A Sustainable Future is Indeed Female

Women are on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis—we must ensure the path forward includes them, too.

By Robyn James, Asia Pacific Gender Advisor

"In these unprecedented times..." We know, the phrase has become a cliché. But it's also true—these are unprecedented times, and we're all still working to fully understand what COVID-19 means for the world. As part of our effort to help make sense of these issues, we're publishing a new series of weekly perspectives from some of TNC's top scientists to share their expertise and talk about the relationship between nature and public health—and what nature can do for our communities in these, well, unprecedented times.

Previously in this series:
"Greener Cities, Healthier Cities," by Rob McDonald, TNC Scientist
"Conservation for the Last Mile," by Priya Shyamsundar, TNC Lead Economist
"Fresh Air for All: A Remedy Within Reach," by Joshua Goldstein, Bridge Collaborative Director & Heather Tallis, Global Managing Director of Science Strategy


In 2016, the slogan “The Future is Female” reemerged as a rallying cry as people around the world mobilized in favor of equal rights, opportunities and representation. But at any given moment, the future is now—and even as men face higher mortality rates, the COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder that women are often laboring in the shadows of our present crises.

Globally, women make up almost 70 percent of frontline healthcare workers risking exposure to COVID-19 to save others' lives. Meanwhile, the pandemic’s strain on healthcare systems worldwide is encumbering access to routine healthcare such as reproductive health services, resulting in increasing rates of childbirth complications and reduced postnatal care.

In conservation, we have long recognized that women are often on the frontlines of the climate crisis. For example, throughout much of the world, it is women who manage vital community resources such as food and water. And when disaster strikes, it is women and children who are hit first and worst by its impacts.

COLLECTING WATER IN KENYA Samburu women collect water from a well built by Northern Rangelands Trust and The Nature Conservancy in northern Kenya. The Samburu people are pastoralists whose livelihoods have traditionally been rooted in semi-nomadic herding, but increased pressure on natural resources has made grazing harder. © Ami Vitale

We’re currently seeing that the same structural inequalities that make women especially vulnerable to climate change are also driving this pandemic’s disproportionate effects on female health, safety, time and energy—especially for those who also face structural discrimination rooted in racism and poverty.

In addition to facing greater risk of exposure to COVID-19, many women and girls are suffering increased threats of gender-based violence (GBV) as a result of travel restrictions and forced confinement, when it is assumed that they should be safest in their own homes. The UN has estimated that millions of additional GBV cases are likely to occur due to lockdown orders.

Moreover, in certain parts of the world, women’s financial security has been rendered even more vulnerable during the pandemic. In both South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, women make up the majority of workers in the informal economy, where labor protections and benefits are rare in the best of times, and social distancing may be impossible.

Even before COVID-19 spread, women across the globe typically spent three times as much time on unpaid and domestic work as their male counterparts. Now, with many children out of school and vulnerable relatives in need of assistance, the demand for unpaid care has risen—and this stress has already put extreme pressure on women and negatively impacted community conservation efforts.

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We’ve seen that involving women in natural resource management improves the effectiveness and sustainability of these community decisions. This means conservation groups like The Nature Conservancy (TNC) should be particularly mindful during the COVID-19 recovery period—when the desire to accelerate economic activity may eclipse any considerations of gender equity—to advance at a pace that includes and empowers women and girls, too.

One example of how we’re trying to do this? In Solomon Islands, TNC is supporting women's groups in adapting hygiene and sanitation training (originally developed to support ecotourism efforts) to aid the most remote communities in responding to COVID-19.

group of women lathering hands with soap outside

And as countries shift focus from outbreak mitigation to economic recovery, we have a responsibility to ensure that both environmental and social safeguards (i.e. gender and human rights) are built into their stimulus plans.

Long term, we know that enabling women to participate in managing their local land and water resources creates a win-win situation for nature and people alike. It can empower women in many ways, creating employment opportunities, facilitating family planning and driving better conservation outcomes. This has been demonstrated by the Tuungane Project—a partnership between TNC and the reproductive health organization Pathfinder International that supports healthy families, forests, and fisheries in Tanzania by integrating health, education, and environment programs.

The present is a pivotal moment for the global economy and our shared planet. If our societies choose to recognize and acknowledge the gendered impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, and proactively empower women to meaningfully participate in conservation and recovery decisions, we can rebuild our communities stronger than ever. The future must indeed be female—because a better path forward requires all of us.


With contributions from Madlyn Ero, Ruth Konia, Laura Whitford, Sarah Gammage, Giulia Besana, and Silvia Benitez