Last year, on International Women’s Day (IWD) 2020, the coronavirus was only lurking on the sidelines. As women around the world affirmed their ambitions for gender parity over the next decade, the scale of what was to come over the next 12 months was unknown. Fast forward to 8 March 2021, and the Covid-19 pandemic has shaped this year’s celebration.
We know that women and girls have been adversely affected by the pandemic. But women have also been a driving force behind much of the crisis response: as key workers on the frontline; as leaders in workplaces and governments; within their communities; and for their families.
So, this year’s IWD provides an opportunity to recognise the unique achievements of women over the last year, but also to look towards the future and ask how we can ensure equality is at the heart of the recovery.
The pandemic has had a profound impact on countless organisations, and the Institute was no exception. From the moment Covid-19 gripped the world, our teams – who work in countries across the globe, including more than 14 in sub-Saharan Africa – moved swiftly to solve urgent policy problems and provide support to leaders and governments confronting the crisis. They did all of this while adapting to the challenge of remote working – and women have been right at the helm.
In honour of International Women’s Day 2021, we have compiled stories of how the Institute was challenged by the crisis – both within our organisation and through the issues the Institute focuses on – and how we’re helping governments recover and rebuild, told by inspirational women across our organisation.
"This year’s IWD provides an opportunity to recognise the unique achievements of women over the last year, but also to look towards the future and ask how we can ensure equality is at the heart of the recovery."
Ruth Logan, Social Media and Digital Marketing Manager
Chrissy Hill, General Counsel & Chief Operating Officer
At 8pm on 20 March 2020, the day after my 43rd birthday, I sent the New Ways of Working guidance for Covid-19 to our TBI community from my home in North London. As I closed my laptop, I looked at the little faces of my two daughters, then ages 9 and 4.
Usually so rambunctious, here they were, past their bedtime, fearfully sitting at my feet. Literally cowering under my desk at home. Knowing there was no more school, I thought: “How am I going to care for them and work during lockdown? How will everyone else do it? How can I help? And boy oh boy, does this birthday suck.”
Rather than get overwhelmed, I turned to my phenomenal colleagues to figure out the answers to those “how tos”. And we figured out how to get through this together – all while remotely working.
Today, I am still in North London but in a new house.
And I am still thinking the same things! But thankfully, my girls are no longer cowering in fear – they are back to being just beautiful, feral creatures who have had way too much screen time.
Now, just as I did then, I turn to my phenomenal colleagues to continue to fine-tune the “how tos” of operating in a pandemic, including:
How to “keep the lights on” in over 19 countries.
How to keep more than 270 colleagues safe and secure.
How to support, operationally, TBI’s pivot to focus on Covid-19.
How to respond to all the individual challenges faced by our colleagues, whether it’s due to illness, anxieties, living situations, dependents or anything else.
How to keep an organisation and people going on “crisis footing” for close to a year.
How to try new ways of working, admit when we don’t know the answers and keep refining.
Most importantly, how to not let fear hold us back from delivering on our mission and supporting each other.
(And hopefully, how to celebrate my 44th birthday in lockdown style this year.)
Elizabeth Smith, Senior Covid-19 Advisor
As we pass the landmark of the first year since cases of Covid-19 were recorded in Africa, it is clear that the impact of the pandemic has been particularly hard on Africa’s women and girls.
Mainly the effects have been indirect. Almost three-quarters of women in Africa are employed within the informal economy, and lockdowns and restrictions introduced to curb transmission hit these livelihoods hard. Access to regular health services was disrupted which meant fewer women could access sexual and reproductive health advice, or attend maternal health facilities. And in terms of schooling, while children across the world missed out on time in the classroom, it tends to be girls who are overrepresented in the group of children who do not return to education.
Certain groups have also been directly exposed to the risk of Covid, including community health workers, the majority of whom are women, at the forefront of Africa’s public-health response, and who have borne the consequences of global PPE shortages.
This situation is not restricted to Africa; gender inequalities exist globally. International Women’s Day is an opportunity to both acknowledge them and to consider what actions we can take to address them.
