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Women must be at centre of Covid-19 response, urge Bill and Melinda Gates

Working women: Melinda Gates writes that farmers and street vendors in low-income countries are often 'overlooked' by policymakers | Credit: Tobias Federle; Pixabay

Women should be at the centre of the world’s Covid-19 response, and digital cash transfer programmes and digital financial services must keep women’s needs in mind, Bill and Melinda Gates have urged.

The philanthropists made their appeal to global leaders as part of their annual letter – a message that is inevitably this year dominated by analysis of the pandemic’s impact but which strives to provide optimism that ultimately the virus will be successfully tackled.

The Seattle-headquartered Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funds and partners initiatives across the globe in areas such as gender equality and financial inclusion. Its co-chairs use their annual letter to highlight their personal thoughts and priorities, writing that ‘the world has an important opportunity to turn the hard-won lessons of this pandemic into a healthier, more equal future for all.’

‘Even though our foundation had been concerned about a pandemic scenario for a long time – especially after the Ebola epidemic in West Africa – we were shocked by how drastically Covid-19 has disrupted economies, jobs, education, and well-being around the world,’ they say.

Neediest women ‘invisible to governments’

‘If governments ignore the fact that the pandemic and resulting recession are affecting women differently, it will prolong the crisis and slow economic recovery for everyone,’ writes Melinda, a long-time gender-equality advocate, in her own section of the letter.

‘For example, because of the economic shutdowns over the last year, hundreds of millions of people in low-income countries have needed help from their government to meet basic needs. But the cruel irony is that the women who most need these economic lifelines tend to be invisible to their governments,’ she says.

‘It’s hard to send cash safely and swiftly to a woman who doesn’t appear in the tax rolls, have a formal identification, or own a mobile phone,’ she continues. ‘Unless financial systems are specifically designed to include these women, these systems are likely to exclude them, pushing them even further to the economic margins’.

The BMGF has worked alongside organisations such as the World Bank on programmes designed to empower women and create digital cash transfer programmes with women’s needs in mind. The BMGF and World Bank, as well as the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP) network and New York City-headquartered NGO Women’s World Banking, published a 20-page report last year – ‘Digital Cash Transfers in the Time of Covid-19: Opportunities and Considerations for Women’s Inclusion and Empowerment’ – setting out considerations for policymakers.

Poorest ‘tend to be self-employed’

In the joint-letter, Melinda also highlights that their foundation is supporting efforts to design economic response plans targeted at women and low-wage workers.

‘In low- and middle-income countries, the poorest people tend to be self-employed in the informal sector – as farmers or street vendors, for example. Policymakers often overlook these workers, and traditional stimulus measures don’t meet their needs,’ she writes, adding that ‘tax rebates don’t really help people who don’t pay taxes.’

Global Government Fintech reported last month on the BMGF’s involvement in a government-run new instant payments system in Pakistan that aims to accelerate digitalisation and boost financial resilience. The new system, named ‘Raast’, was developed in collaboration with Karandaaz, a non-profit company that receives funding from the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and the BMGF.

The Raast scheme has its origins in Pakistan’s national payments strategy, which highlighted that, as of 2019, only 21.3 per cent of adults in the country have a transaction account and, of these, only seven per cent are held by women.

The BMGF’s initiatives in the area of financial services are part of the foundation’s ‘Financial Services for the Poor’ programme, while its gender work sits under its ‘Gender Equality’ programme. The latter focuses on South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. It has committed $1.75bn (about £1.28bn) for work on Covid-19 responses globally.