Women at the centre of COVID-19 response
By Christine Arab, Country Representative for UN Women Egypt
Globally, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has magnified existing and interconnected inequalities.
And COVID-19 will continue to have far-reaching impact on the hard-won gender equality gains in all countries. No country has fully achieved gender equality, with all countries grappling with gaps in women’s equal participation in economic and public life. All countries are also struggling to address the “shadow” pandemic – violence against women.
In order to stem the impact of COVID-19 and to build back better, it is essential to understand how women experience the pandemic differently from men, how this impacts their families and communities, and how women’s leadership and engagement in the response is crucial.
When the pandemic first hit the country, the National Council for Women (NCW) issued Egypt’s Rapid Response to Women’s Situation during the COVID-19 Outbreak, providing a national roadmap on a gender-sensitive approach to the pandemic.
Since that time, the NCW has issued five national tracker reports capturing all measures the Egyptian Government has taken to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on women.
A total of 20% of countries and territories world-wide have no gender-sensitive measures in response to COVID-19. In contrast, the Egyptian Government has ensured that 55.3% of measures in response to the pandemic are gender-sensitive.
In support of national priorities in the COVID-19 response, UN Women Egypt repurposed its programmes and rolled out new initiatives. These have particularly focused on financial inclusion for women with limited economic opportunity, and ensuring the continuation of essential services for women overcoming violence.
Gender-sensitive in the context of COVID-19 means that preventative and supportive measures around the pandemic recognise that women and men are experiencing the pandemic’s impact differently, in large part because of pre-existing inequalities between women and men. Emerging global trends and national realities highlight three main priority areas in ensuring a gender-sensitive approach to the pandemic.
The first priority area is tackling increased vulnerability to domestic violence. Quarantine and isolation policies, critical to flattening the growth curve of the pandemic, along-side financial worries in the household, are exacerbating conditions for those already experiencing violence at home or those who are vulnerable to domestic violence. The perpetuation of cyberviolence against women in times of lock down and beyond – particularly against young women and girls – remains a serious concern world-wide.
Prior to the pandemic, almost half of ever-married women in Egypt report having been subjected to some form of violence by their spouses. A phone survey in April 2020 of 1,500 women found that 11% of women were exposed to violence by their partner during the week preceding the survey. A further 19% of households witnessed an increase in violence among family members, whilst 33% of households witnessed an increase in family problems overall.
Second, priority must be given to understanding and responding to the impact the pandemic has on women’s livelihoods. Prior to the pandemic, women’s formal labour force participation was 20.9% and their unemployment rate was 21.4%, more than triple men’s unemployment.
This is despite Egypt’s important gains in ensuring gender equality at all levels of education. The majority of working women are concentrated in predominantly lower-paid and non-competitive sectors and it is estimated that upwards to half of them are engaged in informal, irregular and/or unprotected employment.
For poorer populations, COVID-19 is posing severe challenges for women not accessing formal social protection systems, and who may not be accessing health insurance due to their irregular employment status.
Recent data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) show that in the spring of 2020, 25% of the female labour force and 4% of the male labour force had left their jobs because of the pandemic.
However, by the autumn, 96% of these men had returned to work, as compared to only 40% of the women. This was a short term response to the pandemic, but deeper, l analyses is required to understand potential long-term impact these trends will have on women’s labour market participation.
This point leads us to the third key priority area, tackling women and girls’ unequal share of unpaid care work. Traditional expectations often result in women taking on the majority of care work in the home. Prior to the pandemic, women contributed EGP 167bn ($10.6bn) of unpaid care work in the family.
Now, in addition to their usual workload both within and outside the home, and with overloaded health systems and school closures, women across the country are shouldering added responsibilities of ensuring the children’s home-schooling, caring for the elderly and sick, and maintaining the COVID-19 preventative measures within the family.
For many women, this is resulting in them leaving the labour market to take on these additional responsibilities in the home. For those who are able to remain in their paid job, they must somehow juggle even greater care work in the home.
This adds significant stress to women and their families, and affects women’s mental well-being. Strengthening care services, such as childcare facilities, is essential for promoting women’s economic security and the overall growth of the nation. Importantly, investments in care economy also result in jobs for many women in paid care work, for example child care, elderly care, and health sectors.
Egypt was a driving force behind a UN General Assembly Resolution on strengthening the national and international rapid response to the impact of COVID-19 on women and girls, which is calling on countries worldwide to anchor prevention and recovery efforts to the advancement of gender equality and the empowerment of women.
This is an essential message for all countries to bring home, and an essential commitment to be maintained as Egypt continues its path towards social and economic growth in the face of COVID-19.
 UNFPA, CAPMAS, NCW (2015), Egypt Economic Cost of Gender-based Violence Survey. Page 75
Available at: https://egypt.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/pub-pdf/Costs%20of%20the%20impact%20of%20Gender%20Based%20Violence%20%28GBV%29%20WEB.pdf
 CAPMAS (2020), Egypt in Figures – Work 2020. page 46-47.
Available at: https://www.capmas.gov.eg/Pages/Publications.aspx?page_id=5104&Year=22988
 Sources: CAPMAS, Haver and IMF staff calculations, found in IMF (2021) Country Report 21/7, page 36
 Ministry of Planning and Economic Development.