Protecting and Promoting Women’s Rights Is Key to Defeating the Coronavirus at Home and Abroad
The world is having a moment celebrating women leaders for their effective policy responses to the coronavirus crisis. However, it is not gender behind these effective policies, it is competent governance paired with smart policy responses that address the pandemic’s direct impacts on women and families. Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s failure to lead and its continued attacks on women’s rights during this crisis have impeded the U.S. recovery from COVID-19 and squandered the opportunity for global leadership. Instead of following the guidance of health experts and government officials, President Donald Trump and other anti-choice policymakers are undermining women’s economic security and restricting fundamental reproductive rights at home and abroad at a time when the well-being of women and families is critical to long-term recovery.
This should not come as a surprise, as this administration has regularly treated women as either an afterthought or a target for regulation. President Trump has let the White House Council for Women and Girls—created during the previous administration to focus on increasing gender equality in the United States—lie dormant since the start of his administration. Instead, the Trump administration has cut funding for essential reproductive health services and exported its restrictive policies by expanding the Global Gag Rule and opposing resolutions that encourage breastfeeding, despite decades of research showing that it is the healthiest approach for mothers and their infants.
Now that the world is facing a pandemic, the Trump administration—and its mostly male coronavirus task force—is ignoring COVID-19’s impacts on women and doubling down on its attacks on reproductive rights. The resulting policies are not just bad for gender equity; they’re bad for the entire country and its prospects for recovery. And with a virus that does not respect borders, the failure to recover in the United States also undermines global recovery efforts.
The pandemic is impacting women in unique ways
It is clear by now that the coronavirus crisis uniquely affects women. While initial data have shown that men are more likely to die from the virus, research suggests that women are suffering more from the devastating social and economic effects of the pandemic. With children out of school, women are bearing the brunt of unpaid caregiving, forced to homeschool their children while trying to maintain jobs. Women are also more likely to be essential workers and health care providers—representing 70 percent of the workforce worldwide—and are therefore more likely to be on the frontlines fighting this virus; yet due to the 28 percent gender wage gap in the field, they are also more likely to be underpaid. Women of color are hit especially hard by this crisis, due to their high representation in frontline fields paired with the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on communities of color.
Given these realities and the United States’ traditional dependence on women to provide care, it shouldn’t take a woman leader to realize the importance of prioritizing women’s rights and using a gender lens in policy solutions. As the United Nations recently concluded, “Women will be the hardest hit by this pandemic but they will also be the backbone of recovery in communities.”
U.S. coronavirus response has failed to address the crisis’s impacts on women
While other governments around the world have stepped in with comprehensive programs to expand social benefits to women and families, the Trump administration has taken the opposite approach. Instead of expanding access to health care, the Trump administration has refused to reopen nationwide health care insurance markets that could help expand care to uninsured Americans. Indeed, analysis from the Center for American Progress on enrollment for the 2020 plan year—before the coronavirus crisis—estimates that at least 1.26 million more Americans would have coverage if not for the Trump administration’s attacks on the Affordable Care Act. This is a devastating state of affairs during a health crisis and further evidence of the need for the administration to create a COVID-19 special enrollment period.
Reproductive health rights are particularly important during the coronavirus crisis. Unintended pregnancies may rise while people are stuck at home and access to contraceptives is restricted or inhibited during shutdowns. During past epidemics, maternal mortality significantly increased as women were unable to access hospitals and adequate care. Yet rather than expanding access to reproductive health and services—as the United Kingdom recently did by providing increased access to medication abortion—some U.S. officials are exploiting the crisis to shut down or limit access to abortion clinics. Such actions run counter to the guidance of American health experts, who have condemned policies that cancel or delay abortion procedures and have defended abortion as essential and time-sensitive health care. Equally egregious is the Trump administration’s effort to export these restrictions internationally: The United States has pressured U.N. officials to remove from pandemic response plans references to abortion and reproductive health. A smarter government response would be to expand access to birth control and abortion at home, allowing women greater control over their own reproductive health at a time when it is most at risk—and helping to maintain distancing measures and prevent any further strain on an already overburdened health care system.
Importantly, women’s health outcomes in the United States are tightly linked to their economic status, which directly affects their access to education, jobs with livable wages, and workplace support. Yet unlike in past recessions, women in the United States are bearing the brunt of job losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and response. Moreover, they are less likely to have workplace protections and benefits: The United States remains one of the only countries in the world without a national paid leave program, and access is particularly low for women and people of color. Research suggests that at least 20 million Americans continue to work while sick due to a lack of paid leave; during the coronavirus crisis, this means that Americans will be forced to work and likely contribute to further spreading the virus. These underlying structural weaknesses and, in particular, their effects on women in the United States will hamper attempts to contain the virus’s spread.
Recovery plan must put families first
U.S. government responses have also utterly failed to address the unique impacts of the pandemic on children and families. At the outset of the crisis, the Trump administration pressed forward with efforts to cut food stamps, which would have ripped critical assistance from hundreds of thousands of families at a time of economic hardship. Here, too, women were disproportionately affected, representing 63 percent of adult recipients in 2018 and 92 percent of single parent households that relied on assistance. With applications for food assistance doubling in parts of the country, U.S. officials must do much more to create a comprehensive and compassionate safety net on which families can rely. Furthermore, now that schools are closed across the United States and summer camps are likely to be canceled, families have little outside support. Nordic countries with universal early education are better equipped to weather the crisis, whereas in the United States, schools and child care facilities are facing severe budget crunches and potential permanent closings. As some restaurants and stores reopen, and as parents are required by their employers to return to working in-person, it will be essential for them to be able to access and afford reliable child care while schools and services remain closed. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has done little to expand access to care in a way that would enable parents to return to work.
In contrast, Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir called for prioritizing family-friendly policies in government budgets before the crisis and included increased child support in the government’s coronavirus response. Australia’s government announced the provision of free child care to enable parents to continue working during the crisis. And in New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s empathetic, personal approach has been coupled with the government’s so-called wellbeing budget, which includes new funds for initiatives to reduce child poverty, increased access to mental health services, and new initiatives to combat domestic violence—all issues that disproportionately affect women and that have been exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis.
Rather than using the pandemic to clamp down on women’s rights, the United States should take up the mantle of promoting women and families. Doing so would help the overall recovery of the country, given the central role that women and their families will play in the economic and health care responses. This crisis offers an opportunity to demonstrate U.S. leadership in the world at a time when countries are looking for other models to follow. In order to seize the initiative, however, the Trump administration must stop ignoring the needs of women and their families, both at home and around the world.
Shilpa Phadke is the vice president of the Women’s Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Alexandra Schmitt is a policy analyst for human rights, democracy, and development on the National Security and International Policy team at the Center.
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Vice President, Women\'s Initiative
Former Senior Policy Analyst