In April 2020, the European Women’s Lobby (EWL) published a policy brief, in which it shed light on the crucial issue that can no longer be ignored – the COVID-19 pandemic is reinforcing existing inequalities in our society and the long-term impacts of the health crisis will disproportionately affect women and girls.
The policy brief raises crucial issues, which are important to address to ensure that women do not pay the price of the COVID-19 crisis. Using an inclusive approach to tackle gender-based inequalities and putting the emphasis on women and girls who face multiple forms of discrimination, for instance racialised women, Roma women and girls or those with a disability, it looks at several areas where such discrimination may be amplified during this crisis.
National equality bodies (NEBs), on their part, are mandated by EU and national law to promote equality and fight discrimination across Europe. They strive to ensure that measures taken to tackle the current crisis do not discriminate vulnerable groups in our society, and this includes advancing equality between women and men. Since mid-March, Equinet has been compiling all discrimination cases that NEBs are receiving and reacting to in light of COVID-19. Equality bodies have been reporting cases regarding all forms of gender-based discrimination and violence. These cover a wide range of issues. For instance, the Public Defender of Georgia has received a case regarding sexual harassment by a doctor while in quarantine, whereas the National Commission for the Promotion of Equality in Malta notes the disproportional amount of female health workers currently battling on the front line and thus especially exposed to COVID-19. Most visible is the upsurge in domestic violence, which was addressed in a previous blog post.
If we were to address all the gender equality challenges raised by COVID-19, the length of this post might well discourage many of our readers. Thus, we have decided to focus on just two key issues, the consequences of the crisis for the work-life balance and for economic equality and independence.
Equality bodies have a crucial role in monitoring the implementation of the Work-Life Balance Directive and as such tackle discrimination in employment based on motherhood, parenthood or any care capacity. This Directive is an important tool in EU law to ensure no one can be discriminated for their choice or necessity to care for others. Given the deeply rooted stereotypes and social norms, implementing this Directive is particularly important for women and can have a tangible contribution to their equality. There is an urgent need to invest in care in order to avoid using migrant women as the footstool for achieving this directive.
Several equality bodies have reported cases of gender-based discrimination in employment, relating to care responsibilities and thus falling under the Directive. The Croatian Office of the Ombudsman reports incidents of employers not enabling women to properly work from home, forcing them to take an obligatory vacation instead or to lose their job altogether. The Netherlands Institute for Human Rights has reported situations, in which single mothers were denied from entering grocery stores with their children due to the restrictions of one person per household being allowed inside, but at the same time struggle to find alternative care for them, as childcare institutions are temporarily closed. Reflecting similar experiences and issues, the European Women’s Lobby highlights the issue of women balancing the unpaid and unacknowledged care responsibilities for their children and family members with their professional obligations, noting that in the current crisis, social distancing measures also negatively affect single mothers. In order to halt further gender-based discrimination, several NEBs have issued statements and taken action. The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, for example, has published an article about protecting pregnant employees during COVID-19, whereas the Council for the Elimination of Ethnic or Racial Discrimination in Spain approved a set of COVID-19 recommendations to avoid discriminatory behaviour including against women or single parents.
The imposed lockdown measures have provided a unique opportunity to reflect on gender roles and stereotypes. As the traditional notion of a workplace has been moved for many from an office to their living room, the division of tasks in a household could be shifted. Online campaigns such as #HeForSheAtHome have prompted men to dedicate more time to household chores and childcare. Current circumstances could render care duties more balanced and equal, teaching us a valuable lesson for the future, that men and women can both work and that men and women can share household chores and care responsibilities equally.
Women will likely be more brutally exposed to the economic crisis that will unfortunately inevitably follow the COVID-19 pandemic. Measures tackling the health and socio-economic crisis must also include ways to address gender inequalities. Equality bodies aim to ensure, together with EWL, that gender budgeting and mainstreaming as well as the new Gender Equality Strategy are properly and fairly implemented across all Member States. Such actions by Member States represent the bare minimum if we are to successfully prevent a disparate impact of the crisis on women and, more ambitiously, use this crisis as an opportunity to build better, more equal societies.
Equality bodies are mandated to combat gender-based discrimination in employment and in particular in remuneration. The aim should be to ensure that the gender pay gap is eradicated, stereotyping and discrimination in the working life (including the choice of professions) are tackled and that women’s economic independence can become a reality. The Belgian Institute for the Equality of Women and Men has recently released two brochures concerning non-discriminatory access to employment for women and men, along with its 2019 annual pay gap report. In Sweden, the Equality Ombudsman has informed that the government has appointed a Commission for Equal Income in order to increase economic equality between women and men. It is essential to implement more effectively the “equal pay for work of equal value” provisions in equal treatment legislation.
The COVID-19 pandemic risks to increase the structural inequalities and existing forms of discrimination in our society. However, equality bodies share the view of the European Women’s Lobby that this global moment of crisis can be turned into an opportunity for greater equality. A lesson in how to refine, redesign and renew our society to serve all humans and the planet. As the watchdogs for equality, NEBs are monitoring the measures taken to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and the following challenges, to ensure they do not discriminate and that they are designed in a way that leads to more equal societies for the benefit of all.
The views on this blog are always the authors’ and they do not necessarily reflect Equinet’s position.
 The European Women’s Lobby is the largest umbrella network of women’s associations in the European Union, providing expertise and recommendations on advancing women’s rights and equality between women and men.