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COVID-19: A setback and pivotal turning point for women's empowerment

Sponsored: Gender equality is the decisive factor for the world’s future socioeconomic development. We must use this time to ignite a step-change at the nexus of women’s empowerment and global healthcare.


When women are empowered, not only do women themselves benefit but so do their families and communities; Source: Bayer.

This article is sponsored by Bayer.

A couple of weeks ago marked the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW) that took place in Beijing in September 1995. The corresponding passing of the Beijing Declaration and the Beijing Platform for Action made women and health one of its strategic objectives. In 2015, 20 years later, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development established its third goal, "health for all," and its fifth objective, "gender equality." 

The marriage of these matters is at the heart of what I do. Yet in 2020, the coronavirus took hold of the world and threatened to undo the progress that has been made thus far, right at the intersection of these two objectives.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has researched this phenomenon in its latest "2020 Goalkeepers Report," demonstrating that women are hit hardest by the socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic. 

For example, women are more likely to be newly impoverished. Additionally, the report shows that indirectly, the virus will result in more women than men to suffer and die. This is largely due to the fact that the pandemic has disrupted healthcare services surrounding childbirth. 

Hence, the progress that we have made towards achieving gender equality is likely being rolled back by the pandemic at the same time as critical health services are hampered and funds for women’s access to sexual and reproductive health are being shifted to pandemic response. 

According to an analysis by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) and the UN Development Program (UNDP), "Gender gaps in extreme poverty, already biased against women, will worsen as a result of the crisis. Among the population over the age of 15, for every 100 men expected to live in extreme poverty, there will be 105 poor women." 

Gender poverty gaps are most significant during prime reproductive years: "Globally, in 2020, there will be 119 poor women for every 100 poor men aged 25-34, a ratio that is expected to increase to 121 women per 100 men by 2030."

The pandemic has laid bare the fault lines in our current system. At Bayer we recognize that now, more than ever, we can and we must do more to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We want to combine the specific strengths of our divisions to spark a systemic response to the complex challenges we face and to avoid leaving the most vulnerable even further behind. We must consider:

1. Access to modern family planning gives women greater choice over their lives 

Early pregnancies continue to impair women’s health in low-and-middle-income countries as well as their ability to lead self-determined lives, which is why access to family planning remains a crucial means of empowering women.

In July, the UN Population Fund projected more than 47 million women could lose access to contraception, leading to 7 million unintended pregnancies in the coming months. This is a huge setback, particularly as access to modern family planning is not only central to women’s health but also can give them greater choice over their lives, leading to a positive ripple effect on families and communities. 

As a leading women’s healthcare company, Bayer’s goal is to provide 100 million women annually in low-and-middle income countries with access to modern contraception by 2030. With this, we want to improve women’s health, rights and economic status — a large step towards increasing gender equality. 

2. Micronutrient deficiencies are rampant in underserved communities

A UN report produced by agencies including the Food and Agriculture Organization, IFAD and the World Food Programme indicated that in 2020, up to 132 million more people may suffer from undernourishment because of the pandemic. 

An invisible pandemic beyond COVID-19 is going on around the world. What is often called the "silent hunger," micronutrient deficiencies are rampant in underserved communities, with women and children being particularly vulnerable. 

For example, any form of malnutrition during a woman’s pregnancy can have lasting repercussions on fetal and child development, as growth failure can be transmitted from mother to child. Deprivation of essential vitamins and minerals causes a weakened immune system, stunting both physical and intellectual development, often exacerbating the cycle of poverty. 

To us, as the global leader in prenatal vitamins, this is an incredibly important sphere of influence and we will be announcing our plans for interventions in this realm shortly. 

3. We need new solutions to expand access to everyday health

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines self-care as "the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a health care provider."

Back in 2017, WHO predicted that if the world continued on the same trajectory, less than half of the world’s population will have access to basic and essential healthcare services by 2030. Our research has shown women and children are particularly vulnerable. In the meantime, COVID-19 has disrupted much of our basic global healthcare infrastructures, further taking its toll on the ability of many to gain access to basic care. 

It is critical that we develop new solutions to ensure the provision of basic care when no healthcare professionals or hospitals are available. In many of these instances, self-care becomes the first and last line of treatment. 

Bayer, alongside many other companies, has been working through the Global Self-Care Federation to bundle both resources and knowledge to start working through innovative solutions to expand access to everyday healthcare. A broader paradigm shift in our approach to basic healthcare access will be fundamental in our path towards achieving "health for all" by 2030. 

4. Bayer is working on a 'gender smart' approach for female smallholder farmers

Women make up more than 40 percent of the agricultural workforce in low-and-middle-income countries, and almost 80 percent of economically active women in those countries report agriculture as their primary source of income. Yet due to many of the same systemic disadvantages, on average their farms yield 20-30 percent less than similar farms operated by men. 

Not only would closing this gap lift many of these women out of poverty, it would improve food security for an estimated 100 million to 150 million people. 

Bayer is working to overcome this challenge by employing a "gender smart" approach where we are looking at interventions in access to tools, knowledge or partnerships specifically targeted at women to help them unlock their true potential.

Gender equality is the decisive factor for the world’s future socioeconomic development — and while the outlook of COVID-19 may appear bleak, we must use this time to ignite a step-change at the nexus of women’s empowerment and global healthcare. 

In an extensive search for a silver lining amid this crisis, many have taken this time to call for us to "build back better" — and so will I. That is, to continue helping people thrive within the planetary boundaries. It is the core meaning of sustainability in our corporate strategy. 

At Bayer, we are evaluating how we can build effective partnerships with private and public organizations to further drive meaningful change. We look forward to sharing our latest commitments with you very soon. 

The challenges that lie ahead of us are so large that we cannot solve them alone. The pandemic has shown us that collectively, we can work faster, smarter and better to find solutions to the complex, urgent challenges we face today. It has reminded us that it is possible to work together, across borders, across sectors and across the world. That is why we rely on strong partnerships.

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