Voices from the Field features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development, diplomacy and security challenges. This post is authored by Hans Peter Lankes, vice president of economics and private sector development, International Finance Corporation (IFC).
Global shocks such as the pandemic-driven economic downturn that we are now facing amplify existing social inequalities. In developing countries, women and girls face greater risks during crises especially because of entrenched social norms and unequal power structures in many economies.
Women bear a disproportionate share of unpaid care and household work—performing more than 75 percent of total hours of unpaid work globally. Over the past several weeks, the pandemic has exacerbated the care issue for women because lockdowns in most countries have led to the closure of schools and daycare centers, and any care that relatives or neighbors provided is now unavailable. At the same time, many working parents are expected to engage in full-time home-based work.
The pandemic offers us a chance to work with various stakeholders, including the public and private sectors and development finance institutions, to redesign family-friendly policies for a resilient workforce.
Several private sector companies have responded to the crisis by offering paid or unpaid family leave or childcare subsidies to employees, as part of efforts to reduce the care burden for working parents, including for those working on the frontlines of the pandemic.
To guide employers to support the care and family needs of their employees during this crisis, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) developed Childcare in the COVID-19 Era: A Guide for Employers. The guide outlines what employers can do to support the care and family needs of their employees during the pandemic. For example, companies can offer employees home-based work, flex work, or paid family leave. IFC can work with client companies to provide technical assistance to help them assess and address their workforce challenges during this time. The COVID-19 childcare guide is a companion to IFC’s Guide for Employer-Supported Childcare published last year.
One company that was inspired by this guidance is Artistic Milliners, a garment-manufacturing firm based in Pakistan. This IFC client announced recently it will allow children of essential services staff, including healthcare professionals and law enforcement officials, to use its childcare facility in Karachi free of charge—after agreeing to follow strict health and safety protocols. Initially 20 children will be accommodated at the childcare center.
In Sri Lanka, another IFC client, CBL Group, expanded its family-friendly policies because of COVID-19. The food manufacturing company provided additional leave for pregnant and nursing employees, saying they could remain at home with full pay until conditions in the country improve. The company said it is also exploring a pilot with more flexible work schedules.
In addition to this private sector leadership, governments are exploring how they can support families and children during the pandemic. Ukraine recently unveiled its online curriculum through the Learning Passport, a global educational platform launched by UNICEF and Microsoft to encourage children and youth to continue their education at home. In Australia, the government announced new funding arrangements for the early childhood education and care sector, making childcare services temporarily free for around 1 million families.
For employer-supported childcare to have a significant impact, governments can implement policy or regulatory frameworks to enable firms to offer childcare options. During this pandemic, governments can provide health and safety protocols and enhanced childcare guidelines, while investing in childcare infrastructure, funding childcare centers to deal with the crisis, and offering online training for teachers and childcare providers.
Providing care options for women is now more urgent than ever because a lack of good quality, affordable care is a stumbling block for economic equality of women, as philanthropist Melinda Gates noted in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post. She warned that after the pandemic, women will be at risk of further lagging behind men.
Gates’ warning rings true because experiences from previous large-scale shocks show that these crises often affect men and women differently. Women face greater negative economic impact stemming from public health emergencies. For example, researchers found that while the Ebola outbreak in West Africa affected everyone’s income, men’s income rebounded faster after the crisis. Similarly, after the Ebola crisis, girls who dropped out of classes because of school closures often didn’t go back to complete their formal education, likely affecting their long-term economic potential. Moreover, emerging data show intensified violence against women and girls due to confined living conditions brought on by COVID-19, with lasting impact on their physical and mental health.
We must continue with our efforts to work with various partners, including the private sector, to ensure family-friendly policies become the norm. Equal participation of women in the global economy is critical for a sustainable, post-pandemic world.