The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the way we live and work. But it is taking a much more significant toll on the lives of women around the world. Gender equality must be at the heart of not only our response, but our attempts to restructure systems to be fairer and more equal to recover better.

On 17 September on the sidelines of the 75th UN General Assembly, I was pleased to be part of the inaugural Women in Global Health Security Summit (also known as the COVID 50/50 Summit). It was an extraordinary virtual event which brought together women and men alike from across sectors, including global leaders like President Sahle-Work Zewde of Ethiopia, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Gavi’s Deputy CEO Anuradha Gupta. No matter who spoke it was resoundingly clear—we are far from our goals of achieving gender parity in any realm, but especially in the global health security space, and we all must commit to taking action now to do better if we want to build the stronger, more resilient health systems that we desperately need.

Gender equality must be at the heart of not only our response, but our attempts to restructure systems to be fairer and more equal to recover better.

As part of the Summit, more than 40 global organisations, including Gavi, made actionable pledges and commitments which will move us closer to removing barriers to realising gender transformed leadership as we aim to end the COVID-19 pandemic, and leave stronger global health security systems in its wake.  Some of these commitments came from governments, others came from major global health organisations like the Global Fund, Unitaid, and FIND, all of which are working with Gavi and other global partners on creating equitable access to COVID-19 tools through the ACT Accelerator and strengthening health infrastructure in the process. But organisations, governments and even individual citizens will need to take a truly transformative approach to addressing barriers to gender equality, including in leadership roles, if we want to ensure our response doesn’t further erode progress as we seek to build back better from this pandemic.

As Dr. Roopa Dhatt, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Women in Global Health said during the Summit, “At Women in Global Health, our mantra is that global health security rests on women. While women provide US$ 3 trillion of care annually, half of that is currently unpaid in informal systems. We are asking for a new social contract for women in health that recognises and values their contribution.”

This new social contract will be imperative if we want to not only end the global COVID-19 pandemic, but also if we want to make good on the promise of creating health and well-being for all under the Sustainable Development Goals.

Gender-transformative leadership can look like many things. It can be infrastructure that enables women to attend schools and contribute to the workforce by taking care of childcare or elder care needs. It can be disaggregating data by gender and other factors to better understand and re-engineer the effects of the pandemic and corresponding fiscal stimulus or social protection policies. When we don’t take gender into account, we risk stalling sustainable solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic and societal fallouts and remaining woefully underprepared to future threats that undoubtedly lay ahead.

The commitments made during the COVID 50/50 Summit were just the start. Now is the time to get to work and put these promises into action and bring others along as we try to transform the global health security landscape. The future we have promised to deliver depends on it.

To learn more about the COVID 50/50 initiative, visit

About the author

Elizabeth Cousens  

Kate Dodson
Vice President for Global Health at the United Nations Foundation and Board Member for Women in Global Health.

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United Nations Foundation

This article is republished from the United Nations Foundation under a Creative Commons license.

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