Lisa Karanja, Kenya Country Head
In Kenya, Covid-19 appeared just as we were looking to really drill down on our work, having invested in relationship development and positioning ourselves within the office of the president and ministries relevant to our desired areas of focus. At the same time, we had new staff and a newly kitted-out office. We were at the end of the runway, ready for take-off. And then all of a sudden, we had to work from home, new arrivals had to engage remotely and workplans were turned on their heads as we pivoted towards the crisis.
Fortunately, the Kenyan government had started preparing for the pandemic before the first case was identified, establishing a war room and a national response committee. The gaps were in operationalising strategies and ensuring delivery, and TBI provided that support directly to the Covid-19 committee structure. Very quickly, the main concern became how we could balance containing the virus with the impact on the economy. We therefore also worked at the county level where they were struggling to develop their health-management and economic-recovery strategies.
In Kenya, the impact on women and young girls was acute. Domestic violence, sexual assault and teen pregnancies all rose, while workloads increased. Women are often the main caregivers in Kenyan communities and, with an already unequal division of labour, Covid-19 further exacerbated the negative effects on women's opportunities due to the large burden of unpaid care work.
As TBI, we continue to support the government’s priorities that also impact on the pandemic’s effects. This includes working with the Ministry of Agriculture to improve their delivery of food security solutions and supporting counties to operationalise their delivery units and embed effective economic responses for inclusive development.
Elen Barreto, Social Affairs Advisor
Now more than ever, social protection systems are in the spotlight in Mozambique. As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of people covered by social protection programmes has more than doubled in a single year, with approximately 1 million beneficiaries added to the national social protection system.
To deliver on this, Mozambique’s Minister of Gender, Child and Social Action asked me to support the implementation of the Social Action Response Plan to the Impacts of Covid-19. We have faced many challenges on our path, namely fundraising, institutional and providers’ capacity to deliver, and coordination among different stakeholders. But despite facing a pandemic, at a professional level it has been a huge opportunity to be part of the team that developed and is now implementing such a crucial initiative for the people of Mozambique.
This experience has highlighted the value of team members’ resilience, the importance of high-quality human resources and the use of evidence-based analysis to deliver better results-oriented public policies. It has also demonstrated just how important it is to foster the prioritisation of women when developing social protection strategies, so they can achieve a far more robust impact in their communities, without leaving women and girls behind.
"The pandemic reinforced the importance of what we do in the tech team and overall at the Institute."
Lucia Asanache, Community Lead, Technology and Public Policy
Emman El-Badawy, Head of Research, Extremism Policy Unit
While the world’s attention rightly focused on the health and economic damage from Covid-19, many countries and their populations continued to face conflict and insecurities spurred by violent extremist groups. Most observed the disruption from the pandemic, and continued or intensified their activities. This, combined with temporarily diverted foreign aid budgets and a pausing – or cancellations in cases – of development programmes due to travel disruptions, left many people around the world vulnerable.
Decades of work in conflict settings show that women and their networks play an important role in reaching resolutions. In counter-extremism, policymakers and frontline responders have come a long way in understanding the impact of extremism on women and girls and their role in addressing it. As a result of this greater understanding, many women throughout the last ten to 15 years have become direct beneficiaries of the important community-based work and initiatives that fall under “Preventing Violent Extremism” or countering radicalisation. Such programmes include training and education projects, employment schemes and interfaith dialogues.
The extremist ideologies that continually need confronting and challenging have had a vastly disproportionate impact on women and their everyday lives. Women who stand up daily to extremism in their societies and represent the antithesis of extremist worldviews have had their structures of support pulled away. These are often all that they can lean on when challenging deeply taboo issues, leaving them in a vulnerable and in some cases dangerous position.
The news that hundreds of schoolgirls in Nigeria had been kidnapped by criminal gangs believed to have been infiltrated by Nigeria’s notorious Boko Haram group, who violently oppose girls’ education and have a history of mass abductions, is the latest reminder that terrorism, extremism and violence against women and girls continues despite the pandemic.
It is still not clear what the long-term societal damage of Covid-19 will be, but what is clear is that the challenges from before the pandemic remain and in many cases are worsening. While the Institute has pivoted resources to confront the immediate challenge of the pandemic, we have also stayed clear-eyed in our role to ensure counter-extremism remains high on the global agenda. The path to change is long, and the pandemic will not distract us.
