War in Ukraine is exacerbating gender inequalities – women and girls must be at the forefront of our international development strategy
Crises exacerbate age, gender, and disability inequalities, with women and girls being disproportionately impacted by poverty, conflict, and climate change.
When crises hits, they are the first to be pulled out of school, lose their livelihoods, and are at increased risk of gender-based violence, particularly in crisis-affected settings. Worse still, the Covid-19 health crisis could set progress towards tackling inequality, poverty, conflict, and hunger back by a generation.
Our world has undoubtedly been changed by the pandemic, which has affected everyone, but not equally so. Covid-19 has exploited and exposed deep structural inequalities around the world, having pushed 47 million women and girls into extreme poverty. Women are more likely to work in informal, low-wage jobs that are highly prone to disruption during emergencies.
Disrupted healthcare systems have rewound progress on meeting women’s sexual and reproductive health needs. Despite being a priority of the UK government, millions of girls across the globe have paid the price of pandemic-induced school closures.
Women escaping the war in Ukraine have lost access to crucial healthcare
In moments of crisis, as we are now seeing in Ukraine, these pre-existing gender inequalities are exacerbated. Many men aged 18 to 60 years are remaining in Ukraine, while mostly women, children and older people are fleeing the conflict-affected cities and leaving the country.
Women escaping the war have lost access to crucial healthcare. Pregnant and breastfeeding women are often unable to access vital prenatal and postnatal services or find places to give birth safely. We know that 80,000 women are expected to give birth in Ukraine in the next three months alone. The risk of sexual violence is also exacerbated by crises and displacement, with one in five refugees or internally displaced women in complex humanitarian settings estimated to have experienced sexual violence.
It’s imperative that aid and humanitarian responses understand the ways in which women experience poverty and crises, and subsequently tailor approaches to support women, girls, and the cause of gender equality.
Humanitarian actors need to build on the advances in gender equality and women’s empowerment by Ukrainian women’s rights, women-led and civil society organisations, and work with them to identify and respond to the different humanitarian needs of women, men, boys, girls’, and people of all genders.
Local and national actors are best placed to respond but will require significant financial support quickly. The UK government must identify and financially support women-led and women’s rights organisations and INGOs who support them.
CARE International UK’s report launched this week demonstrates how the UK government has been a leader in gender equality around the globe. Over the past decade, the UK has demonstrated political leadership on gender equality. However, recent aid cuts risk rolling back this progress as £1.9 billion was cut for gender equality projects in 2021 alone.
CARE’s report outlines how women and girls suffer the most from these cuts. Reduced support affects several critical areas including girls' education, water and sanitation, sexual and reproductive health and rights and humanitarian action will not only have a negative impact on women and girls' quality of life but can put their lives at risk.
We know that for every woman that escapes poverty, she brings four others around her out of poverty too. The investment in women's and girls' lives has a tangible knock-on effect on others around them. For example, when a woman has access to education, particularly secondary education, she is less likely to be a child bride, less likely to die in childbirth, and more likely to have healthy babies. A woman with an education is more likely to earn an income and therefore more likely to send her own children to school.
Investing in women and girls is not only the right thing to do but also the smart and efficient way to approach aid. I truly believe that once again the UK and our government can become a trailblazer in gender equality, changing the lives of women and girls throughout the world.
Caroline Nokes is the Conservative MP for Romsey and Southampton North and chair of the Women and Equalities Committee.
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