International Women’s Day, on March 8, celebrates women worldwide. It’s also a time to reflect on what we have achieved and how far we still have to go.
Even as the roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines gathers pace here in Hong Kong, we are seeing the devastating and tragic human cost of this pandemic. This year, is there much to celebrate?
With the intermittent disruption to schools and care centres causing months of online learning and limited external child and elderly care options, women – particularly mothers – are seeing their unpaid workload dramatically increase, which likely contributes to mental health issues.
Worryingly, domestic violence also increased in the first few months of the pandemic, with one frontline service agency noting a 25 per cent increase in hotline calls.
Women are also over-represented in some of economic sectors most severely affected by the pandemic, such as retail, which potentially compounds difficulties for already vulnerable groups such as single mothers and ethnic minority women.
Domestic violence. The digital divide. Financial insecurity. Disproportionate caring responsibilities. These issues aren’t new and many have made the headlines for a long time. Many of us now mentally switch off when we hear about these issues. But, for many people, particularly women and girls, there isn’t a way to opt out. It’s a lived reality.
Despite these myriad challenges, there is a lack of a direct government response. Both the chief executive’s policy address last November and the recently unveiled 2021-22 budget did not include any specific gender-sensitive support measures.
This year, the theme for International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge and it couldn’t be more timely. We must #ChoosetoChallenge our apathy. We must choose to cast off the ennui with which we often view everyday gender inequalities – both old and new – and freshly examine them to build a more inclusive future.
We know that the challenges brought on by Covid-19 are also opportunities for inclusive economic growth that benefits everyone. McKinsey & Company has projected that if the higher negative impact of Covid-19 on women was addressed, the global economy could grow by an additional US$13 trillion in 2030, which is 11 per cent more than if economies were to take no gender-sensitive actions.
Its research also shows that by investing greater amounts in areas where women particularly need support, including digital inclusion and unpaid care work, it would yield economic benefits that are six to eight times higher than the social spending needed.
Women are vital to rebuilding our economy, our communities and our families; and, at this critical juncture, gender equality has never been more critical to our future as a world city.
What does that look like? For the government, this means ensuring access to reliable, affordable child and elderly care options for all, and income and Mandatory Provident Fund protections for those who drop out of the workforce, particularly informal carers and those on lower incomes.
We also need stronger and more comprehensive protections for domestic violence victims. Gender equality should be incorporated into the Executive Council agenda and considered in all government initiatives. As Singapore is doing, Hong Kong should conduct a comprehensive review of women’s issues and gender equality across sectors and communities in the city.
As employers, we should help women advance along the career pipeline so that gender equality becomes the norm; enable flexible approaches to working that take into account diverse needs, without penalising those less able to be present; and put effective, supportive measures in place that address sexual violence against women, in person and online.
As individuals, we should share domestic responsibilities and childcare equally; challenge gender stereotypes at home, at work, in society and in education, especially in the STEM subjects, and; call out instances of sexism and gender bias.
Covid-19 has given us a rare opportunity to rethink our values and priorities, and to put gender equality front and centre. Once we choose to challenge ourselves – as individuals, as employers, as institutions – and take consistent, measurable actions that benefit the women and girls of our city, we will see these benefits multiply and enhance the well-being of our society as a whole. And that will be a development worthy of celebration.