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Why are men and women affected in different ways by COVID-19? – The importance of gender equality for building resilience in the response to the pandemic in rural areas in the Mediterranean region

30 June 2020

Authors: Maurizio FurstSzilvia Lehel and Ilaria Sisto

Social Policies and Rural Institutions Division (ESP) – FAO


Worldwide, over 820 million people suffer from hunger and one in five children under age of 5 are stunted. Food systems are failing and the COVID-19 pandemic is worsening the situation, with a risk that other 49 million people may fall into extreme poverty. There is increasing evidence of negative and gender-differentiated impact on all dimensions of food security and nutrition, due to the reduction of food production and distribution capacities, and the decreased access to food, basic supplies and purchasing power of affected people. Women and girls, due to their reduced access to productive resources, services, local institutions, ICTs and employment, are often more affected by the pandemic, which reduces their economic opportunities and access to nutritious food, while increasing their workloads and the risks of gender-based violence.

In the design of the COVID-19 response and mitigation measures it is crucial to adopt a gender-responsive approach in order to address the specific needs of men and women, analyze their multiple roles in agri-food value chains, and integrate women’s perspectives. It implies to introduce measures to reduce gender inequalities in the access to productive resources, inputs, services, local institutions and social protection programmes, enhance the productive capacities of male and female farmers, introduce labour-saving technologies and innovative practices to mitigate the impact of the disaster, reduce women’s work burden and protect them against the risks of gender-based violence. In many countries women are taking the lead to curb the spread of COVID-19. Detailed information on the situation and approaches undertaken in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt is also provided.          


Gender equality, women’s empowerment, food security, nutrition, food systems, COVID-19, Mediterranean

Key messages

  • Women are on the frontline of COVID-19, yet gender equality is in jeopardy: the pandemic is threatening fragile gains on gender equality and women’s rights
  • The COVID-19 pandemic is seriously threatening rural livelihoods, by hindering the engagement of men and women in economic activities, as farmers, processors, traders and workers, and affecting their reproductive capacities.
  • Rural populations and women employed in the informal sector are more vulnerable to the effects of the crisis because of the lack of health services and ICTS that could provide vital information.
  • As countries respond to the crisis, sex-disaggregated data are critical to examine the differential impact on women and men towards evidence-based decision-making.
  • Women are disproportionally affected by health, economic and food crises, which reduce their economic opportunities and access to nutritious food, while increasing their workloads and risks of gender-based violence.
  • In the design of response and mitigation measures to the pandemic it is essential to address the differential impacts on rural men and women, and take into account their perspectives and views in building resilient rural livelihoods and sustainable food systems.
  • Engaging women and their organizations, and investing in their leadership and negotiation skills are critical to adequately address their needs in the design of the COVID-19 response and mitigation measures.

Global context

Worldwide, over 820 million people suffer from hunger and more than one in five children under the age of 5 are stunted. Hunger is rising in almost all subregions of Africa and to a lesser extent in Latin America. Food systems are failing and the COVID-19 pandemic is worsening the situation, with a risk that other 49 million people may fall into extreme poverty.  Immediate action is required, as stated by Antonio Guterres, the United Nations Secretary General, to avoid long-term impacts on hundreds of millions of adults and children, with a rapid expansion of acute food and nutrition insecurity (Guterres, 2020). Even in countries with abundant food, there is a risk of disruptions in the food supply chain. Extreme climatic conditions and the increasing depletion of natural resources can further exacerbate this situation requiring farmers to continually adapt their production systems.  In this context, it is important to build an inclusive and sustainable world with a better balance between food systems, biodiversity and climate for ensuring healthy and nutritious food for all people.

In general, vulnerable populations are hardest hit victims of any pandemic, not only in terms of mortality, but also of deepening the social, political and economic divide and exponentially increasing their negative consequences. Those affected by gender-based discrimination might be the ones paying the highest price for the consequences of this crisis, due to their underprivileged position in society.

