Among the widespread devastation of Covid exists a silent double pandemic on women.
Often the primary caregivers in community settings, and making up 85 per cent of the nursing workforce, women have faced increased exposure to the virus, along with the physical and mental burden of caring for the sick. This is in addition to their domestic duties, and child and elder-care responsibilities.
With the pandemic period, there has been a spike in teenage pregnancies, and home confinement has seen a global rise in cases of gender-based violence.
With an estimated 740 million women globally working in the informal economy, Covid-linked surges in unemployment are disproportionately affecting them, affording fewer social protections especially in cultures that still present barriers to women's socio-economic independence. The International Women’s Day (IWD) has long been seen as a chance to celebrate significant achievements on the global stage.
But this year, set against the backdrop of heightened gender inequities, we should leverage the coming days to collectively advocate for tangible, systematic changes for women, as a sustainable movement towards gender equity transcends the confines of a single day.
This year’s IWD campaign theme #ChooseToChallenge calls on individuals to advocate for gender equity in their respective communities. Yet institutions must also recognise their social responsibility to promote equity and mainstream gender, both inwards by taking a mirror to their own organizational structure and outwards, by taking steps to initiate, and contribute to, movements that promote women.
The University of Global Health Equity (UGHE), a global health sciences university based in Rwanda, is one organisation committing to taking explicit steps to create equity within its community and globally.
Equity in health starts with equity in education, a concept immediately visible in UGHE’s student recruitment structure. In which women comprise 70 per cent of its medical cohort, and all its students receive needs-based financial support to study.
This deliberate structure goes beyond the traditional process of shortlisting and selecting candidates, and takes into account social and cultural factors — like domestic responsibilities, early marriage and pregnancy, and financial barriers — that limit girls’ access to further education.
Prior to Covid-19, UGHE addressed this by visiting girls' schools across the country, introducing students to women role-models from its student and alumni network, taking entry-exam sites to all provinces, and providing immersive science days on campus to subvert ingrained gender norms that discourage girls from studying STEM.
Similarly, the gender inequity in global health and science is evident; while women hold 70 per cent of jobs in the health and social care workforce, only 25 per cent are in leadership roles. Less than 30 per cent of the world's researchers are women.
Yet the path to gender equity is as much about walking the talk as it is talking it. Organisations with a self-professed gender agenda should start by looking at their own internal structures, identifying gaps and analysing the culture that may affect women ascending into leadership roles.
Tsion Yohannes, chair of the Center for Gender Equity, Deborah Umucyo, co-ordinator in the Center for Gender Equity, and Laura Wotton, Communications Manager, The University of Global Health Equity (UGHE).