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How the U.N. is combatting COVID-19's "devastating" blow to women

U.N. battles COVID's "devastating" blow to women
U.N. battles COVID's "devastating" blow to wo... 04:50

Women's gains in society have been dealt a serious blow by the coronavirus pandemic. The World Economic Forum estimates that the fallout from the virus could add another generation to the fight for gender equality, a goal it now predicts to be more than 100 years off.

In the face of this crisis, the branch of the United Nations that deals specifically with women's rights, U.N. Women, has launched a campaign to accelerate the implementation of commitments made by countries during the historic Fourth World Conference on Women. It was at that 1995 gathering in Beijing that then-first lady Hillary Clinton said, "women's rights are human rights."

Having just wrapped up the launch of the campaign with a three day conference called "Generation Equality" in Mexico City, U.N. Women's Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka spoke to CBS News' Haley Ott about the obstacles facing women today.

The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.

CBS News: How has the COVID-19 pandemic set back the fight for gender equality around the world?

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Well, it has set back women and girls significantly because this pandemic has been particularly harsh on those who have the least possibility to defend themselves. And women and girls fall very firmly in that category.

Two thirds of the jobs lost were lost by women, and it is because women tend to be in the lower bottom of the jobs hierarchy and their jobs are not protected in the main by the labor law. They do not have a means to bargain and they do not have benefits. If they are entrepreneurs, they are in the informal sector. They do not have savings, insurance. They cannot restructure their loan with their bankers.

And so if you're hit, that's it. It's you and your little kiosk to move on. If you are in the private sector, as in a formal sector — waitressing, in the tourism industry — with the lockdown, you are gone. And the possibility that some of these jobs will not come back because of automation means that women are really exposed and they are not, in the majority, the ones with the digital skills that could make them move on to other jobs.

For girls, they are the majority of the school children who are not going back. And it's so devastating, because girls education, as you probably know, has been one of the things we've been fighting [for] since Beijing. And we were making progress, not perfect, but we're keeping girls at school for longer. And now, to just have these girls just dropping out just like that in one year is quite devastating. And this is also because forced marriage increased in the pandemic, trafficking of girls increased, as well as FGM [female genital mutilation] in some communities. So our work in addressing those harmful cultural practices has to go into first gear in order to make sure that we can retrieve the girls who have been married and take them back to school, we can track the girls who are trafficked and bring them back to their homes. And as you know, it is quite complex.

Many people have been pushed into poverty and extreme poverty during this pandemic, but it is disproportionately affecting women. Can you lay out what that means and what the steps might be to regain some of the ground that's been lost?

Forty-seven million women have been pushed into extreme poverty. And it's particularly worrying that the women in the ages between 24 and 35 are at highest risk. These are the women who have young children, are childbearing age, who have to make choices between unpaid care work and entering the labor market. And in many cases they opt for caring for the family, and that becomes a step further into poverty for them.

Do you see that shift being lasting?

There is a danger that the increase of the burden of care at home will over-live the pandemic, which is why we need to take action, which is why we are talking about a care system. And which is why we are also engaging employers to make sure that they do not allow for fragmentation of the jobs in such a way that men are the ones who are in the office, and in the name of flexibility, which isn't a bad thing, you end up by default having the women who are the ones who opt to stay at home, who are maneuvered in the family dynamics to be the ones who stayed home and the men who are the ones who go to work. Because that means that we are going back to the days and times where a woman's place was at home and the man's place was in the office.

I think what we would just like to emphasize to governments, especially, is that it is important that the fiscal stimulus that they are announcing are gender-purposed, that they have a way of targeting women, because it is a significant capital outlay. After this pandemic, many countries will not have fiscal space for more significant expenditure. If women are missed right now, it's going to take a long time to get the women back in.

At the beginning of when the world started seeing lockdowns, there were concerns that there would be a rise in domestic violence and domestic abuse. And we are seeing reports of many more predominantly women calling for help to specialist services or to law enforcement. What has the pandemic meant for domestic abuse and what can and should the global community do to address that? 

Certainly, it has meant an increase of domestic violence in particular, without actually also stopping violence that's just perpetrated by a stranger, most of which is rape, some of which happens in public spaces or at work, or harassment in general. We have issued an urgent call to governments indicating that this is a shadow pandemic that they have to deal with with as much vigor as they do the health pandemic.

On a personal level, what has it been like for you in your role and as an activist to see what has happened for women in terms of gender equality this past year?

It's been devastating. But of course, as you know, as an activist, you can't be down for too long. It's important to fall forwards so that you get up and you take the next step.

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