The COVID 19 pandemic, with the measures introduced to contain it, such as confinement and restrictions on mobility, are already showing a negative and gender-differentiated impact on all dimensions of food security and nutrition, through reduced food production and distribution capacities, decreased purchasing power and less access to nutritious food, affecting particularly women and girls. The differentiated impact on men and women depends on their specific roles and responsibilities and existing structural discrimination against women, limiting their ability to cope with the crisis.  Therefore, it is essential to recognize their distinct and complementary roles in agriculture, food security and nutrition for building resilience and sustainable rural livelihoods (FAO, 2020a).

Rural women play crucial roles in their households and communities as agricultural producers, farm managers, processors, traders, wage workers and entrepreneurs, besides preparing food and caring for all household members, including children, the sick and elderly people (FAO, 2015). Nevertheless, their important roles are often still underestimated and unrecognized by communities, decision-makers and planners, making them even more vulnerable to the socio-economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and other shocks. This is due to the fact that women face greater constraints in accessing productive resources, agricultural advisory and financial services, social protection programmes, innovative technologies, markets, local institutions and employment opportunities, which affect their productive and income-generating capacities and their roles in maintaining household food security (FAO, 2020a).

Over 2.7 billion women are legally restricted from having the same employment opportunities than men, and many countries still have laws that limit their economic opportunities (World Bank, 2019). As a result, women are often over-represented in informal, low paid and precarious jobs, which are not adequately covered by social protection plans being implemented in the context of COVID-19. Many women are also working in food and beverage service activities that were under restrictions, closures and bankruptcies, putting at risk their economic security.

As a result of the pandemic, it is expected that the productive capacities of people, and women in particular, can further decline, their retail trade fall and business collapse, especially if they specialize in perishable products (Korkoyah and Fonanyeneh Wreh, 2015).  Emerging evidence is showing an increase of the work burden of women and girls, who also face higher risks of domestic violence and abuse, caused by household tensions related to isolation, food and financial insecurity, school closure and limited access to health and support services (WHO, 2020).

The differentiated impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on men and women varies from country to country, depending on the roles assigned by society and existing gender inequalities. Beyond discerning situations and problems specific to each country, there are a number of common issues, namely the amplification of some of the already existing social problems underscoring how the effects of the pandemic has been reflected: on the economic well-being of women and, more broadly, on gender equality and the issue of violence against women and girls.

Situation of men and women in the Mediterranean Region

The Mediterranean region is both dense and culturally and linguistically diverse, a hub for international travel with high rates of migration to, from, and within the region, with Egypt and Turkey constituting the most populous countries in the region.

With the closure of schools, efforts to ensure access to education for girls might be put aside, and in some cases abandoned entirely. Remote working and studying disproportionally affect women since in the Arab region daily access to and use of computers is also gendered: nearly half of the female population is not connected to the Internet nor has access to a mobile phone, therefore women encounter more difficulties in accessing these technologies and risk to lose their educational or professional status during the isolation period, and to thrive in the post-pandemic phase. Programmes for prenatal, maternal and child health may also be overshadowed by the pandemic’s emergency priorities. While women have continued to bear the heaviest burden from childcare and attending to family needs, they remain as unknown heroes at the forefront of hospital care as nurses and doctors. Female nurses, midwives and support staff dominate the health-care and social services fields in many Arab countries, which increases their risk of infection, for example in Egypt they outnumber male nursing staff 10 to 1 (UN ESCWA and UN Women, 2020). While in Spain at the peak of the outbreak 14% of infected people were health-care professionals (Minder and Peltier, 2020). Importantly, in Tunisia and Morocco for instance, the female-to-male ratio of unpaid care and domestic work reaches seven to one (OECD, 2019).

The Eastern Mediterranean region has the second highest prevalence of violence against women worldwide (37%), which is mainly due to structural systems that maintain gender inequalities compounded with political crises and socio-economic instability in the Region. This situation is exacerbated by the disruption of social and protective networks, economic crises and decreased access to services. Compared to other parts of the world, this region also faces more humanitarian emergencies with a huge number of refugees and internally displaced populations. Women survivors in Palestine and Lebanon are required to self-isolate or provide medical proof before being admitted into shelters (UN Women, 2020).

