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Beyond COVID-19: A Feminist Plan for Sustainability and Social Justice

Anyone hoping for a more peaceful year in 2022 will be sorely disappointed. All eyes are focused on Ukraine, while conflict and instability continue in Afghanistan, Myanmar and Ethiopia, among others. The IPCCC has just issued its most stark assessment about irreversible climate change to date, and the COVID pandemic is far from over. Although the omicron variant seems to be on the wane, the USA approaches the grim milestone of 1 million deaths, one sixth of the global total, with Brazil and India not far behind. Production  of vaccines is sufficient to meet global demand, but distribution remains scandalously unequal, with only 13 per cent coverage of even one shot in low-income countries.

In many of the areas where COVID has had the most severe impacts, in health, livelihoods, the care economy and violence against women, there were serious problems even before the pandemic. As most recently confirmed in the Lancet, COVID-19 has acted as a ‘big revealer’ on inequalities, reinforcing the cleavages that already existed, making the path to greater social justice and sustainability ever more difficult. It is abundantly clear, therefore, that as governments strive to cope with the crisis and eventually to emerge on the other side, tinkering around the edges, building back better, to where we were before, is a wholly inadequate response.

Based on these insights, and drawing on the expertise of more than 100 experts from around the world, UN Women’s Feminist Plan for Sustainability and Social Justice presents a transformative policy agenda to address the mainstream economic policies that have created fertile ground for the virus, pushed so many millions of people behind, and have brought us to the brink of environmental catastrophe. As well as showcasing the latest data that reveals the gendered impacts of COVID-19, the Feminist Plan provides a three-part policy agenda – on jobs, care and climate – to put gender equality, environmental sustainability and social justice at the centre of economic recovery and transformation.

On jobs, fragile progress on women’s employment has been all but wiped out by the pandemic. Globally, between 2019 and 2020, women lost 54 million jobs, and while by the end of 2021, men’s jobs had recovered to pre-pandemic rates, there were still be 13 million fewer women in employment. The impacts have been especially harsh on working mothers. Even before COVID-19, 740 million women were working in informal employment, in poorly paid jobs like domestic work and street vending, which lack basic employment rights and social protection. The impact of the pandemic has pushed large swathes of these workers over the edge. This livelihoods crisis has reinforced the need for countries to build universal, gender-responsive social protection systems, that can provide a buffer to shocks related to health, but also to the irreversible impacts of climate change which are impacting women the hardest. The unprecedented devastation of the pandemic has driven innovation that can be built upon. For example, countries such as Brazil, Chile, South Africa and Togo have experimented with cash transfers for informal workers and strengthened access to unemployment insurance for domestic workers.

On care, the crisis has exposed the fundamental fragility of the care economy, which is thoroughly dependent on women’s underpaid and unpaid labour. School and daycare closures left millions of children and care-dependent adults without the support they need, while imposing harsh choices and enormous costs on women and girls, who have been forced to leave paid work or education to fill the gaps. Yet, in UN Women and UNDP’s COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker, only 7 per cent of the over 3,000 social protection and labour market measures adopted in response to the pandemic addressed the rising demand for unpaid care work. Meanwhile, paid care workers in the health sector, 70 per cent of them women, have risked their own health to get us through this crisis, but often for pitiful reward. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa rely on over 900,000 community health workers to support their fragile health systems, two thirds of whom are women and 86 per cent are unpaid. It is way beyond time to translate the increased public support and recognition for paid care workers, in health, education and social care, into the better pay and conditions they deserve. Thanks to persistent activism, community health workers in Pakistan and Brazil have made some headway in this area.

In light of the IPCCC’s latest assessment, the final plank of the Feminist Plan, on climate and the environment is perhaps the most urgent. Women’s greater dependence on and unequal access to natural resources, public services and infrastructure makes them especially exposed to the twin crises of climate change and environmental degradation. In spite of much rhetoric, only six per cent of recovery spending by the G20 has been ‘green’, while three per cent of spending has been on measures that will actually increase carbon emissions, such as coal subsidies.  Green transitions should be harnessed to create decent jobs for women in care, energy, transport, agriculture and waste and water management. Reallocating the $423 billion spent annually on fossil fuel subsidies would be a good way to finance these policies. Women leaders in local communities are spearheading innovative approaches to promote gender-just green transitions in key sectors, for example in sustainable energy in Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda and Tanzania; and in agroecology in Brazil, Cuba and Nicaragua, efforts that protect local ecosystems based on Indigenous knowledge. Discussion on these and other policies will be on the table at the upcoming Commission on the Status of Women which will focus on gender equality in policies and programmes on climate and environmental degradation.

Making progress on all of these areas will require significant finance, which is in short supply. Addressing longstanding unsustainable debt, which means that low-income countries often spend more on servicing debt than on basic public services, and resisting another round of damaging austerity policies will be critical. As the UN Secretary General has argued, unprecedented global solidarity and cooperation will be needed. A feminist recovery, and a more sustainable and equal future depends on it.


Join UN Women for a side event at CSW: Beyond COVID-19: Advancing gender responsive policies on climate, care and jobs for a Sustainable and equal future, on Thursday 17 March, 10-11.30 ET, featuring UN Women’s Director Sima Bahous, Mary Robinson, Chair of the Elders, Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS, and Manal Bidar, African Youth Climate Hub. Register here:

Photo credit: “20091212_14k Carolin & Greenpeace’s hand-out placard before the big climate protest during the UN climate conference in Copenhagen, Denmark” by ratexla (protected by Pixsy) is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view the terms, visit