COVID-19: at the Heart of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda

Reflections on the Gendered Impacts of the Pandemic

  • 12 May. 2020 -
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  • Last updated: 09 Jun. 2020 13:57

The current pandemic sweeping the globe has exercised many minds; academics, policy-makers, health care practitioners, gender experts, security experts, warlords and politicians have all had their say. The gendered aspects of this crisis in public health have received much attention. This was not the case in previous pandemics. This is ultimately good news for the WPS community of interest. At last the message seems to be getting through – that crises and conflicts impact differently on men and women, boys and girls and that a gender lens is acknowledged as key to a fuller understanding of any given situation.

Some commentators have suggested that the WPS agenda has never been more relevant than at this time of crisis. Experts suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic, with its multifaceted security dimensions, is, in fact, proving the centrality of the WPS agenda to contemporary global peace and security challenges. The issues that are so often highlighted by the WPS community are profoundly relevant to this pandemic too. It may be useful to reflect on what some of those issues are.

"If ever people-centric and gender sensitive approaches were required – it is surely now."

Firstly, a gendered analysis is a key enabler in a crisis. The WPS agenda calls for gendered analyses of the causes and consequences of crises, and the mapping of individuals, communities and institutions involved. This analysis is essential in ensuring that early warning, preparation, mitigation, response and recovery measures take into account a broader picture that can inform a more effective and sustainable set of actions. Sex-disaggregated data is crucial to understanding the impact of the virus and are necessary to inform the response and recovery strategies needed. Understanding the differential implications on men and women of policies that are established is also critical.

In the case of COVID-19, this would mean investigating and addressing, for example:

The gendered impact of the course of the pandemic – who gets sick and why? Indications across the world (although sex-disaggregated data are as yet incomplete) are that significantly more males die from the virus - what are the impacts of such findings? For example, what are the implications of more female-headed households, more elderly women living alone going forward? Such factors will have socio-economic implications that must be considered to reduce longer-term and future insecurity.

The gendered nature of the health workforce and the significant risks that health workers incur. Interestingly, the OECD reported recently that although the majority of the healthcare workforce is female - nearly 50% of doctors; 85% of nurses and midwives; 90% of long-term care providers - women still make up only a minority of senior leadership positions in health.

The gendered nature of caregiving responsibilities when schools and childcare facilities close and the bulk of caregiving responsibilities are shouldered by women.

The gendered implications of imposed quarantine, such as whether women's and men's different physical, cultural, security, and sanitary needs are recognized. In terms of individual security needs, reports from many countries reflect significant spikes in cases of domestic abuse, for example, and responses have included ensuring shelters remain open, helplines are staffed, and police training programs and public awareness campaigns are activated.

Secondly, the WPS emphasis on women's participation and agency in conflict prevention, resolution and peacebuilding is also of central relevance in the current crisis. In both conflict and crisis, local actors, often women, are at the frontlines. Women not only comprise 70% of the global healthcare workforce, they also dominate the community social work and civil society sectors in nations across the world.


Did you know?

NATO is playing an active role in supporting the response to COVID-19 - helping ensure that supplies and equipment get where they need to go. Spain and Italy requested medical supplies – the Czech Republic answered the call, sending 10,000 protective medical suits to each, along with other supplies. Turkey sent an A-400M military cargo plane full of masks, medical suits and disinfectants. All of this and more has been coordinated through NATO's Euro- Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Center. These efforts directly support health workers in local communities, enabling them to continue helping patients in need of treatment. And this is only part of how NATO is supporting communities in need.

Click here for more information about what NATO is doing in response to the coronavirus.

These women are stepping up to the threats presented by COVID-19, by mobilizing and actively responding to the multiple threats it presents. These local actors are essential to the response and recovery process because their knowledge can inform and improve interventions. So their participation and inclusion in the assessment of each context, decision making, design and delivery of interventions is crucial. The Civil Society Advisory Panel that NATO works with has offered valuable insights from their respective nations in this regard.

Thirdly, the WPS agenda also calls for greater participation of women in politics and in decision-making on matters of peace and security. The corona crisis is revealing the relevance of this call to inclusive leadership. It is worth noting the effective responses from a number of female world leaders who reacted to this crisis decisively and proactively in, for example, Finland, Germany, New Zealand, and Norway.

Finally, the WPS agenda advocates human security approaches that are people-centric and gender-sensitive. If ever people-centric and gender-sensitive approaches were required – it is surely now. The COVID-19 crisis is proving to be a game-changer in the emerging security threat discourse and, in common with the WPS agenda, is challenging traditional concepts of individual, state and national security.

Both highlight that new ways of looking at security are needed, as indeed are shifts in priorities, resource allocation, and skill sets that put the needs of both women and men at the core of what is meant by security in any given society.

2020 is a big year for the Women, Peace and Security agenda with so many significant landmarks to reflect upon and celebrate, including 20 years since the UN Security Council's adoption of resolution 1325, the first of a series of UN resolutions that put women at the center of the global peace and security agenda. The global community also marks the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women and adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995). By any standard, this was planned as a pivotal year for the accelerated realization of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls everywhere. While much of what was planned for 2020 has been postponed or cancelled, perhaps COVID-19, and the new realities it will herald, will prompt a deeper appreciation of just how crucial the WPS Agenda truly is.

This story is part of the Spring 2020 WPS Bulletin. Download the full edition here (ENG / FRE)