‘Don’t just build back better, build back different’


According to the United Nations, the coronavirus pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities and exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems. The pandemic has compounded the socio-economic challenges facing women. Regarding this issue, Arpana Ale Magar from The Himalayan Times caught up with Valerie Julliand, United Nations resident coordinator in Nepal, and Wenny Kusuma, representative of UN Women Nepal, to talk about the impact of COVID-19 on women. Excerpts:

How is COVID-19 crisis different for women compared to other economic downturns?

UN Resident Coordinator in Nepal, Valerie Julliand. Photo: THT

JULLIAND: Whenever something happens in the world, we know that women are always impacted more than other categories of people. And the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed existing discrimination and inequality in the society. In general, women were less paid or not paid at all pre-COVID. This situation has not changed for women since the pandemic began. As for the women who have been assigned to work from home, how can they manage when they are expected to take care of household chores as well? Moreover, women have been forced to stay home due to the lockdown and that has increased the incidences of domestic violence. Along with having no access to basic services they are now locked in with their abusers. On the other hand, women migrants are facing double torture. They were already facing lots of abuses in their work destinations and once they return to their own country, the society refuses to accept them.

KUSUMA: Women have become invisible in the society. Most of them are employed in the informal sector, which means they have no savings, no social protection. So, how are they going to cope with this crisis? Even the social security scheme is not encompassing of women working in the informal sector.

Moreover, sex workers are still to be acknowledged in the country. Whether they are employers, workers, farmers or sex workers, all categories of women have been affected by COVID-19.

What are the steps being taken to mitigate the impact on women? Are they enough?

Representative of UN Women Nepal, Wenny Kusuma. Photo: THT

KUSUMA: Firstly, we should acknowledge the few steps taken by the Nepal government to address the needs of the women and children during this pandemic. It is appreciable that separate quarantine services are being provided for women returnees through rescue flights. There are existing government’s policies for their protection but when it comes to implementation, women become invisible. For instance, women who do not have an identity card due to the existing citizenship policy are deprived of the emergency relief provided by the government. However, the Ministry of Women, Children and Senior Citizens has made sure that the services are offered to women and children.

JULLIAND: There are still a few gaps that need to be bridged. If women are facing different problems due to COVID-19, the government should respond to them differently. The government has to take deliberate action that will actually target very specific discrimination against women to make sure they benefit. From decision-making process to implementation, women’s participation is imperative.

How can we ensure gender is central to economic recovery?

KUSUMA: We say this is an opportunity for Nepal to not only to build back better but also build back differently. We know that many of the existing policies are not appropriate for women at present. So, when talking about economic recovery we have been saying that women need to be at the centre. New policies should be prepared by taking women issues at the centre. For example, most women are involved in agriculture in the country but women farmers are not being counted. So such small informal workers should be addressed.

JULLIAND: If we go with the same process to build back to become the same as before, the situation for women will also be the same.

So it’s an opportunity to change the mindset and to change our orientation towards women.

We know from experience that if we hand over money to women, then it will benefit the whole family. Then why not hand over the country’s economic responsibility to women as well? The government should provide the social security being offered to the formal sector to informal sector workers as well.

Moreover, we must give psychological support to women for their progress.

A version of this article appears in e-paper on July 8, 2020, of The Himalayan Times.

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