As Covid-19 has spread across the world, it has revealed existing inequalities in full and glaring technicolor. It has placed additional strain on marginalized communities already dealing with systematic discrimination. And the pandemic has also highlighted an evident gender dimension, with gender-based violence spiking in tandem with lockdown orders across the world.
While women have also been at the forefront of the Covid-19 responses at the community-level, carrying the burden of care work and other on-the-ground essential services during this crisis, we have also seen their suffering amid shocking levels of domestic abuse, and inadequate responses from governments.
In responding to the Covid-19 outbreak, we have seen many governments taking measures that limit access to information held by public bodies and other crucial areas of public interest. Yet ensuring the right to information is a necessary and essential response to the COVID-19 pandemic: the public has a right to know how the virus is spreading and which actions governments is taking to fight the spread of the disease. It is crucial for ensuring public awareness and trust, fighting misinformation and ensuring accountability.
Reliable, accurate, and accessible information about the pandemic is essential to reducing the risk of transmission of the virus but also to protecting the population against dangerous disinformation. Such information is crucial in reducing the possibility of stigmatizing or discriminating vulnerable groups, including those infected with COVID-19. Disinformation can dangerously harm such groups even further because they do not have the necessary information to regulate their conducts accordingly.
In our briefing “Tackling gender inequality through access to information” – available in four languages -, ARTICLE 19 highlighted the fact that access to information held by public bodies is a human right, and an enabler for the exercise of other fundamental rights. These include crucially the right to health and the right to education. The right to information is also an instrument that contributes to overcoming gender inequality and cultural constraints that have historically kept women disempowered and disenfranchised.
The importance of recognizing this right cannot be overstated, especially for women. Women can use this right to challenge norms that reduce their independence and participation in decision making, make informed decisions about economic resources and access and engage in political processes.
Yet existing barriers in exercising their right to access to information, such as in education, language, in work and employment and in technology have been worryingly exacerbated by the pandemic.
In “Ensuring the Public’s Right to Know in the COVID-19 Pandemic” we recommended that government authorities should proactively publish key information and data sets to facilitate the fight against Covid-19 and to reduce inequalities. This recommendation includes information and data about the pandemic disaggregated by sex, information about violence against women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI). It includes data on reports and statistics, and information with a gender perspective, and argues the importance of communicating this information in indigenous languages and aimed at women and minors who are victims of domestic violence. And of including basic practical information such as hotline numbers, care facilities, protective measures, and penalties for offenders.
In Mexico, ARTICLE 19 has been actively supporting indigenous women during the pandemic by translating Covid-19 related official information into 5 local languages and sharing with the local communities. Information was also disseminated via audio broadcast through community radio programmes as well as video posted on Facebook and sent via Whatsapp. These means of dissemination were aimed at engaging indigenous women in particular, in order to inform them about preventive measures, and to help protect themselves and others from the virus as well as how to act if symptoms of the virus began to appear. The information was communicated in local languages – Ch’ol variante de Tila, Ch’ol variante de Tumbalá, Tsotsil, Tseltal and Maya -, helping them to get appropriate assistance as well as provide details of healthcare facilities available to them.
It is vital that publication of COVID-19 relevant information reaches the entire population and that means that public authorities must ensure that the information is communicated in the most appropriate formats in order to reach all areas and all communities. Yet we have seen that for many governments, the Internet is the primary means of reaching the public and prioritizing it over other forms of communications is likely to exclude many disadvantaged and remote communities.
On International Day for Universal Access to Information, and during the Covid-19 pandemic ARTICLE 19 reminds States of their commitments under international law and urge them to enhance their approach to access to information for women and marginalized communities in particular.
We ask them to consider how information is communicated to groups without or with limited access to the Internet; recall the goals set for gender equality and access to information in the Sustainable Development Goals; and act on the commitments of the Open Government Partnership who are calling for a greater role for women in developing effective approaches to access to information.
When limitations on the right to access to information are set as a response to the pandemic governments should respect obligations under international law on the right to access to information and gender equality. Key elements of the legal framework are:
- The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): gender equality and access to information are critical for the implementation and achievement of the Agenda 2030 and they have two specific goals, respectively Goals 5 and 16.10.2. The SDGs provide an opportunity to enable the benefits of access to information for women. If information is not accessible to and actionable by women, the goals won’t be achieved. Achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment is integral to each 17 goals as only by ensuring the right of women and girls across all the goals, the world will move towards more just and inclusive societies, sustainable economies and sustaining the environment for present and future generations. Similarly, access to information is instrumental for meeting other goals such as ensuring the right to health through access to sexual and reproductive rights, quality education and exercise their rights on the use of land.
- Open Government Partnership (OGP): both gender equality and access to information are crucial for the development and fulfilment of the open government principles of transparency, accountability and participation. Access to information can allow women to combat corrupt practices, thus supporting and benefiting from the principles of open governance. OGP has been stressing the importance of the inclusion of women in the creation, implementation and validation as well as including specific commitments on the exercise of their right to access to information.