Emerging evidence suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected women disproportionately and differently from those of men.
Let us take Kosovo. Before the COVID-19, women in Kosovo were already underrepresented in decision making and politics. Their economic participation has also been limited. The pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in the social, political, and economic systems.
Gender and power are fundamentally linked
Women's representation in the Kosovar parliament is 32.5%. Two women lead the parliament—the speaker and her deputy. Out of 16 ministries in the current government, 3 are led by women. The situation at the local level doesn’t look good. There are no women mayors, except two deputy mayors.
Even though women are underrepresented in the high-level positions, they were quite visible in the frontlines fighting the virus, more so than men. Women were taking care of children while homeschooling, teaching online, and most importantly, as brave nurses and doctors dealing with infected patients, putting their lives at risk.
Kosovo-wide, local governments are responsible for primary health care and social services. Out of 38 municipalities, only 7 of them have women leading these departments that are responsible for developing, monitoring, and implementing the regulations issued by the Ministry of Health. They also monitor and cooperate with the Centers for Social Welfare in the municipalities. During the public health crisis, these services were provided mainly through established local emergency committees to prevent the spread of the virus. However, men dominate these committees. Only two are women that were included as members.
Last year, economic growth in Kosovo was at 4.2%. Yet, women are disadvantaged and excluded. Women own only 20.9% of businesses. As low as 16% of women enjoy land property rights. These data show the small fraction of economic power that women have in society and the lack of opportunities for development and equality. Responsible budget planning as a process is developing very slowly. This happens, in many cases, without the participation of women in the process.
More women have access to higher education than men (1% higher than men). However, many women don’t get the same job opportunities as men. The traditional roles women are strongly entrenched in society. The government does not have any concrete policy to compensate the work women do as mothers or care providers. The government has initiated a law that could lead to compensation for maternity leave, but it is still not approved in parliament.
The Pandemic is global, but the impacts are profound at the local level
Although unemployment for women in Kosovo has been quite high—33.4% compared to men 28.5%--the COVID-19 crisis has aggravated the situation even more. According to the data obtained by the Kosovo Women’s Network, there has been an increase in the number of jobseekers up to 37% in the first quarter of 2020. More than half of them were women.
In our estimations, women have suffered the most from the pandemic. They may not be as active agents who hardly enter the labor market. Many of them have lower positions, which are not paid sufficiently. Numerically, it is difficult to make accurate measurements of the number of women who have lost their jobs, because a significant proportion of them are employed in the informal market.
The government has come up with an emergency package to help those who are laid off due to the pandemic. However, the approval and implementation of this package were prolonged. The package doesn’t consider gender aspects.
The lockdown in Kosovo has also increased incidences of domestic violence against women. The Group for Security and Gender Equality, which operates within the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, has called on public institutions to be ready to respond to domestic violence and act against this phenomenon. This increase is worrying, as access to relevant institutions becomes more difficult due to movement restrictions, government priorities that often ignore the needs and demands of the most vulnerable social groups.
‘During this period, women were not provided with adequate and sufficient information by institutions on protection from violence, which increases the insecurity of women,’ says Liridona Sijarina, Project Manager at the Kosovo Center for Gender Studies.
How are local actors acting?
The local government responses to address gender issues during the public health crisis have varied. All municipalities in Kosovo have gender officers. Their role is to work towards achieving gender equality as well as mainstreaming gender issues in municipal policies, legislation, and practices.
But were they able to do their job properly during the pandemic?
In almost all municipalities, the gender officers were not included as members in the municipal emergency committees. However, they were coordinating activities with the members of these committees to make sure that some of the most urgent ones are addressed. The activities ranged from awareness-raising campaigns against gender violence, online meetings with women NGOs, data collection, information sharing regarding financial aid, distribution of masks and sanitary items, and so on. In most cases, none of the gender officers were sitting at the table where the decisions were made regarding the prevention of COVID-19.
‘In close coordination with the members of the emergency committee in our municipality, we have provided aid to single mothers,’ explains Ganimete Aliu from the municipality of Obiliq/Obilic. ‘Jointly with the Mayor, we have organized meetings with women owners of small businesses to inform them about the procedure on how to apply for subsidies,” adds Ganimete.
To address the rising number of domestic violence cases, the gender officers were coordinating and working together with local NGOs and other institutions. They collected data, conducted online training, and awareness-raising campaigns. These all aimed to promote mechanisms for victims to report cases.
Unfortunately, not including the Gender Officers to the emergency committees points out that gender-sensitive decisions are not top priorities of the municipalities in Kosovo. After all, according to the law, the Gender Officers are there to provide advice on gender issues to key decision-makers in the local government. Why not utilize their roles to the full potential?
The COVID-19 pandemic amplifies and heightens all existing inequalities. These inequalities, in turn, shape who is affected and its severity. Many local and international organizations are already voicing out their concerns and recommending actions to the national decision-making bodies and the donor community in Kosovo.
According to Kosovo’s lead expert on gender issues, Ariana Qosaj Mustafa, all measures taken should be geared towards building an equal, inclusive, and sustainable economy and society. Inaction at the time of the pandemic is widening and worsening gender inequalities.
‘Leave No One Behind is at the heart of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Our Government should live up to this by having its gender lenses on during any planning of emergency and economic interventions,’ points out says Ariana. ‘This gives NGOs and other civil society organizations more roles to play in these difficult times as main watchdogs -- in pointing any development deficiencies and requesting current and future interventions to mainstream gender.’