On International Women’s Day 2021 reflections on gender equality amid a global pandemic

Taking stock of progress and bridging the gaps that remain through bold, decisive actions

nutrition education, Sudan, mothers, children, growth monitoring, UNICEF, Ministry of Health
UNICEF Sudan/2019/Noorani
09 March 2021

Twenty-five years since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action—a progressive roadmap for gender equality—International Women’s Day (March 8th) is celebrated each year in many countries around the world. This year it’s celebrated under the theme ‘Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world on the way to the Generation Equality Forum’. International Women’s Day this year comes as the world battles a global pandemic. It is a day when women are recognized for their achievements without regard to divisions, whether national, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic or political. It is an occasion for looking back on past struggles and accomplishments, and more importantly, for looking ahead to the untapped potential and opportunities that await future generations of women.

Dr. Saja Abdullah, Acting Deputy Representative and Chief of Health and Nutrition spoke to Capital 91.6 FM

International Women’s Day celebrates the scientific, political, economic and social achievements of women. In your experience, what is its significance?

International Women’s Day is significant because it’s about equality between men and women as an aspect of human rights and social justice. It’s an opportunity to celebrate in many countries and in Sudan. It’s the first international day proclaiming equality between men and women as a fundamental human right. It’s a day to remind us that there’s much more to be done to achieve gender equality and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

How has the global pandemic (Covid-19) affected women worldwide and in Sudan?

The global pandemic affected every one of us across the globe and women have been hit most. There is much responsibility on women as primary caregivers, and this has increased following quarantine measures and the economic crises resulting from the lockdown and containment measures. There is no doubt, women have been affected the most. Women have had to bear the additional burdens such as supporting their children with online learning or with caring for children who have stopped going to school and women have had to take on the additional responsibility of taking care of them. Yet many women have lost their jobs. 

According to experts, the quarantine measures and economic crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have affected women the most. According to a UN study, rates of domestic violence in various countries and Sudan has not been an exception – with rates increasing by up to 33 per cent during the pandemic.

A technical review by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) notes that women make up 70 per cent of the workforce in the health and social sectors worldwide.

At the same time, the pandemic has exposed and aggravated the growing "digital divide" both within and between developed and developing countries, especially in terms of the availability, accessibility, and degree of use of information and communication technologies and access to the internet, deepening existing inequalities. Approximately 60 per cent of the world's population, mostly women in emerging and developing countries, still do not have computers or access to the internet.

The theme this year is ‘Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world on the way to the Generation Equality Forum’. How does the UN aim to achieve an equal future for men and women in its work?

Gender equality means than women and men, girls and boys all enjoy the same rights, access the same resources, opportunity and protection. With regard to UNICEF and aligned with UNICEF’s Strategic Plan 2018-2021, the Gender Action Plan (GAP) is our roadmap for promoting gender equality in everything we do, as well as in support of realising the Sustainable Development Goals.

We embed gender results for girls, boys and women across all of UNICEF’s programmes: including health, nutrition, education, water, sanitation, and hygiene, child protection and social policy.

Our programming principles ensure we deliver results that are at-scale, innovative, evidence-based, expert-led and well-resourced for men, women, girls and boys.

We support governments and partners to undertake robust gender analysis so we can identify gender-related barriers to positive childhood outcomes and develop appropriate and fitting solutions.

Since data and evidence are the backbone of good programming, we not only disaggregate data by gender, but also promote increasingly sophisticated measurement of gender inequality.

Through our gender training programmes, we are building a cadre of gender experts at UNICEF and other organizations with robust skills in gender programming and measurement. We must include that our work environment is also diverse to promote gender equality. 

International Women’s Day was first marked in 1911 – over 100 years ago. Why do you think the day is still relevant and celebrated worldwide?

There is a clear need to emphasize that despite progress achieved in the last 26 years, discrimination impacts adolescent girls, preventing them moving from dreaming to achieving – especially in the area of expanding girls’ education and skills, ending violence, child marriage and female genital mutilation.
It's especially important to take advantage of International Women’s Day to highlight the facts about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), especially that Sudan is considered one of the countries where the prevalence rate is very high. According to the Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS) 2014, the FGM rate is 86.6 per cent. Sudan is one of the countries that is part of tier 1 globally. Of course, this has attracted much attention both at the regional and global level. 

In Sudan so much needs to be done and we’re working very closely with the government to combat FGM and Child Marriage. Since 2008, the government developed the ‘Saleema Initiative’ which is actually a social marketing campaign that focuses on positive messaging, and this is very much in line with the national FGM strategy which was developed in 2008 for abandoning the harmful practice. The 10-year strategy now, and UNICEF is currently in the process of developing another strategy together with the relevant ministries and key partners to develop another process to abandon FGM.

Progress for girls in 26 years has also not kept pace with the realities of today. A recommitment to gender equality as part of Beijing +25 is the opportunity to highlight the realities girls face today, and the opportunities for action.

How would you personally describe your job environment, for working women?

At UNICEF Sudan we are increasing diversity and gender parity among our staff, including hiring more women in senior leadership roles. For example, at the UNICEF Sudan office, seven of our sections are led by women including Health and Nutrition, Education, Social Policy, Communication for Development, Planning and Monitoring, Communication and Advocacy and Child Protection. Even in our Field Offices we have women leading through strong leadership, monitoring and oversight, we hold ourselves accountable to promote gender equality throughout all of UNICEF’s work.

We are currently working on creating a more friendly environment for mothers, especially breastfeeding mothers and we are offering flexible working hours. 

On International Women’s Day, what is the most important message you want to send out to young women thinking about their careers, motherhood?

As entrepreneurs, innovators and initiators of global movements, girls are leading and fostering a world that is relevant for them and future generations. They need our collective support to make this happen. To commemorate the 26th Anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and draw attention to the work that still needs to be done to achieve progress for girls and young women, UNICEF will bring together intentional and interlinked goals in communications and partnerships across the year, with the aim of placing a targeted lens on working with adolescent girls to expand their solutions for peace, progress and prosperity today and into the future.

To every girl I say - it is important to adapt to your circumstances but to be truly genuine to who you are and not create a persona that is not you. This applies to all of us — not just women. Do not embrace stereotypes. Do not act like a “role” act like yourself-Be yourself. Dream Big and follow your dreams. Let the sky be your limit! 

Thank you!