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The Development, Gender and Health Nexus

In this important book, experts assess what the COVID-19 pandemic means for gender inequalities in the global south, examining how threats to equitable development will impact the most marginalised and at-risk women and girls in particular.

The book draws on research across sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America to examine Covid-19-related issues around gender-based violence, work and care, education, and health care, and asks whether global responses are enough to mitigate the negative outcomes of deepening gender inequality. It is a guide to stimulate the important debate about how to promote women’s rights during the management and recovery phases of the pandemic.

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The importance of gendering both development and public health policies is well established. COVID-19 has made clearer than ever the impact of gender norms, gendered institutions on policy-making, gendered financing for development at national, regional and international levels, as well as the gendered differences of standard state responses to COVID-19. In this chapter, we position our contribution within wider feminist debates on gender and development and gendered political economy, paying particular attention to how gender is understood within development policies. While we problematize the narrow definition of gender commonly employed in COVID-19 policy responses, we explain our decision to focus primarily on women (and girls) as a gendered category in this book. In doing so, we also highlight aspects of intersectionality and argue that we should not treat women and girls as a homogenous vulnerable group but instead we should explore this group at a deeper level of analysis to understand the vulnerable characteristics and categories within this group, including: ethnicity, age, status, sexuality and/or disability.

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In this chapter we shift our attention to the operation of the global political economy. In doing so we show how an unequal distribution of excessive and unnecessary risks falls on the shoulders of poor women and girls in the Global South. We explain how particular groups of girls and women are made vulnerable through the ways they are integrated into and excluded from the global political economy. The point we wish to make, above all, is that the global political economy is not gender-neutral. We show how the rules governing global finance actively worsen health, income and employment security for the poor, and especially poor women, and especially those located geographically in, or from, the Global South. For this reason, this chapter shifts the narrative to the global level and asks: how have key international actors helped shape responses to COVID-19 in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa? And to what extent have they understood COVID-19 to be both a crisis of gender and development and a challenge to gender equity? To what extent is the architecture of development finance adequate to the task of building resilient and gender equitable development?

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In this chapter we explore the health challenge that the onset of COVID-19 has presented to regional organizations. The pandemic has tested the capacities of regional bodies to coordinate responses to a crisis which, in most cases, has affected every member state in the region simultaneously. We show that early in the pandemic, there was an overwhelming recognition across regions that the pandemic was not only bringing a health challenge, but it would also represent an unprecedented socio-economic challenge, with costs distributed unevenly across societies and with a significant differential impact on the lives of men and women. These centred principally around the high levels of women who work in the informal sector without social security protections, increases in care burdens, increases in gender-based violence, reduced access to sexual reproductive health services and increased barriers to girls’ education. We explore to what extent these organizations have been able to effectively articulate their concerns on gender and health and bring their perspectives to bear on policy-making at the national level.

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Gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive health affect all areas of development, from human wellbeing to economic growth. Living a life free from violence and with autonomy over one’s own body and sexuality are fundamental human rights. In this chapter we shine a light on how the COVID-19 pandemic has further challenged these rights by exacerbating already long-standing inequalities related to gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive health. During crises, violence against women and girls regularly increases, while funding for sexual and reproductive health programmes is reduced. But the challenges presented by COVID-19, in particular ‘stay at home’ and social distancing measures, have increased the challenges faced by women and girls even more than we would perhaps normally expect to see in crisis situations. We empirically draw from primary and secondary data from both regions to make our argument.

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Long-standing socio-economic inequalities and gendered social norms have meant that women and girls have faced heightened challenges in finding employment, especially ‘decent work’, outside the home and receiving compensation and respect for unpaid social reproductive work. Meanwhile, the right of girls and women to education has gone unprotected by governments’ failures to take girls’ experiences into account. In this chapter, we focus on how these long-term failures have intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. We look particularly at the impacts on women who work in un- and under-paid employment, showing how these women have endured heightened risks to their economic security, and argue that government response has been weak and limited. Then we discuss the impact of the pandemic on girls’ education. We recognize that important gains had been made in terms of girls’ access to education in low- and middle-income countries over the last 20 years and ask how far have these gains been undermined by government failures during the pandemic.

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In this chapter we draw together our findings and sum up our argument. In doing so we reassert our argument that COVID-19 is not just a global health crisis; it is a gendered crisis of governance, equity and development. The pandemic has exposed the gendered social, economic and cultural fault lines of inequality within and between countries. It was a crisis foretold. We summarize these inequalities, and with an eight-point plan that we argue is essential to build out of the pandemic in a way that addresses some of the injustices that we have had the unenviable but not surprising task of reporting.

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In this chapter we contextualize the scale of the gendered inequalities that have been exacerbated by COVID-19 response policies, which ultimately threaten any progress towards gender equality laid out in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). At the heart of the SDGs are the principles of equity and inclusion: this introduction identifies how and why COVID-19 response policies have exacerbated the inequalities that the most socially, economically and culturally marginalized women and girls in the Global South live with on a daily basis. We use this chapter to clearly lay out the aims, scope, methodology and the structure of the book.

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