Years of progress in women’s rights reversed by Covid, report warns

Ireland has one of ‘most restrictive abortion laws’, gender equality index shows

Years of progress in women’s rights and equality have been reversed by Covid and without action “the feminisation of poverty will accelerate”, a new report warns.

The 2021 gender equality index from the European Institute for Gender Equality published on Thursday, ranks Ireland seventh out of 27 EU member states.

It warns, however, Ireland is one of only eight countries where more women than men are dying of mental and behavioural disorders; which has one of the highest gaps between boys' and girls' physical activity, and along with Malta and Poland has "the most restrictive abortion laws".

The institute – an autonomous body of the European Union – says despite "fragile" progress for women, including in access to healthcare and in political representation, "big losses are emerging" particularly economically.


“An enormous increase in unpaid care during the Covid-19 crisis – particularly by women – has put a spotlight on long-standing gender inequalities in the home.” Gender gaps, which are “large and persistent” in unpaid care work, have been exacerbated by Covid, says the report.


It warns: “More women than men in the EU have lost income because they have had to assume care duties, including homeschooling. Without appropriate income support, the feminisation of poverty will accelerate post pandemic.

The Covid-19 crisis had a gendered impact across employment sectors.

“Women are over-represented among ‘essential’ workers, including in the health and care sectors, victim support services, education and food retail.

“Their frontline status means that not only are they among those most exposed to Covid-19, but they also experience high levels of work-related stress and emotional exhaustion,” it says.

The adverse impacts are “likely to be more prolonged for women than for men as a result of labour market gender segregation and the highly unequal distribution of unpaid care duties.” For some groups, including foreign-born women and men, “the pandemic could stall or even erase gender equality gains... with the risk of further widening divisions in our societies”.

It notes: “Women have had lower levels of mental wellbeing than men in each of the three pandemic waves”; their access to sexual and reproductive healthcare was curtailed, and, those vulnerable to domestic violence were at heightened risk.

In scoring member states in areas including work, money, education, power, time-use, health and violence, the EU average was 68.

Ireland's score was 73.1. The highest ranking state was Sweden on 83.9, followed by Denmark, the Netherlands, France, Finland and Spain.

Election candidates

Ireland scores well in increasing the number of women election candidates and in equality in healthcare. “Only in Ireland do women and men equally perceive being in good health,” says the report.

Among 11- to 15-year-olds across the EU, boys were found to be more than 7 percentage points more likely to report at least 60 minutes’ of daily moderate to vigorous physical. In Ireland the gap is 11 percentage points.

On abortion the report says it can be considered safe “only when it is performed without the risk of criminal or legal sanction, stigmatisation, stress or isolation”. It notes Ireland is one of 11 states that imposes a mandatory waiting period between seeking an abortion and getting one, adding “the fewest abortions in the EU are in member states with the most restrictive abortion laws – Ireland, Malta and Poland”.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times