Where are women and girls especially vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Mayra Buvinic, Lorenz Noe, Eric Swanson November 30, 2020

Compounding vulnerabilities for women and girls in LICs and LMCs

Did you know that Zimbabwe is one of four low- and lower-middle-income countries (LICs and LMCs) where a severe economic contraction in 2020 combines with very low levels of women’s wellbeing and low capacity of the state to target government payments and other social assistance to women and girls? 59 percent of women lack a bank or mobile money account used to transfer government payments and only 44 percent of girls have been registered at birth, which is often a requirement for receiving social assistance. According to colleagues at the Center for Global Development (CGD), Zimbabwe has also not benefited from World Bank crisis lending in 2020, further compounding a dire economic situation.

Bangladesh, meanwhile, currently faces a high COVID-19 case burden relative to other low- and lower-middle-income countries, compounded by low scores on women’s health and the fact that only 35 percent of women have a bank or mobile money account.

Ukraine, with a strikingly different profile from most LICs in terms of government capacity to target women and girls, is, however, suffering from severe economic and COVID-19 health crises that are compounded by a lack of internationally available gender data, especially in health and human capital — making it hard to track the effects of the pandemic and where to target mitigation measures for women and girls.

In The Central African Republic and thirteen other countries — mostly low-income — women and girls are highly vulnerable because they score poorly on all or most indicators of wellbeing, although the pandemic has yet to result in severe economic or health crisis relative to other LICs and LMCs. In most of these countries, the government’s capacity to target women with assistance is substandard.

A gender vulnerability analysis and dashboard are available for 75 LICs and LMCs

Two questions informed our new report investigating women’s and girls’ vulnerabilities to the COVID-19 pandemic in 75 LICs and LMCs:

  • In which low- and lower-middle-income countries (LICs and LMCs) are women and girls most exposed to or at most risk of suffering negative primary and secondary effects of the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • And how well are these countries able to address these effects?

To answer these questions, we created a gender vulnerability dashboard that maps indicators of women’s wellbeing, economic outlook, COVID-19 rates and trends, and countries’ capacity to respond to the pandemic with a gender lens in 75 LICs and LMCs. The dashboard can be downloaded and used to look up sources for each indicator, create alternative rankings, and track the vulnerability of women in each country.

What did we learn from the vulnerability analysis?

Informed by previous epidemics, we know that the COVID-19 pandemic will exacerbate existing inequalities in countries where women and girls are already left behind or at risk of being left behind. And due to incomplete or unavailable data, we often don’t know the full extent of how women and girls are affected.

Through our analysis, we sought to understand which LICs and LMCs are the most vulnerable — in other words, where women are most likely to suffer the severest effects of the pandemic — and then identified 26 most vulnerable LICs and LMCs, grouped into four clusters: economic crisis (including Zimbabwe), health crisis (Bangladesh), gender data gaps (including Ukraine), and low women’s well-being (including the Central Africa Republic). See Table 1 in the report for the full list.

Although the composition of the four clusters may change over the course of the pandemic, our analysis suggests patterns of risk to vulnerable women and girls that are likely to recur:

  • The economic contraction is affecting more LICs and LMCs with populations of highly vulnerable women than the health crisis, at least in the short term. This suggests the importance of mitigation measures that target cash transfers to women to compensate for their loss of income and help women with income generation, both in the short term and as part of long-term recovery programs.
  • There are a considerable number of countries where the pandemic has yet to have severe health or economic consequences but where the wellbeing of women is very low. They are highly vulnerable to any negative effects of the pandemic and need sustained support.
  • There is a group of mostly LMCs that are undergoing severe health or economic crises and where the lack of available gender data is likely to reinforce a vicious cycle between lack of data regarding women and girls and lack of remedial action for them.
  • Vulnerable countries are ill-prepared to address women’s vulnerabilities to the pandemic. Effectively targeting women for cash transfers and other social safety nets will be difficult in countries where significant proportions of their populations have no birth registrations or national IDs and where gender gaps exist in access to bank and mobile money accounts.
  • Vulnerable countries also seem to have reduced fiscal space to address the needs of vulnerable populations, particularly women’s health and income generation needs.

What can you do with the dashboard?

The gender vulnerability dashboard can help frame questions and priorities. More specifically:

  • Policymakers can use the dashboard as a source of comprehensive information on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on women and girls, compare how countries are doing on the different domains of vulnerability, assess which countries or domains of women’s wellbeing may be especially at risk or vulnerable, and identify policy and action priorities.
  • The dashboard can provide donors with useful information on how well their resource allocations respond to countries’ and women’s vulnerabilities to the pandemic, as well as how to structure aid flows so that they are able to benefit the most vulnerable countries with the most vulnerable populations of women.
  • Civil society organizations in LIC, LMICs, and other countries around the world can use the dashboard to advocate for gender-informed investments from policymakers and donors.
  • As the dashboard is updated regularly, all stakeholders can use it to track the progress of mitigation and recovery measures that are directed to improve the situation and wellbeing of vulnerable women in LICs and LMCs.

What do we recommend?

Targeted investments are urgently needed to protect women and girls in the most vulnerable countries to the COVID-19 pandemic. We recommend these investments include:

1. Expanding the reach of birth registrations and national IDs as well as creating financial access for women to enable more women and girls to benefit from COVID-19 social protection and assistance programs.

2. Including women in policies that seek to stimulate labor markets, as our analysis suggests that in these vulnerable countries, very few COVID-19 labor market policies are gender-sensitive.

3. Investing in core capacity to generate data on all areas of society, including women and girls, as we observe that core statistical capacity is positively correlated with stronger gender data systems.

4. Enabling cash-strapped countries to obtain the fiscal space necessary to both tackle the pandemic and protect expenditures on maternal and child health as well as sexual and reproductive health.

These investments must be evidence-based and responsive to country capacities and the specific needs of women and girls in each country. Concerted action by policymakers, donors, and advocates is required both to launch or intensify country investments in women and girls, to monitor their effectiveness over this critical time, and to sustain long-term progress that places women’s and girls’ needs at the center of countries’ development policies and programs.

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