Where’s the Vaccine to Inoculate the World Against COVID’s Impacts on Women?

With the recent news that 1 billion vaccines against COVID-19 have already been administered, a number of countries are beginning to feel a cautious optimism about a route out of the pandemic. Yet – for the world’s women and girls who have been disproportionately impacted by rising domestic violence, falling incomes and increased care work – it is clear that no vaccine will provide a quick fix to rising global gender inequality. All of our talk of recovery risks leaving half of the world’s population behind.

Today’s fragile moment for women’s rights comes in a context of enduring economic inequality, unevenly distributed caregiving and high levels of violence against women – challenges so entrenched that they had become invisible, even before being exacerbated by COVID-19.

Driven by the pandemic, many dimensions of gender inequality are increasing and women’s rights are being eroded. Women’s participation in the labor market has been devastated, exacerbated by the increased and often unpaid caregiving roles they have needed to play. On this front, President Joe Biden’s American Families Plan and its robust steps toward care infrastructure offer hope for a solution and signal an idea whose time has come.

Domestic violence, in some ways a barometer of inequality, has truly become a “shadow pandemic.” In the first few weeks of the COVID crisis alone, calls to helplines reportedly increased up to five-fold. A recent global analysis of 15 relevant research studies found that 80 percent showed clear evidence of increased gender-based violence since the start of the pandemic.

The human, social and economic costs of rising inequality and violence against women are huge. Even pre-pandemic, the World Health Organization reported that 1 in 3 women worldwide experienced violence from a partner in their lifetime, with the estimated social and economic impact of that violence costing approximately 2 percent of global gross domestic product, or $1.5 trillion per year.

If we don’t act now, increased gender-based violence and gender inequality are likely to be lasting global legacies of COVID-19, based on evidence from previous health crises. Just as the world has acted in concert to develop and roll out vaccines, so it must unite around an intensified preventive effort against gender inequality and women’s rights violations.

Fortunately, such an effort is underway, but will require robust global investment to ensure success. From June 30-July 2, world leaders will gather in Paris at the Generation Equality Forum to accelerate action around gender equality. This important initiative, which kicked off in Mexico City in March, has unveiled a Global Acceleration Plan for Gender Equality – if funded and fully implemented, it would be the equivalent of a global vaccine rollout for women’s rights.

In a break from U.N. practice, the plan has been put together not only by member states, but by civil society, young people, the private sector, philanthropies and many more. The result is a relevant and concrete plan with targets to guide action and investment for the next five years. For example, on violence against women, the plan includes calls for 55 more countries to outlaw child marriage, for new laws and policies to protect an additional 550 million women, for 4,000 more companies to introduce polices on workplace violence and for an additional $500 million to be invested in violence prevention.

To improve women’s economic well-being, the plan includes a roadmap to create up to 80 million decent care jobs, tackle unpaid care work, reduce the number of women living in poverty by 85 million and make sure that government stimulus plans put women and girls at the center.

Comprehensive actions also exist to support women’s movements and leadership, end the technology digital divide, support sexual and reproductive health and enable feminist action on climate justice. At the forum in Paris, we hope leaders from every sector will step up to announce the commitments and investments necessary to make these plans a practical reality.

When I got my own COVID-19 vaccine shots earlier this spring, I felt an immediate sense of hope and possibility. It was concerted collective action that made it possible. Let’s harness that same spirit to confront the pervasive global virus of gender inequality. The Generation Equality Forum will give us a once-in-a-generation opportunity for change, at a moment where action is more critical than ever.


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is an Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and executive director of U.N. Women.

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