Northern Ireland’s Feminist Recovery Plan: why COVID-19 recovery requires a gender-sensitive approach

From the demands of unpaid care to increased levels of domestic violence, the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women has been well-documented across the world. Northern Ireland’s Feminist Recovery Plan offers a pioneering response

Jayne Finlay

The COVID-19 pandemic has both highlighted and deepened existing structural inequalities, requiring interventions that help to mitigate both the immediate and long-term impacts on already disadvantaged populations. One issue to which it has drawn increased attention is that of gender equity, exacerbating the ways that gender intersects with other social identities such as class, ethnicity, sexuality and age, to create distinct experiences of marginalisation.

This blog discusses the need to adopt gender-sensitive policy responses to what has been a deeply gendered crisis. It draws on the example of recovery planning in Northern Ireland to underline that gender-neutral policy responses risk further eroding progress made in women’s rights and gender equality.

Why a gender lens is needed when crafting policy responses

The disproportionate impact of this pandemic on women has been well-documented across the globe. The closure of schools and nurseries and more time spent at home has disproportionately increased the burden of unpaid care and domestic work for women. Women are also more likely to work in the hard-hit job sectors such as hospitality and retail, and have therefore been more likely than men to lose their jobs, as evidenced in a new UK-wide analysis by the TUC.

Lockdowns have led to increasing levels of domestic violence. There have also been adverse impacts on the health of women generally, through the scaling back of sexual and reproductive health services due to the strain on the healthcare system elsewhere. In Northern Ireland, despite abortion having been decriminalised in 2019, services have still not been commissioned or funded, meaning that women have been forced to travel to England throughout the pandemic to access this care.

It has been projected that the long-term impacts of the pandemic will set back many of the gains made in gender equality. According to the United Nations, this crisis will drive 47 million more women and girls into extreme poverty this year across the world.

It has also undone much of the progress made to closing the gender pay gap. According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2021, it will now take 135.6 years to close the gender pay gap worldwide (the previous estimation was 99.5 years).

These statistics make clear the importance of using a gender lens when crafting both immediate and long-term policy responses. Some governments have already committed to providing feminist, intersectional responses to the pandemic and have drawn up recovery plans which provide a roadmap to do so – notably in Canada and Hawaii.

Northern Ireland’s Feminist Recovery Plan

In Northern Ireland, the COVID-19 Feminist Recovery Plan provides a comparable roadmap and encourages the government to make a similar commitment. Developed by the Women’s Policy Group NI, the FRP is a comprehensive document detailing the wide-ranging economic and societal implications of the pandemic for women in Northern Ireland, and providing actionable recommendations to address gender-based and other intersecting inequalities. These recommendations span issues of economic justice, additional health impacts, social justice, culture and human rights.

Officially launched in July 2020, the plan has been an ongoing campaign over the past year to lobby and engage with ministers and NI government departments to ensure that relevant action is taken – informed by the significant amount of existing evidence on how women in Northern Ireland have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

Commenting on the degree of engagement to date, the Chair of the Women’s Policy Group, Rachel Powell, noted that the group had frequently asked for representation to emergency taskforces and economic recovery groups, but had ‘repeatedly been rejected’.

Powell added: ‘Economic issues are women’s issues; health issues are women’s issues. The women’s sector is full of experts with the lived experience and solutions needed to overcome these issues, yet we have constantly been sidelined or treated as an afterthought. If we do not introduce a gender-sensitive response to the pandemic, the ramifications for women will be felt for decades.’

The Feminist Recovery Plan is being relaunched this summer with up-to-date statistics and discussion of outstanding recommendations – and will highlight the harm of not adequately having addressed pre-existing structural inequalities in Northern Ireland. One poignant example is the lack of a Childcare Strategy which, despite having been discussed for decades, has not yet been developed or implemented.

The New Decade, New Approach agreement (published in January 2020) committed to developing a Childcare Strategy but as yet there has been little movement on this. Having an effective strategy in place might have helped to alleviate some of the challenges experienced by women during the pandemic. A recent report published by Northern Ireland’s Gender Equality Strategy Expert Advisory Panel also emphasised the need for this long-awaited strategy.

More broadly, this report draws attention to the harm caused by decades of gender-neutral legislation and policies in Northern Ireland. Gender-neutral or gender-blind policymaking overlooks the fact that policy decisions will have different impacts on different genders, and can lead to women facing disproportionate disadvantage and discrimination.

Resources to support a gender-responsive approach

While there have been calls across the world for a gender-responsive approach to the pandemic, the example of Northern Ireland’s Feminist Recovery Plan shows how translating these calls into actions has proved challenging.

However, a plethora of evidence and resources are available to help policymakers in taking these steps. A COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker has been set up to monitor government responses to the pandemic, drawing attention to responses which have an integrated gender lens and the level of women’s participation in COVID-19 taskforces (men currently outnumber women three to one on global task forces globally).

An international Gender and COVID-19 Working Group has also been set up to provide a comparative gender-analysis of the pandemic, and to offer policy guidance and recommendations for those delivering public health interventions.

The EU’s Action Plan on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in External Action 2021-2025 (Gap III) also acknowledges that global recovery from the pandemic requires stronger engagement on gender equality, and that women must be in the driving seat for decision-making. This plan offers a helpful framework for policymakers, and puts forward concrete measures for progressing toward a more gender-equal world.

Gender equity and gender-sensitive policymaking is fundamental to both the economic and social recovery following the pandemic. It is crucial that policymakers make use of the robust evidence and relevant resources and tools available to effectively address these challenges, and that women play a central part in the decision-making progress.

Implementing gender-neutral responses risks reversing progress which has been made in the eradication of gender inequality, both within specific national contexts and on a wider global scale.

Dr Jayne Finlay is Research and Engagement Officer with IPPO’s Northern Ireland partner, Pivotal Public Policy Forum