Lucy Hayter, Director of Generation Global
Girls and young women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and its devastating impact on education across the globe. Approximately 750 million girls have been out of school during this time, having to, where they can, rely on distance-learning solutions as their educational lifeline.
UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition, of which the Institute is a member, seeks to address the gender dimensions of the school crisis and safeguard progress made on gender equality in education in recent decades.
Bridging the digital divide – which we also know disproportionately affects women – could be part of the solution if we can act quickly.
EdTech Hub found that “when barriers were removed and female students were given access to technology-enabled education, girls are likely to respond with a high level of engagement”. It also noted that “the advantages extend beyond the realm of formal education and empower them in other areas of life”.
Generation Global, our online education programme for students aged 13-17, has seen a greater proportion of females than males (approximately 59 per cent and 41 per cent respectively) participating in 2020. We are finding that the pandemic has put a spotlight on the importance of skills that build resilience and help young people engage with diversity in a positive way.
Through our free, self-directed and online Ultimate Dialogue Adventure, launched in July last year, students develop these skills by learning about topics such as girls and women’s rights, climate change and fake news, and by participating in online dialogue and video conferences with thousands of students worldwide.
Eleni Arzoglou, Senior Advisor, Renewing the Centre
As TBI pivoted into Covid and remote work, Zoom presented us with an opportunity to host public events, unconstrained by the spatial limitations of the office. My colleagues made good on this opportunity, setting up a webinar series on the key issues we work on. Through these webinars we’ve been able to host important female voices – women leaders in their fields be it on economic issues, pandemic measures, Brexit, climate change or others. Coming back from maternity leave, I’ve been able to build on what those colleagues started and feel proud to have given more visibility to women in academia, policy specialists, journalists and other experts.
So far we have been able to host Claire Perry O’Neil, Stella Creasy, Dame Kate Barker, Rebecca Willis, Mary Creagh, Rachel Wolf, Professor Brigid Laffan, Bronwen Maddox, Professor Wendy Carlin, Dr Leslie Vinjamuri, Nancy Hey, Stephanie Flanders, Frances Coppola, Beatrice Kilroy-Nolan, Professor Catherine Barnard, Sonia Sodha, Professor Nicola McEwen and Gemma Tetlow. We look forward to giving a platform to many more.
Lucia Asanache, Community Lead, Technology and Public Policy
In March 2020, I was busy setting up what was going to be, unknowingly, the last in-person tech policy roundtable for the year. Indeed today, worries about branded roll-up banners, name tags and handouts seem to belong to a different era.
Fast forward 12 months and, thanks to technology, events have anything but stopped or even slowed down. Conversations have multiplied significantly and we have connected more easily with colleagues, stakeholders and partners around the world that we would not have otherwise been able to reach in-person in a relatively short space of time.
In a recent reflection following an event on tech policy trends, we concluded that tech made the pandemic more survivable for many, enabling connections, providing access to crucial information, and allowing education and business to carry on. Technology played a key role in both fighting the virus as well as helping people adapt to living under varying ranges of restrictions. With Covid-19 putting tech right at the centre of attention for governments, leaders and civil society alike, my role has evolved exponentially to support a wider remit of building, growing and engaging communities around tech policy. I am therefore on a mission to make tech policy more accessible for people around the world and help our team advance the new progressive agenda.
On a personal note, the pandemic reinforced the importance of what we do in the tech team and overall at the Institute. That sense of purpose and energy has been a guiding light through our common struggles, especially women's: insecurity, uncertainty, work/life imbalance and so on. Despite the lack of in-person connection, Covid-19 placed a real emphasis on empathy and depth of relationships both at work and at home, which I cherish.
Looking ahead to the future, I am optimistic about the increasingly open conversations about mental health and the inequalities exposed by the pandemic. Raising issues, calling time out and raising awareness of personal circumstances feels more normal and natural, with less shaming or guilt-tripping in response. If we get the lessons right, this will have contributed to shaping a fairer, more equal environment for women anywhere, regardless of country, economic background or industry – and that, I am looking forward to.