Due to the economic deprivation, psychosocial stress, isolation, restricted movement and stay-at-home measures during the locked down of the COVID-19 the risks for women and children to be exposed to violence has dramatically increased, with the risk that this situation can grow even more when families have to cope with potential economic of job losses (WHO, 2020). In some countries in the region initial information indicates an average increase of 50-60 %, rising up to 400% in Tunisia (UN Women, 2020) based on survivors’ calls for help to women’s organizations hotlines. Being locked with the abusing partner can reduce the opportunities for the survivors to call for help, for example women’s organizations in Italy recorded a 40 per cent decrease in calls to hotlines. The Arab region may witness an increase in online violence and digital stalking, for example in Morocco, it is reported that harassment against women is increasing where dangerous messages on gender stereotypes have been circulated on social media, and disrupted the availability of, and accessibility to, services for survivors of violence (UN Women, 2020).

Current levels of post-crisis unemployment and socio-economic exclusion pose common challenges on the two shores of the Mediterranean. Both MENA and Southern European countries display a common trend in terms of low levels of women’s participation in the labor force. While countries such as Spain and Italy feature comparatively high levels of growth in the agri-food sector, the region hosts highly fragmented and unequal food systems, where women’s employment is the lowest in the world. Women’s labour force participation in the Arab region is only 21 per cent compared with 70 per cent for men (UN ESCWA and UN Women, 2020). This is caused by economic and social reasons, as growth in this sector has not been inclusive mostly due to unequal opportunities for women and skills mismatch.

Southern and eastern Mediterranean countries have very high unemployment and informal job rates  that surpass those of any other region in the world, resulting in poor earnings and low-quality jobs and preventing large fractions of the population to have access to healthcare (CMI and FEMISE, 2020). Close to 60% of employment is informal in Egypt and Morocco (ILO) and this situation could disproportionally impact women who constitute 61.8 per cent of workers in the informal sector in the Arab region (UN ESCWA and UN Women, 2020), and rural women in particular since half of the women informally employed work in agriculture (Bonnet, Vanek and Chen, 2019). This means that most workers, especially in rural areas, may not have access to health insurance during the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, financial resources are being diverted towards efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19, making it more difficult for women to access health services, including sexual and reproductive services, as most consultations are conducted in clinics (UN ESCWA and UN Women, 2020).

The percentage of women in the total employed population in Southern and Eastern Mediterranean countries is among the lowest in the world, at 17.9%, compared with the world average of 47.1%. Moreover, the labour supply does not meet the demand causing high levels of unemployment, in particular among young educated women. Vulnerable or informal employment is particularly high among women (OECD, 2017).

More women are expected to fall into poverty during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is severely affecting female-headed households in the region. This is compounded by the underlying gender biases of government policies that consider men as the main heads of households. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to result in the loss of 1.7 million jobs in the Arab region, including approximately 700,000 jobs held by women, affecting manufacturing and service industries (UN ESCWA and UN Women, 2020). Projections also indicate that the informal sector will be particularly impacted by this crisis. Furthermore, women migrant workers in the region, especially domestic workers, are exposed to unique risks stemming from the nature of their jobs. The travel ban and other restrictions are expected to harm their livelihoods and ability to support family members in their countries of origin.

In addition, despite gains in recent decades, the presence of women in leadership roles still lags behind in many other regions of the world, and is even less visible in rural communities, where opportunities for female representation in local authority structures are often not existent. There are a number of positive high-level female figures in government leadership due to targeted investment in the region, yet cultural stigmas continue to stifle the role of women as top decision-makers who can influence strategy and resource allocation that need to be empowered.

Why should gender issues be integrated in the COVID-19 response?

Progress made towards the promotion of gender equality, one of the sustainable development goals of Agenda 2030, is being adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.  It is therefore critical to understand the gender dimensions of this crisis in building the resilience of men and women, boys and girls, who are exposed to different types of risks and challenges, and have specific coping strategies related to food security and nutrition (IDLO, 2020). This implies also to explore their full potential and design the response and mitigation measures in a gender-equitable way, empowering women and girls as agents of change and resilience building.

