On 8 March, the International Social Security Association (ISSA) celebrates International Women’s Day through interviews with women that play a central role in our global quest to deliver excellence in social security. The focus of the interviews is on the impact of COVID-19 on gender equality and social security, in line with UN Women’s theme for International Women’s Day 2021, “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.”
Interview with Audrey Deer-Williams
Chief Technical Director
Ministry of Labour and Social Security
How do you see the state of gender equality in social security today?
The past decade has seen progress in advancing gender equality and women and girls’ empowerment through social security and social protection initiatives. Significant strides have been made in ensuring that social security initiatives are inclusive and that gender nuances are taken into consideration during implementation. However, significant challenges persist. These include:
- coverage gaps for women of working age, and for children and adolescents remain high;
- gender inequality is often only seen as synonymous with targeting women as a vulnerable group, or in their role as mothers or caregivers, without addressing other socio-economic issues such as income security;
- programmes do not fully integrate criteria related to location, ethnicity, disability, and social biases, which compound gender differences and reinforce disparities.
A well-designed gender-responsive social security programme considers the dynamics of gender-based differences and their intended and unintended consequences to inform objectives, target group, eligibility, benefits, geographical coverage, scale, and delivery systems. This is achievable if social security recognizes and responds to gender-specific differences in basic needs, deprivations, risks and vulnerabilities at different stages of the life cycle.
What has been the specific impact of COVID-19 on the social and economic situation of women?
While everyone is facing unprecedented challenges, women are bearing the brunt of the economic and social fallout of COVID-19. Although Jamaica has made significant strides towards gender equality, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated particular challenges in this regard. These challenges include:
- threat of exposure of women to gender-based violence owing to the stay-at-home and curfew orders;
- vulnerability to virus exposure, majority of workers on the front lines of the pandemic are women who make up at least 60 per cent of all health and social-services staff;
- loss of livelihood, especially for those who worked in the service industry. Women are disproportionately represented in industries that declined in 2020, such as wholesale and retail, and accommodation and foods services;
- quarantine measures which keep people at home, close schools and day-care facilities, the burden of unpaid care and domestic work significantly fell on women. For working mothers, this has meant balancing full-time employment with childcare and schooling responsibilities;
- women who are poor and marginalized face an even higher risk of COVID-19 transmission and fatalities.
Have social security measures put in place during COVID-19 been able to reduce the pandemic’s negative impact on women?
A gender-transformative approach to combat the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic was employed. This approach was utilized within the context of national programmes and policy imperatives including the National Policy for Gender Equality and the Social Protection Strategy. The government provided economic empowerment and income security support for women, especially those in lower socio-economic sectors, including:
- increased support, which was provided to victims of gender-based violence through the opening of an additional shelter to temporarily house victims and their children;
- care packages were provided to household workers, victims and survivors of gender-based violence and other vulnerable clients, in an effort to maintain food security within these households;
- dignity packages were provided to adolescent mothers enrolled in the government’s adolescent mothers’ programme. These packages helped the young mothers maintain their dignity during the crisis, as preserving dignity is essential to maintaining self-esteem and confidence, which is important to cope in stressful and potentially overwhelming situations.
- in a response to the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, government provided an additional cash grant payment to beneficiaries of the PATH programme. This in effect increased by 50 per cent the aggregate amount that beneficiaries, including pregnant and lactating mothers, would have ordinarily received during the period.
What is your message to women on this day?
Women are the backbone of the global response to COVID-19. They make up the majority of health-care workers, and they perform 76 per cent of the world’s unpaid care work, including for the sick. Having a gender-responsive approach to social security is important, especially if we are to look at the impact that this pandemic will have on our women and children. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development indicates that we should leave no one behind. It is within that context that we place gender issues at the fore, as we provide social security and social protection provisions.