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U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Kelley Currie said many women are facing loss in economic opportunity and increasing household burdens because of COVID-19. Credit: Jesse Zhang

A top State Department official spoke about government initiatives to mitigate the disproportionate health and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on women at a virtual Perry World House event.

Kelley Currie, the United States Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, said the heightened impact of the pandemic on women is evident. She cited an increase of gender-based violence as a result of the stay-at-home measures that have left women at home in vulnerable positions with abusers. She added that many women forced to stay home are facing a loss in economic opportunity. 

Tuesday's event, moderated by PWH Deputy Director LaShawn Jefferson, was part of PWH’s "The World Today" program, which features weekly one-hour conversations exploring topical global issues. 

Currie discussed two programs the State Department's Office of Women’s Global Issues has established to promote women’s rights and empowerment: the U.S. Strategy on Women, Peace, and Security and the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative. While WPS focuses on creating opportunities for women to participate in international peace negotiation efforts, the W-GDP aims to economically empower women through skill training, entrepreneurship, and creating an inclusive environment, Currie said.

Currie noted the flexibility of W-GDP's mission allowed the program to pivot focus on supporting women through the economic distress caused by the pandemic. The W-GDP was then able to obtain more funding due to the relevance of its mission, which includes helping women apply for loans, form business plans, and launch entrepreneurial projects, Currie said. The federal government announced $122 million in new projects under W-GDP in August.

“The ability to create and unlock additional economic growth, get women off the sidelines, and back into the economy is going to be critical," Currie said. "It's not just a nice-to-have thing, it is literally going to be the difference between the survival of your economy and not."

The Office of Global Women’s Issues has also supported women facing domestic, gender-based, and sexual violence by partnering with local and international organizations, Currie said. Vital Voices and the Avon Foundation are grassroots initiatives providing assistance and resources to women in need, she added.

The New York Times reported that doctors and domestic abuse hotlines have reported an increase in violence in homes during the pandemic.

Currie stressed the importance of supporting women to become leaders in response and recovery efforts in crises like the pandemic. This allows women to lead decision-making that impacts their own lives and the lives of their families and communities, Currie said. 

“We really have fought hard to make sure that women are not seen solely through a victim lens. We don't see that as an appropriate or even very helpful narrative to have out there," Currie said. "While women certainly are in need of greater services and assistance, we want to make sure that we continue to focus on how women are serving on the front lines of this pandemic response, treating medical patients, raising awareness about prevention, and working in their communities to help strengthen their communities' response and resilience."

Although the pandemic has posed many challenges to the economy, Currie remains optimistic about the future of women in the workforce. She believes the pandemic created an opportunity for conversation within families, boardrooms, and government agencies about the changes needed to economically empower women.

“The silver lining here is that by having a much more open and fruitful and real conversation about the cost of not doing anything and not addressing these challenges, we’ll start to come up with more and better solutions that can really help keep women able to fully participate in the workforce,” Currie said.