The use of gender-responsive and participatory approaches allows to identify and address the specific needs and priorities of men and women, analyze their multiple roles in agri-food value chains, and consider the perspectives of women and the most vulnerable socio-economic and ethnic groups in the design of the COVID-19 response and mitigation measures. It also implies to introduce measures to reduce gender inequalities in the access to productive resources, inputs, services, local institutions and social protection programmes (including in-kind assistance and cash and asset transfers), enhance the productive capacities of male and female farmers, introduce labour-saving technologies and innovative practices that mitigate the impact of the disaster and reduce the work burden of women, and to protect them against the risks of gender-based violence. Of particular relevance is also invest in building the leadership and negotiation skills of women and the most vulnerable group in order to increase their engagement in planning and decision-making (FAO, 2020a).

In order to strengthen agri-food value chains it is essential to invest in both the economic and social empowerment of men and women, by providing them with income-generating opportunities and investing in women’s skills and capacities (including technical knowledge, negotiation and leadership skills). This includes putting in place financial services targeting rural women’s activities, strengthen women-run businesses through established business-development service centers, among others.

Past experience with the Ebola crisis and other humanitarian contexts, such as the crisis in Central African Republic and the Central’s America’s dry corridor, has shown the importance of combining social cohesion with the economic empowerment to better manage risks and seize local economic opportunities (Korkoyah and Fonanyeneh Wreh, 2015). This requires introducing sustainable and labour-saving agricultural practices, increasing women’s access to credit and saving mechanisms, reinforcing the dialogue within rural communities, developing inclusive governance mechanisms and strengthening the resilience and mitigation response of both men and women.

To address women’s specific needs and constraints, it is also critical to inform and involve them in shaping the response to the pandemic in a gender-sensitive and inclusive way. This will allow them to actively participate in decision-making and planning processes and in shaping national and global responses, as well as establish more balanced power relations between men and women in the households and the communities.

It is also important to design specific packages tailored to women’s specific needs and requirements to support food security and nutrition and overcome existing inequalities.

Trends and responses in selected Mediterranean countries

The Socio-economic impact of the pandemic in Tunisia

There are some important gender-disaggregated insights from the pandemic, including the impact of COVID-19 on monetary poverty, broken down by socio-professional category and by gender (UNDP Tunisia, 2020). The results show that the health shock would risk destroying all the progress made over the past ten years in the fight against poverty, and also accentuating the "feminization" of poverty. Indeed, monetary poverty would climb to 19.77% for women due to the pandemic, against 18.71% for men. Before the shock, these rates were 15.5% and 14.8% respectively. Women agricultural and non-agricultural workers as well as the unemployed suffer the first degree of negative impacts. Importantly, in Tunisia, 70% of the agricultural workforce is female. It is expected that if the crisis continues, the situation will become more difficult for these categories, the majority of whom do not benefit enough from social assistance programs.

In addition, the analysis of multidimensional poverty taking into account the deprivation of households in food, health and education, shows that in the absence of adequate social protection programmes, multidimensional poverty would drop from 13,2 % to 15,6%. Estimates also show that overall women are more impacted relative to men. This concerns in particular women artisans and self-employed in small trades, the unemployed, the "other inactive", agricultural workers and female farmers. It should also be noted that the rate of extreme poverty following the shock introduced by COVID-19 would rise from 2.9% to 3.3% nationally. It is therefore important to note that the COVID-19 pandemic may increase the poverty of the poorest categories because of their greater exposure, not only to health risk, but also to the socio-economic consequences.

The Tunisian Ministry of Social Affairs announced, at the end of March, the launch of exceptional social assistance measures targeting the most disadvantaged households. Beneficiaries include households responsible for foster children, elderly persons or disabled persons, and households registered in the needy families benefits programme. The Ministry of Women, the Family, Children and Seniors has reached an agreement with the Tunisian Solidarity Bank to offer domestic workers the possibility of contract loans worth up to TND 1,000 (USD 345) and repayable on preferential terms, in an effort to limit the economic repercussions of the crisis on women in this vulnerable category (OECD, 2020).

