The Icelandic Prime Minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, participated in a UN conference on the impact of COVID-19 on gender equality and the status of women, Fréttablaðið reports. She highlighted the increased risk of domestic violence, the pivotal role women play in the healthcare system and the additional economic and social pressures women are facing during the pandemic.
UN Women and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development brought together 30 female leaders from governments and charitable organisations across the globe to discuss gender equality in relation to COVID-19. The event was conducted as a remote video conference and Katrín featured as a keynote speaker.
The participants were in agreement that gender equality should be central to governments’ responses to the pandemic. As Katrín put it, “it is important that we have a gender perspective as a guiding principle in our response to the COVID-19 epidemic and ensure that this crisis does not backfire on gender equality.” The UN Secretariat General, António Guterres, recently declared that the pandemic is exacerbating existing gender inequalities, especially in the labour market, meaning women are worst hit by the social and economic impact of the crisis.
One of the key issues Katrín discussed during the conference was domestic violence. Whilst it’s worth noting that women are not the sole victims of domestic violence, women are at far higher risk. Gender-based violence has been a major point of concern for Icelanders in recent weeks following several high-profile incidents. As reported, a woman in her fifties was murdered in Suðurnes earlier this month and another woman in her sixties was killed in Hafnafjörður. Male family members have been arrested in connection with both cases. Experts fear that increased time at home and social isolation during the pandemic may put women at greater risk of experiencing domestic violence and may worsen the situation of those in abusive relationships.
Addressing these worries is increasingly a priority for the Icelandic authorities. A sizeable investment in domestic violence support services was one of the headline measures in the government’s action package that was announced yesterday. Experts in the matter have also been consulted by public health officials and have appeared at the daily COVID-19 press briefings. Speaking in the conference, Katrín confirmed that the government intends to ‘fight against all forms of gender-based violence’ particularly during the pandemic.
Female healthcare workers were also discussed. Katrín noted that the health care labour market, in Iceland and the world over, is dominated by women. Around 85% of healthcare workers in Iceland are female. These women are on the front-line of the COVID-19 response are among those at greatest risk of infection. Healthcare workers may also experience mental health issues as a result of the highly stressful circumstances caused by the virus.
Katrín also pointed out that the majority of caregivers are female. Women are more likely to act as unpaid carers for sick relatives and often have greater childcare responsibilities. The closure of schools in Iceland on March 24th has increased the pressure on working mothers. Although pre-schools and elementary schools are set to reopen on May 4th, the economic impact of their temporary closures may disproportionately affect women for some time.
Iceland is well-recognised as a world leader when it comes to gender equality. The nation boasts the world’s first directly democratically elected female head of state, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, and has spent numerous years at the top of the gender equality index. But, as countries the world over are experiencing, the COVID-19 crisis has revealed some deep fissures in Icelandic society. The pre-existing gender social and economic inequalities that have been thrown into sharp relief by the crisis are amplifying the negative impacts of the pandemic for women. Although these issues are a long way from being eradicated, Katrín’s public acknowledgement of their existence is a promising first step for Iceland.
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