International Women’s Day 2021 – Together for a Fairer World

As the world celebrates this year’s International Women’s Day, the focus is on building a fairer and more gender-equal world. What is the role of libraries in addressing the disproportionate – and often amplified – challenges women and girls are facing during the pandemic, and helping them succeed and thrive in the future?

Already in April 2020, UN Women voiced a stark warning: the pandemic is significantly deepening and amplifying gender inequalities around the world, in the spheres of  economics, safety and wellbeing, education, and countless other areas. These impacts are persisting, once again highlighting a need for a gender-aware response to the pandemic and recovery efforts. What are some of the challenges where libraries can – and do – offer their support?

Can libraries help share the care burdens?

One of the key points often emphasised when discussing gender inequalities aggravated by the pandemic are the disproportionate burdens of unpaid care work. This includes everything from domestic cleaning chores to taking care of children or supporting older family members – and while the workload has increased for everyone, women still tend to carry out more of these tasks.

Clearly, this requires a comprehensive response – from widely recognising the inequalities to introducing policies which help equitably distribute, compensate, support and accommodate this work. However, in the meantime, many libraries are working to take on or assist with some care tasks in their communities.

One possible example is online storytimes, which libraries run to offer some comfort and familiarity to children, help them process or deal with worries, to support parents who seek engaging, positive and educational activities to do with their kids, or just to help them feel as part of the community. Many libraries in different parts of the world have adopted this practice – for example, in the United States, a public library survey in Ohio saw 84.9% of respondents confirm that they offer virtual storytimes.

In New Zealand, public libraries ran nearly 750 storytimes during the lockdown in spring 2020. In Georgia, the director of the National Parliamentary Library took part in a campaign that encourages men to share care and household tasks equally – with well-known men recording themselves reading out stories to their children.

Similarly, there are libraries trying to help and support other members of their communities – for example, in Canada and the UK – by calling to check in and support older members of their communities and/or other potentially vulnerable residents – tasks also disproportionately taken on by female family members.

Education and learning – the urgent need for more equitable outcomes

Another key impact of the pandemic was, of course, in the field of education. While school closures had an enormous effect on all children’s right to education, students from more disadvantaged or vulnerable groups have been hit especially hard. There are serious concerns that girls in particular are at a higher risk of dropping out and never returning to school after reopening; and more young women between 18 and 29 reported feeling like they learn less and that the disruption may delay their education.

Once again, while this clearly requires extensive and comprehensive measures from a broad range of stakeholders, there are steps that libraries can take to support girls’ learning. In Kerala, India, the state government started setting up access points to remote learning in libraries and other common spaces like childcare centres. Alongside access, there are different ways in which libraries are trying to support learners with their homework remotely – from assembling useful resources to assistance with research questions or assistance programs.

Gender equality in recovery – supporting women’s participation in society and economy

The short and long-term economic impacts of the pandemic may also not be borne equally by men and women. Among the millions of jobs lost in 2020, in relative terms, more women than men experienced such a loss – and the gender poverty gaps are projected to grow wider over the next 10 years.

Are there steps libraries can take to support women employment – and overall participation in economies – in the coming years? Drawing on library expertise and experiences during and before the pandemic, a key step could be broadening access to resources and skills-building opportunities.

The Occupy Library Innovators Hub, for example, discusses a partnership between the Dimitrie Cantemir public library and an NGO “ProFemeia” in Moldova – which focused on supporting and empowering women who stay at home, particularly as more women have been released from work (e.g. as a result of emergency pandemic measures, to stay with children, and so on). This project focused on skills-building for personal and professional development and income generation, as well as psychological wellbeing – for example, addressing prejudice against stay-at-home-women.

Similarly, a recent project carried out by the Lambaye Learning Center in Senegal focused on teaching women marketable skills of working with fabric – particularly pattern design, colour mixing and dyeing – with the aim to leverage these skills as entrepreneurs.

Digital inclusion to support participation

In addition, as the job market becomes increasingly digital, digital literacy and access to ICTs and the internet are crucial. Properly connected libraries can help mitigate the gender digital gap – for example, in Lithuania, library-based digital skills courses saw women attendees outnumber men four to one!

Of course, libraries are also well-placed to deliver targeted digital inclusion interventions focusing on women. For example, Librarians Without Borders’ De Digitale Reizigers programme in Belgium helps women over 65 learn key ICT skills to confidently participate in the digital society.

Helping build the narrative for a more equal future

Clearly, there is a need for further action and measures to support gender equality in many fields – and yet, the present political context is challenging, which could make it harder to implement such interventions. A forward-looking UN Women brief mentions one of the contributing factors – a recent backlash against feminism and gender equality – which has already been noted in the 2019 Human Development Report.

This suggests one other area where libraries as information intermediaries can support women’s empowerment. By presenting and celebrating women’s narratives, highlighting their achievements, needs and experiences, they can help build a helpful and respectful conversation – and many libraries, of course, already do.

There are, of course, many diverse examples of how libraries approach this. A feminist library has been set up in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, to bring together and celebrate the works of women from around the continent and the diaspora. The National Library in Malta contributed materials to the exhibition “Tracing the Path of Women in Maltese Politics”. The University of Ottawa Library launched an initiative “COVID-19: telling her-stories”, where women can share entries reflecting their experiences during this pandemic.

As many libraries organise their own initiatives to mark the 2021 International Women’s Day, supporting and celebrating women’s narratives and opportunities can be an important part of their work to help advocate for gender equality.

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