How many women have died of Covid-19?
How many women have lost their jobs in the economic crisis it created?
And how many have had to stop working because schools and day cares have closed and now have to take on unforeseen and added child care responsibilities?
I don’t know the full answer to any of these questions. No one does. When it comes to the pandemic and its effect on women, too often we just don’t have the numbers.
Earlier this month, I wrote an article in the journal Foreign Affairs about how the pandemic is affecting women differently than men. We know, for instance, that domestic violence is increasing amid lockdowns and that women’s jobs are more likely to be cut. But the truth is, we don’t have a full sense of the scale: According to a report from Data2X and Open Data Watch, there isn’t nearly enough information to understand the effects of the crisis on unpaid care work, employment in the informal economy, or the well-being of girls. The list goes on.
Even when it comes to the virus itself, the data are spotty and often blind to sex: As of July 24, only 64 governments had provided information on Covid-19 cases and deaths fully broken down by sex. Preliminary analysis in June from the World Health Organization and UN Women noted that less than half of reported cases included information on both sex and age. Data disaggregated by other demographic factors has been even harder to come by.
Without a clear picture of the devastation, responses to Covid-19 risk leaving out millions of women and girls and slowing recovery. If governments, for instance, aren’t counting the number of women who’ve had to drop out of the workforce, they may overlook the urgent need for child care legislation.
No business would make decisions based on information that excludes 50% of its customers; governments shouldn’t either. Here are four things all governments must do immediately.
First, countries should collect and report data on Covid-19 tests, cases, hospitalizations, and deaths that is disaggregated at the very least by sex and age. This disease is attacking all of humanity, though not equally, and we need to understand the different experiences of different populations.
In the United States, for example, we have a lot to learn about how Covid-19 affects women of color. That’s because states have been slow to provide data systematically broken down by sex or race — and it’s been even harder to find data cut by both. Indeed, wherever possible, countries should disaggregate data by these factors and more.
Second, governments and other organizations should use current and future data collection efforts to close existing gender data gaps. In the coming months, there will be a flurry of data gathered on issues related to the recovery, from health to education to the results of stimulus programs. Researchers need to ensure these studies include the experiences of women and girls.
In the short term, organizations can tap into technical resources like the University of California, San Diego’s EMERGE project (which is supported by the Gates Foundation). It has developed guidance and tools that can be used in already planned surveys to capture gender data on issues from unpaid work to physical and mental health. In the longer term, countries can look to efforts such as those in Kenya, where the government added questions about gender equality and women’s empowerment to its 2020 national economic survey.
Moreover, the world should seize this moment to deepen the knowledge base about specific challenges facing women and girls. For example, although the World Health Organization estimates that 1 in 3 women globally has experienced gender-based violence, when it comes to country-level data, most countries only have blanks and question marks. Because policymakers do not know the true extent of violence against women inside their borders, they don’t set aside sufficient funding for it in their budgets. More data could mean more funding for prevention and response, more effective solutions, and ultimately less violence.
Third, to rebuild now as well as to prepare for future emergencies, countries need to invest in the ability of national statistics offices to collect, disaggregate, and analyze data. In a recent survey, about half of the statistics offices in low- and middle-income countries reported a funding decrease because of the outbreak. That is a shortsighted move. An investment in better data today will come back to us in a healthier, better prepared tomorrow.
Fourth, countries must commit to using gender data to develop and implement evidence-based policies. The best data in the world won’t do much good if they sit on a shelf collecting dust. Put to work, though, data can help craft effective policies.
Data can make the invisible visible, and Covid-19 is showing us how important it is to see every aspect of a crisis. It’s time governments around the world start basing their pandemic response on data that are more complete, more reliable, and less sexist.
Melinda Gates is co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.