how the international labour migrants are especially vulnerable to its impacts. They are often stranded  in foreign countries, and have poor access to health care and public information due to their marginalised position (Coca 2020; Migration Data Portal 2020). There are also reports of summary dismissal of migrant workers (see Hubbard and Donovan 2020), while disruptions in international transport mean they cannot get home. But they migrate to seek work to provide for their families, and the disruption of their ability to earn, whether through illness or losing their jobs, is also a problem for households who are dependent on their remittances. A rare account of this problem was reported in Singapore’s The Straits Times (Ang 2020), in which the Migrant Workers’ Centre raised funds to send to the desperate family of a male Bangladeshi worker who had contracted COVID-19 and was unable to work. Households may be dependent on remittances from male or female migrants, but the pandemic has disrupted this important coping strategy for the world’s poorest households. Incidentally, the sex-segmented nature of the global labour market means that the sexual division of labour has already been disrupted, as in the case when men become the sole providers of everyday care in households where women have migrated for work, such as the domestic helpers from Southeast and South Asia who work all over the world, but most visibly in the Middle East and East Asia. It should also be noted that restrictions on movement do not only impact international migration.  Lockdowns and restrictions on mobility also impact negatively on the incomes of rural farming households that are unable to source labour additional to household workers for peak agricultural seasons or other economic activities.

Counting for something?

The question arises, how can we know with certainty the differential impacts on women and girls as opposed to men and boys, and how can we be certain that interventions so guided have positive impacts? The gender policy approaches noted above (WID, WAD, GAD; the focus on the Girl) have in the past all revealed obstacles to the achievement of gender equity. An important  “discovery” of the WID-dominated era and the UN decade for Women was that a fundamental obstacle to including women and their interests in policy initiatives was the failure of governments to collect official statistics in ways that were disaggregated by sex (such as the gender wage gap), which also affected the understanding of gender inequalities. Without such data, it is not possible to evaluate how policies differently impact men and women (Waring 1988). Discussions around the differential gendered effects of COVID-19 frequently note that we just do not have the data or, at least, adequate sex-disaggregated data (AbouZahr and Thomas 2020; Samudra and Setyonaluri 2020). AbouZahr and Thomas (2020) state that women’s mortality in many cases is less likely to be recorded than men’s. As a result, we are unable to accurately identify the immediate effects of COVID-19 infections for women and girls, let alone the effects of policy responses such as social isolation, including impacts on mental health and interpersonal relations. As noted above, poor data on women and girls is a long-recognised problem and some innovative programmes to improve data collection (for example, see Lieberman 2020) have since experienced setbacks under the conditions of social isolation.

Towards gender equity in a post-COVID-19 world?

Is the pandemic a fundamental threat to the achievement of SDG 5 and its objectives on gender equality, which can be read as part of the broader set of aspirations for equality that is inherent in all the SDGs?  If so, how can this specific threat be understood and countered?

The threat to the achievement of the SDGs posed by the pandemic, including SDG 5, arises because it has exposed the fragile nature of the economic gains under the neoliberal economic order. The precarious existence of millions of working people and their households has been revealed, as has the increased wealth of those “at the top.” Due to their precarious livelihoods, members of poor families need to take greater risks of exposure to the virus in the informal or “gig” economy, especially in the absence of other social and economic support from the government. These risks fall on male and female workers in ways that are determined by factors such as the sex-segmentation of the workforce, including new (and often high risk) occupational niches that have emerged in the time of crisis. Neither the market nor the state adequately provides for the needs of informal and “gig” economy workers.

As noted above, in “normal” times, households are important, although not always acknowledged, bastions of social welfare. The important role of the household in daily survival has been starkly revealed by conditions of social isolation, where the unpaid work of household members is critical to, for example, the continued education of their children and the management of their social life and interactions under isolation; the latter includes the maintenance of sanitary conditions to prevent the spread of the virus like hand washing, sanitising surfaces and adopting masks, not to mention the most basic aspects of social reproduction and the provisioning of food and shelter. 

Social isolation during the pandemic exposes the dependence on family labour for social reproduction in capitalist economies. The UNDP has observed:

Getting “back to normal” is simply not feasible—because “normal” got us here. The crisis has shown us how deeply we are connected to others and to the planet. COVID-19 is forcing us to revisit our values and design a new area of development that truly balances economic, social and environmental progress… (UNDP n.d.).

Gender equality (SDFG 5) cannot be achieved without attention to the underlying issue of economic inequality, which the pandemic has so starkly revealed. Policy initiatives such as those outlined above that follow a WID logic, focusing on women and girls as a group, or the dogma of the critical importance of The Girl, come at the expense of identifying the importance of gender regimes (see Robinson 1998) within which gender relations are reproduced; in short, such initiatives can produce only short-term fixes and not the furtherance of broader goals of gender equity. In addition, the policy focus on women and girls in a demonised household characterised by stereotyped gender roles does not take into account the changing gender norms and values, including the ways these have been impacted by the pandemic. In recent years, the discussion of gender inequality has embraced ideas of intersectionality (see Yuval-Davis 1999) and that individual human subjects occupy multiple identity positions. The policy focus on women or the Girl harks back to a feminist logic that aims to confront inequality by assuming women /girls occupy a single and unified subject position—one that the social conditions of the pandemic have demonstrated does not accord with the complex realities of everyday life.


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Kathryn Robinson is an anthropologist whose research focuses on Southeast Asia and the Pacific, in particular Indonesia. Her research has included economic development, gender relations, medical anthropology, and Islam. Publications include Gender Islam and Democracy in Indonesia (Routledge, 2009) and Stepchildren of Progress: Political Economy of Development in an Indonesian Mining Town (SUNY Press, 1986) as well as edited volumes and articles in books and academic journals. Since the mid-1990s she was a research academic at the Australian National University (ANU) and is currently Emeritus Professor of Anthropology in the College of Asia and the Pacific at ANU.


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