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States' obligations and intersectional considerations in the COVID-19 response and recovery

This report highlights the importance of states complying with their obligations under international human rights law in their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath, in particular those with respect to the rights of women and girls as set out in the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Failure to undertake a gender analysis in policy and decision-making with respect to temporary emergency measures to contain the spread of the virus has resulted in variable impacts across different communities and on women within those communities who have experienced disproportionate disadvantage and harm. A gender analysis, therefore, must be carried out, taking into account other intersecting factors that impact women’s lives such as their race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, and able-bodiedness.

As the only specific category of women explicitly protected by a separate provision in CEDAW, the situation of rural women provides a useful illustrative case study to show how rurality can operate to create additional disadvantage and contribute to intersectional discrimination. The report examines the position of women in rural areas and the impact of pandemic-related policy responses on their (1) right to adequate living conditions and related right to livelihood; (2) right to security of person; (3) right to healthcare, including reproductive health services; and (4) right to participation in political and public life. Ultimately, the report shows how state failure to comply with the CEDAW obligations has resulted in foreseeable and preventable violations of women’s rights and draws recommendations from the lessons learned.

Key recommendations to states

In response to all national emergencies including public health crises, states should immediately:

  • appoint women to senior decision-making roles within emergency task forces (e.g. COVID task forces) and ensure de facto gender equality in representation;
  • take all necessary measures to ensure that task forces comprise members representing different interests and that all socially protected groups are represented;
  • require task forces to meaningfully consult with groups representative of women’s views and interests, including with groups representing differently situated women such as rural women and ensure that the advice received is fully incorporated into decision-making processes, recommendations and final outcomes;
  • assess the gendered and intersectional effects of existing and ongoing emergency measures and amend and/or repeal laws and/or policies that are discriminatory whether directly or indirectly;
  • financially and logistically support existing women grassroots’ self-help measures;
  • look for good practices elsewhere and follow the lead of women’s rights grassroots organisations;
  • collect sex- and age-disaggregated data on the direct and indirect impacts of policy responses.

 Specifically pertaining to rural women, states should:

  • take proactive steps to meaningfully consult with rural women and women’s organisations involved in protecting the rights of rural women to better understand the adverse impact that emergency measures have on them;
  • as parties to CEDAW, implement all recommendations contained in General Recommendation 34; and 
  • as non-parties to CEDAW, consider implementing the recommendations set forth in General Recommendation 34. 

 To address structural inequalities long-term, states should:

  • introduce special measures to secure de facto gender equality across all spheres of political, economic and social participation and decision-making from the local to the global;
  • introduce special measures to ensure that women who experience intersecting forms of harm and exclusion are represented across all spheres of political, economic and social participation and decision-making and that their interests are fully protected from the local to the global;
  • appoint, at a senior level within the state apparatus, gender advisors and advisors with the specific mandate to consider intersecting forms of discrimination and give them adequate authority and powers to require changes in policies/laws to ensure ongoing compliance with CEDAW and with all other human rights obligations;
  • establish a publicly funded independent entity with the authority to examine the impact of intersectional discrimination and with the power to demand change in policy and law; and
  • take steps to reverse existing socio-economic arrangements and policies that create and maintain inequalities and replace them with those that advance gender equality including, for example, non-contributory social protection, universal basic income, and radically redistributive tax systems within and between states.