Political leaders in Northern Ireland have been accused of failing women in their post-Covid recovery plans.
A report published on Wednesday claims women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
It details how women struggled to access childcare while many saw their caring responsibilities increase.
The Executive is now being urged to implement a Women’s Employment Strategy that focuses on issues facing women including inadequate childcare support and low pay.
It is one of a series of key recommendations set out by the Women’s Policy Group (WPG) in its updated NI Covid-19 Feminist Recovery Plan.
The report, launched on Wednesday, includes details of the survey of women across Northern Ireland about the impact of Covid-19 on their lives.
The survey of more than 150 women revealed 29.2% struggled to access childcare, while 81.1% said their caring responsibilities had increased during Covid-19. Just 15.1% were able to access carers allowance.
The survey also revealed that 82.1% of respondents said their mental health had deteriorated during the pandemic, 55.3% of those living in rural areas felt isolated through the lack of any support network and 38.1% were impacted by increased waiting lists.
One person questioned for the survey spoke of how the pandemic had affected her: “It's taken a big toll on my mental health as I tried working from home while caring for three kids, one of which is autistic. The loss of all our usual external support services was very difficult. It felt like I was struggling to balance it all.”
Another said: “My life is now essentially home working and continuous care. My calendar is dictated by the date on blister packs of medicine, calls to GPs, etc in addition to working an average 10 hours a day. I worry that I do not have enough time for 'activities' with my mother who has major problems following strokes. I am neglecting my partner.”
A third said: “My husband and I worked from home during the first lockdown and took care of the children at home, and I home-schooled them both. During the second lockdown my husband went back to the office and I cared for and home-schooled (and worked my 31 hours per week) from home... but it was tough on me.”
Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon said that the Executive must include the issue of gender equality as part of its Covid-19 Recovery Strategy.
She said she would be going through the plan to see what her department could do to address inequality but added that the whole Executive must tackle the wrongs of structural discrimination against women.
“The big question is what are we going to do as an Executive? We are currently working on a Covid Recovery Strategy and it is very important that women are front and centre of that, given that they have been so disproportionately impacted by the pandemic," Ms Mallon, an SDLP MLA, said.
“We have been through an horrific time but we have an opportunity now to try to do things better and so we need to see a gender-based approach to our policy and we need to be very mindful of how we are going to support them and empower them.”
DUP deputy leader Paula Bradley, chair of the All Party Group on Women, Peace and Security, said both the Executive and Assembly was aware that women had been disproportionately affected by Covid-19, whether it was in low paid work, zero-hour contracts and problems with childcare.
She said that despite intense lobbying of the Executive to take on board the recommendations of the Feminist Recovery Plan, the response of the Executive has been disappointing.
“It appeared at times that some of the departments and ministers didn’t really get where we were coming from,” she added
One of the authors of the NI report, Women’s Sector Lobbyist, Rachel Powell said that despite intense lobbying of politicians and policymakers over the past year it was astounding that the Executive had not yet taken any recommendations that take account of how women have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic.
She said: “This updated Feminist Recovery Plan includes primary research, interviews, testimonies and case studies that highlights further evidence of the severe impact the pandemic has had on women which will worsen if the Executive continues to ignore the issue of gender equality.
“From our research we see that women have borne the brunt of this crisis economically, socially and in terms of mental health. We consistently raised our concerns on the negative impact the pandemic was having on women but despite this, there has been little action taken by the Executive on gender equality.”
According to the report women are much more likely to be in low paid occupations and are more negatively affected by the lack of childcare provision than their male counterparts. It argues that without affordable and accessible childcare it will not be possible to ensure women’s full and equal participation in the workforce.
It states: “The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown into stark relief the totally inadequate childcare support system in Northern Ireland, a system that sees childcare as an individual responsibility than a public good. The pandemic has also shown an urgent requirement for overhauling the system of flexible working, paternity and parental leave and better, well paid maternity leave. The rights to parental leave and flexible working should be available to all workers regardless of their employment status.”