A CSW65 Side Event Conversation
“The best way to control this pandemic is to distribute vaccines equitably. Then we will be able to make this world a little bit more fair”.
by Marry Ferreira
From health care workers to scientists, professors, journalists, low-paid workers, and home care, women are at the forefront of the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic — yet their contributions remain undervalued.
To expand a conversation around a gender equality framework into equitable access to care, vaccines, and therapeutics, the World Health Organization and Government of Canada, and Government of South Africa hosted a CSW65 side event to include women’ needs in the advancement of Universal Health Coverage and strength data collection systems to ensure no one is left behind.
The Virtual Panel Discussion was hosted on March 24th, during the 65th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW65). This year’s UN’s largest annual gathering on gender equality and women’s empowerment is being hosted online under the theme “Women’s full and effective participation and decision-making in public life, as well as the elimination of violence, for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls.”
“Ensuring a Gender Equality Framework in the Covid-19 Vaccine Roll Out, Therapeutics and Care” reflected upon the complexities of how gender inequalities within the health sector can affect vaccine delivery and access to the vaccine, as well as to COVID-19 therapeutics and related care. Speakers included Dr. Princess Nothemba Simelela, Nena Stoiljkovic, Dr. Nina Schwalbe, Mariângela Simão, and Karina Gould.
Dr. Princess Nothemba Simelela opened the event inviting the audience to reflect on “what we can do to effectively ensure that the vaccines move into the communities and that all women, including women in the informal sector, will be the center of these actions.” Originally from South Africa, Dr. Simelela has been appointed Assistant Director-General for Family, Women, Children, and Adolescents at WHO. She has more than 30 years of experience as an obstetrician, academic, advocate, and government official. She recently served as Special Advisor to the Vice President of the Republic of South Africa, where her work spanned supporting the implementation of the country’s National Strategic Plan for HIV, TB, and Sexually Transmitted Infections to reviewing the country’s Expanded Public Works Program.
“The vaccine rollout is not enough in many countries. Even in those countries where women are in the frontlines, they are still not receiving vaccines or benefiting from the solutions that are being proposed to contain this pandemic”, she says. Nena Stoiljkovic, IFC’s Vice President for Asia and Pacific and former VP of Global Practices and Cross Cutting Solution Areas at the World Bank, also highlighted how there is an urgency for vaccination equity among countries and within countries.
In line with the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE), speakers also propose forward-looking solutions focusing on women’s leadership and meaningful participation at all levels of health and care work as catalysts for situating gender equality centrally within vaccine and therapeutic delivery policies and programs.
Karina Gould, PC MP, member of parliament in the House of Commons of Canada to represent the federal electoral district Burlington, mentioned that only a gender lens could help the world to respond to this crisis. “A gendered approach to this pandemic includes listening to women’s advice because they know what’s working in their communities. When women have access to health care, all are benefited”, she said.
The Canadian politician emphasized that the vaccine rollout is inequitable and unfair, and dangerous because the world will not recover from this crisis unless all are vaccinated and mentioned the importance of the vaccine-sharing initiative COVAX, which distributes vaccines for low-income countries. “The first step is to ensure that vaccines are affordable and available to everyone. Women represent 70% of health care workers in the world, and they are in the frontline. They must have access to vaccines, tests, and access to health care”.
The discussion continued to underscore the role all nations can play to ensure that women and girls in all their diversity, including within the informal economy, have equal access to COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and care to recover better achieve the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Ms.Maha Muna, UNICEF Regional Gender Advisor, presented the report Health in Their Hands: Testing and Women’s Empowerment Means Better Health for All, describing obstacles faced by women to access testing. In some areas, Ms. Muna addresses the fact that there may be a more significant testing gap for men than women because “social norms encourage men to take greater health risks and focus less on prevention.” For her, universal health coverage cannot be achieved without closing the testing gap and addressing the barriers that impede women’s access to testing, improving investment in research on women’s health and testing in low- and middle-income countries.
Ensuring a gender equality framework in the Covid-19 vaccine roll out and care includes an essential discussion on the countries’ response to the pandemic, which includes disaggregated data and reduces vaccine disparities between countries. Dr. Nina Schwalbe, Adjunct Assistant Professor at Columbia University and Acting Chief of the Health Section, Programme Division at UNICEF, said that the United States did “a miserable job in response to this pandemic, looking at countries like Singapore.” For Dr. Schwalbe, developed countries must improve the calls for disaggregation if they want to address women’s needs in this context better. “Countries like the U.S. have no excuse for not having gender-disaggregated data in all aspects of the response for Covid-19. Within CEDAW obligations, it is urgent to have disaggregated data in the vaccine rollout,” says.
Mariângela Simão, Assistant Director-General at the World Health Organization, ended the conversation brought to the light that ten countries own 75% of the total vaccines in the world. “This is not morally wrong from a gender perspective, but also a human rights perspective. This inequitable vaccine rollout will impact access for women if we do not achieve equity in distribution for all countries,” says.
Affirming that this vaccine distribution “does not make sense in terms of economics as well,” Ms. Simão affirms that all countries should be vaccinating healthcare workers, which in many of them are mainly women. “The best way to control this pandemic is to distribute vaccines equitably. Then we will be able to make this world a little bit more fair”.
Marry Ferreira is UN Youth Representative from IAWRT-USA