To ensure the continuity of major programmes in Tunisia during the lockdown measures, FAO delivered laptops to partners to allow them to implement projects remotely (FAO, 2020b). While at regional level, the Organization is working to provide male and female farmers with the needed knowledge to overcome challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, including, on one hand, safety procedures and hygiene regulations, and on the other, accessing markets and crop selection.

FAO has also produced a series of videos with different awareness raising messages to be distributed to farmers digitally, for example, through WhatsApp, in order to reach farmers quickly and easily, while maintaining social distancing (FAO, 2020b).

A rapid gender assessment conducted in Morocco

The main findings or a rapid gender assessment came directly from field observations concerning the welfare of humanitarian programme beneficiaries after the spread of COVID-19 and its impact on their daily lives. This assessment noted a decrease in livelihoods due to income-generation activities that no longer correspond to local market demand, a number of small and medium enterprises and auto-entrepreneurs have ceased their activities, but also to the loss of work generating a general lack of financial resources (CARE Morocco, 2020).

As in many other national contexts, there is a very noticeable decrease in the quantity of sold cooperative products, primarily because cooperative members can no longer travel to market their products because of the country-wide lockdown and disruption in the supply of raw materials. – Difficulties have arisen in accessing online education for disadvantaged groups, especially in the mountains and remote areas due to the school closures, as well as work losses for educators due to the suspension of schooling. Data also show that the majority of these vulnerable women are not registered in the social security system. The government has approved one-off compensation packages to provide relief to households working in the informal sector. Benefits range from MAD 800 (USD 78) for households of two people or less to MAD 1,200 (USD 117) for households of more than four people. The programme also targets informal workers who are not affiliated to the national social assistance scheme.

There are some innovative initiatives underway to alleviate the impacts. For instance, the Association of Women Entrepreneurs in Morocco (AFEM) launched a platform, "Together against the Covid", which provides information on the basic tools to better manage businesses led by women during the period of crisis, including risk prevention, support measures for employees as well as information on training platforms online (OECD, 2020).

Egypt created a Women Policy Tracker

To respond to the COVID-19 crisis, Egypt was the first country to issue a Women Policy Tracker to monitor all governmental policies and measures to complement them with further programs and initiatives (NCW, 2020). A committee was also established for irregular workers impacted by the COVID-19 who received special allowances out of which 40% of the beneficiaries are women. Egypt also allowed working mothers with children under the age of 12 and mothers with children with disabilities to have the right of paid leave following the suspension of schools and universities. It has also increased the number of women beneficiaries of soft loans and loans with negligible interest rates to set up micro enterprises, with an aim to improve the living standard of families, and the government has increased monthly payments to women community leaders in rural areas from EGP 300 (USD 22) to EGP 900 (USD 57) (OECD, 2020).

The civil society played an important role, such as the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights through their hotline and online website ‘Ask Your Online Lawyer‘ to assist the victims of abuse and address the legal challenges that women are facing. The center has also been posting daily empowerment video messages on Facebook and Youtube to support women psychologically.

Egypt is also working to implement the ‘Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator’, which is the first of its kind in the Middle East and Africa based on a model of cooperation between the public and private sectors, aiming at accelerating action towards the advancement of women’s economic empowerment. The Ministry of Trade and Industry, in partnership with NCW and UN Women, is providing financial and technical support to women-led businesses, including through consultancy services and the development of online platforms. Particular focus has been placed on developing support mechanisms for women entrepreneurs to access e-marketing to sell their products from home and the Ministry of ICT also launched a package of educational programmes to support women. n Egypt, the Takaful and Karama cash transfer programmes have been extended to an additional 160,000 households. This will most likely benefit women, who already represent 88% of the programmes’ beneficiaries in Egypt. The Ministry of Social Solidarity is also in the process of launching a gender vulnerability assessment across its social assistance programmes (OECD, 2020).

