The fight against the COVID-19 pandemic is shining a green light on women’s leadership skills. With only 20 countries led by women, female voices are being obscured in a crisis that disproportionately affects women.
The countries with female leaders – Denmark, Finland, Germany, Taiwan, and New Zealand – have shown remarkable progress in response to contain the pandemic. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern established strict, proactive lockdown measures at the early stages of the pandemic outbreak, which minimised the spread. Only 1,500 of 5 million people in New Zealand contracted the virus, and the country recorded only 22 deaths. By 11 June 2020, New Zealand had zero active cases. However, women in such leadership positions are rare.. Where may we look to other examples of female leadership in this COVID-19 pandemic? It is crucial to examine the leadership practices of the women working to fight the COVID-19 pandemic who are not in positions of executive authority.
Sub-Saharan Africa has only one female head of state (the current Ethiopian president is female), and even this position is ceremonial. However, the vital role of women Health Ministers in the fight against COVID-19 in the region provides a case study for the gendered effects of leadership through the pandemic. 13 of the 54 countries in the region have female health ministers seeking to manage and contain the virus’s spread. As of 15 May 2020, four countries in Africa – Eritrea, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Uganda – had not recorded any deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic. All have female health ministers. These women are working in ministries that are often underfunded and undervalued, yet vital to contain this virus. As of 15 May 2020, the resilient and effective leadership of Amina Nurhussien, the Health Minister of Eritrea, brought the country’s cases to zero.
There is still an uncertain future for women’s leadership in Sub-Saharan Africa due to policies that restrict women from participating in leading political roles. It is important to ask whether the example of the female health ministers in response to the outbreak and spread of COVID-19 will dismantle the patriarchal stereotype that women cannot handle challenging leadership roles. The stereotype often causes the under-representation of women in critical roles and top positions because they are believed to be incompetent, thus perpetuating men’s privilege over women, who are pushed to head lesser positions. For example, women are believed to be best suited to being nurses, teachers, financial assistants, or secretaries to male bosses. With women making up about 70 percent of the workforce in the health sector, women are risking their well-being to save lives during this pandemic, even while being paid less than their male counterparts. As a result, proactive measures that promote the empowerment of women need to be put in place to allow them to have equally active participation in the decision-making during the fight against this threatening pandemic. This can be done by adopting non-discriminatory laws and regulations, having an unbiased mindset towards women, encouraging women’s attainment of education and training, facilitating access to healthcare, and moderating poverty levels among women. This will promote gender inclusiveness by opening avenues for all.
The pandemic has not affected men and women equally. Thus, it is crucial to recognise the different ways the pandemic has affected men and women in Sub-Saharan Africa – women in particular. As women are at the forefront of fighting the pandemic, they suffer from numerous gender-specific challenges, such as constraints in accessing health and reproductive services and a higher risk of physical and sexual abuse resulting from stringent lockdown measures. This violates the rights of women to proper health and well-being. Also, women participate disproportionately in unpaid caregiving, which places them at risk of catching the virus. This also limits women’s abilities to obtain proper education and training which would enable them to compete favourably for formal employment and develop leadership skills that would facilitate their participation in politics.
Unskilled women who are unable to compete in the formal labour market become entrenched in an economically vulnerable position that is difficult to overcome. Therefore, the states, with the support from the UNDP, should encourage the presence and leadership of women in decision-making spheres such as public administration, political affairs, disaster management (for example containing COVID-19 pandemic), and the recovery process. The participation of women in decision-making roles will enable them to lead the government’s vital organisations that regulate society, and encourage the adoption and implementation of laws and regulations that mitigate gender-based violence.
In order to reduce gender inequality during the fight against COVID-19, those in the top leadership roles should support, promote, and implement gender-responsive leadership positions in ministerial portfolios and hospitals. This will facilitate gender equality that then reduces vulnerability of those who face violence and economic hardship. There is also a need to recognise women who have tirelessly worked to save lives against the devastating virus.
Beatrice Alupo is a PhD candidate in the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University. Her research focuses on acculturation and adaptation experiences of refugee women in Uganda.
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