March is the month of women. International Women’s Day is annually celebrated on March 8. The largest global policy agenda-setting gathering for gender equality—the Commission on the Status of Women—spans a whole two weeks every March.
This year’s International Women’s Day was the first I commemorated as a leader of a constitutional body, the Malawi Human Rights Commission, which is mandated to promote and investigate all human rights. The theme this year was thus personal as it serendipitously focused on Women in leadership: Achieving an Equal Future in a Covid-19 world.
In this article, I reflect on women’s leadership and how we are acting for gender equality in various spheres, knowing how suppressed women’s roles in decision-making whether you look at it from a local perspective or a more international one.
Structural barriers constrict opportunities for women’s leadership in positions of power, including elected office, civil service and the private sector. And women mostly do not have the room to lead in their homes either, even when they contribute as much or more than their male spouses.
In female-headed households, decisions on key assets such as land are frequently the purview of male relations such as their brothers and community leaders.
Covid-19 has worsened these inequalities further because of this second-rate position women occupy in society relative to men. So, what will a world in which women lead look like for gender equality, especially now that the future looks bleak in light of Covid-19 pandemic nationally?
Let us start by quoting United Nations (UN) Secretary General Antonio Guterres who figuratively states that “Covid-19 is a crisis with a woman’s face”. As a woman seeing the first-hand female experience of surviving the pandemic, I can hardly find a better alternative to Guterres’ assertion.
Restricted movement for women means automatically assuming the triple burden in meeting productive, reproductive and social responsibilities with very little capacity to influence their families towards better livelihoods. Social norms dictating the gender division of labour implies that they have limited power to negotiate with their spouses on the sharing of household care and domestic chores such as helping with homework, fetching firewood and so on.
Unfortunately, the workplace seldom recognises this triple burden as a basic step towards grounding working women in career paths that work for them. The absence of women in leading corporate positions restricts the scope of gender-responsive institutional considerations.
If stronger presence of women in leadership were a reality, it is more likely that companies would promote flexible working hours for both women and men who have pressing care responsibilities. The workplace would strengthen wellness and wellbeing and for those that have been affected by Covid-19, including its gendered impacts, and would easily scale up mental health and counselling services as an example.
Unicef estimates that 888 million children worldwide will be affected by Covid-19, out of whom 7.7 million are in Malawi. This means that we will continue facing disruptions for this the girl child, who has suffered a heavy blow by rising cases of child rape and violence as a result of the pandemic, losing the protective role the school environment has historically played.
Given the space to lead such a fight, women leaders could help reverse this trend —as Inkosi Theresa Kachindamoto has done —and has translated to greater equality for girls and boys. The State, communities and institutions would be better equipped to ensure services for survivors are deemed essential and remain accessible and adequately funded!
To be continued