To win the war against the COVID-pandemic we must fight on all fronts. But there is one front that deserves particular attention. Women and girls are bearing the brunt of the economic and social disruption brought about by the pandemic. In low-income countries, the loss of female jobs is taking serious dimensions, girls school drop-out rates are rising and sexual and gender-based violence is increasing.

It is no coincidence that this is occurring particularly in countries consistently scoring low in gender equality indicators. As a result, uncertainty about the future of women is now being replaced by considerable fear. In South Sudan, Iraq, and Afghanistan the suppression of women has already gone too far. For now, it is difficult to find a radical solution to support women and girls. But a red line must be drawn to avoid a further deterioration of gender equality in other countries.   

And why the urgency? Countries that are lagging far behind in gender equality and the sustainable development goals are likely to be more unstable. Indeed, countries that segregate women have a lot in common. South Sudan, Iraq, and Afghanistan rank at the bottom of measures of gender equality and have also been classified as the most fragile countries in the world.

The global gender gap index from the World Economic Forum, which benchmarks national gender gaps based on economic, educational, and political criteria has also classified the above-mentioned countries in the lowest ranks of this index and the trend has been consistently deteriorating. The World Bank’s gender equality rating, which looks at a country’s policies and institutional framework, confirms this picture.  

In other words, countries that subjugate women and show limits in political will and policies to support women are likely to fail in nation building. We should be mindful of this relationship, mainly because there are countries that are falling rapidly in the ranks of gender equality as calculated by the above indices, suggesting that they are more likely to become failed states.  

To reverse the path of female suppression, the obstacles that often begin at birth should be removed. Breaking these obstacles cannot be done without international support. Multilateral organizations and impact investors because of their long-term commitments will need to enlarge their partnerships in the projects they finance and allow broader thematic perspectives that focus on customs, including family norms and social attitudes towards women and girls. And this should be complemented with well-thought government policies that help boys and men become enablers of this process. These policies should include family laws addressing the unequal treatment of women, property rights for women and legal pronouncements against forced marriages. Building on both customs and laws is necessary because written laws can be fair, but customs may undo them.

To rebuild societies after the pandemic in the poorest countries more hands will be needed, and girls and women can help. But we also must avoid that women and girl suppression intensifies, because just watching will lead to more failed states with everyone loosing.