Policy recommendations for the best ways forward

It is crucial to ensure women’s equal participation and leadership in decision-making in the design of the response to the COVID-10 pandemic, at every level and arena, from national to local crisis committees on the frontlines of the humanitarian responses and mitigation measures. This will allow more effective responses at meeting the needs of women and girls, with short- and long-term impacts for their households and the entire communities.

To mitigate the impacts of the pandemic, gender-responsive laws, policies and regulations related to food security and nutrition are of critical importance for creating equal benefits and opportunities for women and men. This will require to collect sex- and age-disaggregated data to generate the evidence base for decision- and policy-making and recognize women’s important roles in agri-food systems, as guardians of household food security, food producers, farm managers, processors, traders, wage workers and entrepreneurs. The collection of disaggregated data will also allow to monitor and evaluate the differential impacts of policies and investments on men and women.

It will be important to approve national budgets and establish economic stimulus packages to reduce the socio-economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, in order to better respond to women’s specific needs and priorities, especially in rural areas. Interventions should include social protection measures for men and women involved in the most vulnerable informal labour markets. Particular attention should be given to integrate and address gender concerns in the design, delivery and monitoring of social protection programmes in rural areas, by creating temporary employment opportunities (i.e. cash and asset transfers and investment in public work programmes) to meet food requirements and support the local economy.  

The solution lies in embracing the future. Gender-inclusive digital services provide an opportunity to support rural-based supply chains and overall food security systems. Therefore, reviving safety nets and using ICTs for boosting business growth will be pivotal for rural people and women-led companies to recover from the impacts of COVID-19.

Women have less access to information due to poverty and illiteracy, which makes it more difficult for them to access and take advantage of ICTs. Sometimes they do not have mobile phones and/or the connection is very weak in remote areas. It is only possible to contact them through other members of the group. This problem has an impact on all the other elements discussed above as the lack of reliable information worsens the situation in case of public (or other) service needs. Therefore, special policies and women’s economic empowerment initiatives are required to strengthen women and girls’ access and use of ICTs and promote remote modalities for income generation.

Strengthening the capacity of governments and the private sector can revive safety nets and women-friendly supply chains for rural, women-led small- and medicum-scale enterprises (SMEs) to boost business growth. This invariably requires that rural women entrepreneurs become part of the digital economy. Safety nets include insurance products, pension schemes, leasing arrangements, agricultural finance, low-value equity investments, government-to-person e-payment options, and conditional digital cash transfers. In order to reduce the fragility and precariousness of young unemployed people, the State would benefit from encouraging the establishment of training centers in digital technologies especially in remote regions.

It is also highly recommended to raise awareness and advocate for putting gender equality and food security and nutrition on the national, regional and international agenda in the COVID-19 response and mitigation measures, by addressing the underlying causes that make women, especially in rural areas, more vulnerable to this crisis due to their lower status and condition. In particular, taking into account the health implications of the pandemic and the challenges in water management across the region measures should seek to increase the provision of water, sanitation and hygiene services particularly in rural and displaced settings

To overcome the increased number of victims of gender-based violence, driven by household tensions related to isolation, food and financial insecurity, and school closure, it is important to adopt programmatic and policy measures to prevent and minimize unintended negative effects that can increase people’s vulnerability to physical and psychosocial risks, and prioritize risk mitigation strategies. This can be achieved through the adoption of gender transformative approaches and by engaging men and boys in discussions to change harmful social norms and strengthen engagement in caregiving roles. Special measures are required to overcome the limited access, particularly for women and girls, to health and support services in rural areas.

Regular risk assessments and investment in preparedness will remain critical to avoid the negative fallout from similar situations in the future.  It is essential that all relevant authorities – such as civil protection staff, governments and other decision-making bodies – have equal representation of women and men in their structures (even after this emergency). The spread of the virus requires joint efforts by all States, and constructive international cooperation with women’s active participation at a qualitatively new level.


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