Gender equality commitments absent from health sector policy responses to pandemic

April 7, 2021

The link to the new Policy Portal is: https://globalhealth5050.org/covid-policy-portal

As countries globally are rolling out COVID-19 vaccines, concerns of inequity in access are high. Launching on World Health Day, a leading global health research partnership has reported new findings showing that national governments globally have failed to account for an essential aspect of equity – that of gender – across all areas of their COVID-19 health policies, including vaccination.

The findings by the three research organizations – Global Health 50/50, housed at University College London (UCL), the African Population and Health Research Center, and the International Center for Research on Women in India – are published in the new Sex, Gender and COVID-19 Health Policy Portal. Despite repeated calls from the World Health Organization and other leading global bodies on the need for gender-responsive COVID-19 health policies, the Policy Portal finds little evidence that sex or gender have been considered in policies that directly impact people’s health outcomes – with 91% of policies found to have no mention of gender. Among over 450 policies from 76 countries reviewed, one-third make specific commitments to ensuring equity while just one in seven reference human rights. 

The lead Global Health 50/50 researcher on the project, Mireille Evagora-Campbell, said: “Despite evidence that past pandemics have been gendered, and early data suggesting suggesting that COVID-19 would too be a gendered pandemic, the Health Policy Portal reveals that gender-blind health policy responses are deep-rooted and pervasive. While it is, at this stage, impossible to measure the direct health consequences that this gender-blindness has likely contributed to – including preventable illness, long-term health complications and lives lost – there are clear commitments that countries should adopt in their policies in order to more effectively, and more equitably, protect the health of all people.”

The Sex, Gender and COVID-19 Health Policy Portal, which offers the most comprehensive review of the integration of sex and gender into national COVID-19 health policies reveals a lack of attention to gender, and specifically:

  • Among 388 policies (excluding surveillance policies, which were assessed differently), just 9% were found to address the role of gender in driving health outcomes – ranging from 6% of clinical guidelines and health worker protection guidance to 12% of public health messaging policies.
  • Less than one-third of policies (143/458) identified the population beneficiaries (men, women and/or transgender people) of the policy action. Most of the policies that identified a specific population were focused on women’s health, and specifically maternal health. A small number of policies (13) mentioned interventions targeting men, and only one policy mentioned transgender people. 
  • Of the 19 African countries that had publicly available policies, only 8 policies were found to be gender responsive, 92% were gender blind- and this is reflected globally. However, 16 of the 19 countries’ policies referenced equity.
  • Despite continued calls for sex-disaggregated data, including at least two United Nations General Assembly resolutions, just 20% of countries had national COVID-19 surveillance policies that referenced sex as a key indicator in reporting and analysis.

The failure to prioritize gender, equity and human rights in these health policies has sparked concern among research and health experts that pandemic planning, recovery and vaccination programmes will be less effective at addressing the health impacts of the pandemic.

Dr. Catherine Kyobutungi, Executive Director, African Population and Health Research Center said: “The GH5050 Health Policy Portal revealed that 91% of COVID-19 health policies reviewed globally are gender blind. A year into a pandemic, it is disappointing to see a business as usual approach to policy making knowing the differential impacts COVID-19 has on women and men and other categorizations. We hope that this Portal will be a catalyst for policy makers, activists and communities to advocate for, and develop gender-responsive COVID-19 policies.”

Ravi Verma, Asia Regional Director, International Center for Research on Women, said: “In the absence of a gender lens to the pandemic recovery, the vulnerable remain unreached, and policy responses continue to perpetuate inequities despite good intentions. This must be rectified, and the portal provides us the right evidence to push for responsive policies.”

Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and Global Health 50/50 Advisor, said, “The pandemic has exposed gender, ethnic, socioeconomic and many other inequalities across our societies. One would have hoped that the collective response to it would have had an equity focus, but the GH5050 Health Policy Portal reveals that this has not been the case. In the midst of this pandemic, and in response to those diseases with pandemic potential which will surely threaten in future, I urge policy makers to heed the eseGH5050 findings and ensure that they commit to gender equality and to equality in general across their pandemic control policies.”

The partnership also hosts the world’s largest tracker of sex-disaggregated data on COVID-19, which for more than a year, has demonstrated differential health impacts of COVID-19 on men and women. Although there is some variation among countries, in general men are less likely than women to be vaccinated or tested for COVID-19, but more likely to be hospitalized, and more likely to die from the virus.

The Sex, Gender and COVID-19 Project is a collaboration of leading global health research bodies: Global Health 50/50 (GH5050), which is housed within University College London, the Washington-based International Center for Research on Women (ICRW)’s regional office in Delhi and the African Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC) in Kenya.

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About the Sex, Gender and COVID-19 Health Policy Portal

The portal collates and reviews more than 400 national COVID-19 health policy extracts from 76 countries across all regions and income groups. Policies are collected under six key areas derived from the WHO pandemic response recommendations: vaccination, public health messaging, clinical management, protection of healthcare workers, disease surveillance, and maintenance of essential health services. See the link below to view the data for 76 countries.

About Global Health 50/50

Global Health 50/50, housed at University College London, is an independent research and advocacy initiative that promotes far-reaching transparency, action and accountability to advance gender equality and health equity. Established in 2017, it brings together leading feminists including doctors, academics, journalists, politicians and policy experts from all corners of the world. https://globalhealth5050.org/covid19/

About The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW)

The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) is a global research institute with offices located in Washington, D.C.; New Delhi, India; Nairobi, Kenya; and Kampala, Uganda. Our research evidence identifies women’s contributions as well as the obstacles that prevent them from being economically strong and able to fully participate in society. ICRW translates these insights into a path of action that honors women’s human rights, ensures gender equality, and creates the conditions in which all women can thrive. https://www.icrw.org/

About The African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC)

The African Population and Health Research Center is the continent’s premier research institution and think tank, generating evidence to drive policy action to improve the health and wellbeing of African people. Our mission is to generate evidence, strengthen research capacity and engage policy to inform action on population health and wellbeing. https://aphrc.org/

For more information about this story, or to arrange interviews, contact: Siki Kigongo, via skigongo@aphrc.org

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