A society advancing towards equality for women is good for everyone’s health and well-being; in fact, feminism could save your life.
As a world still dominated by patriarchy struggles with a deadly pandemic, the countries that have successfully navigated the global COVID-19 pandemic are distinguished by the gender of their leadership. Across the world, countries headed by women and representing diverse cultures—from Germany, Norway, and Finland, to Taiwan, New Zealand, and Namibia—have managed the crisis more effectively, with fewer fatalities and less livelihood loss than others.
But what distinguishes these health winners is not just the female shape of their leaders but the feminist shape of their societies. Even more gender-balanced societies headed by men – like Canada – do better in health crises than their less equitable peers like the US. On the other hand, the most patriarchal countries headed by regressive strongmen do worse at every level of development. Today, we see this in Brazil, which until recently had managed health crises well under less-masculinist leadership.
Gender equitable societies are healthier for everyone. As feminism challenges restrictive gender norms, improvements in women’s access to health care, reproductive rights, and protection from violence have positive effects on everyone’s life expectancy and well-being, especially children.
A simple scatter plot and a Pearson correlation of the Gender Development Index and the Life Expectancy Index show a positive linear relationship between them. We recognise there are many variables that contribute to those results, but the frequency of cases where gender equitable societies are healthier cannot be ignored.
According to a series on how gender and health intersect published by The Lancet in 2019, countries with a greater share of female physicians have lower maternal and infant mortality rates, as well as greater life expectancy for men and women alike.
As feminism produces a more gender-balanced workforce and political representation, countries tend to invest more in health across the board.
As feminism produces a more gender-balanced workforce and political representation, countries tend to invest more in health across the board. As the Canadian case showed in a statistical study of 1976 to 2009, the presence of more women in multiple government positions – regardless of political leaning – is associated with larger government spending in health and reduced mortality rates.
Feminism materialises through investment in human capital and care-giving sectors of the economy that improve public health capacity and focus. During this pandemic we have seen the comparative advantages of countries around the world that invested in sectors such as medical research, health services, and manufacturing for health exports.
Taiwan introduced a single payer system for healthcare in 1995, which is now helping to contain the pandemic while also sharing best practices with the global health community. Taiwan has been able to not only expand medical technology investment – a signature initiative of the island’s first female President Tsai Ing-Wen – but also to develop “mask diplomacy” by donating 10 million masks globally. Taiwan even started sharing best medical practices with multiple countries through online seminars, fostering humanitarian solidarity under the slogan #Taiwancanhelp. Taiwan is positioning itself as a model of a feminist democracy.
Taiwan is positioning itself as a model of a feminist democracy.
Feminism is physically healthy because it comes from and encourages socially healthy historic choices and development dynamics. The development patterns that enable women’s empowerment also produce more modern, equitable, and better governed societies with better performance on all dimensions of social well-being.
Gender equity is associated with more and better distributed economic growth, which leads to better health systems. The movement from patriarchal structures of social organisation to a more feminist open society is associated with a larger middle class, more state capacity, and more pressures for government accountability. Women’s empowerment fosters better development, as lower levels of hierarchy provide political incentives to invest in the broader population, and broader participation drives more spending on public health and children’s needs. Feminist societies are also better for health because they are more collaborative and more effectively governed, which is good for all forms of public policy and crisis adjustment.
More gender-balanced states invest in global institutions and programs that support global health at home and abroad.
Generally more democratic, peaceful, and outward-looking, feminist societies are able to cope with the increasing proportion of globalised health crises. More specifically, more gender-balanced states have more multilateral and humanitarian foreign policies – they invest in global institutions and programs that support global health at home and abroad.
Some of these states, such as Taiwan, consciously seek to promote a feminist foreign policy that aspires to advance worldwide gender equity, global cooperation, and holistic human development. Such globalist countries can quickly tap into international knowledge, networks, and resources to manage a border-crossing health crisis. By contrast, macho nationalists operating in isolation from global cooperation in the US, the UK, Iran, and Russia have visibly failed to protect their citizens – or even to adjust their supply chains.
The COVID-19 pandemic is adding to the lessons of a generation of global governance and human rights, epitomised in the slogan of the Argentinian activists’ campaign endorsed by the Organisation of American States’ Interamerican Commission on Women: “a feminist world is a better world.”
Good leadership by strong women is certainly helpful—but in the broader picture of a feminist society, women’s leadership grows from and reinforces equity across all areas of political, economic, and social life. More feminist societies are relatively resilient in the current pandemic because they have more equitable access to social welfare, more effective and accountable governments, more diversified economies with better social safety nets, and more global cooperation for expertise and management.
In times of crisis, societies that citizens perceive as fair and caring can draw upon their legitimacy to mobilise social solidarity and absorb short-term sacrifice – as illustrated by citizens’ support for women’s leadership in New Zealand and Germany as they called for tough policies that contained the coronavirus and long-term adjustments that are needed to manage it going forward. A society advancing towards equality for women is good for everyone’s health and well-being; in fact, feminism could save your life.
This article is published under creative commons and first appeared in New Security Beat.