The COVID pandemic is having the tremors felt across sectors, but its impact on marginalized sections, especially women, has been on several fronts. While the social and economic impact has been severe, women leadership in politics is writing inspiring stories in handling crisis worldwide and closer home. Economic independence and Social justice – the anchors of Feminism and Gender Equality have been hit hard. Would it impact Feminism as a movement in post COVID times? We deep dive here with experts.
The year 2020 marked 110 years of International Women’s Day celebration. This year was slated to be a turning point. A new beginning for centuries-long struggle. It is also the 25th year of Beijing Platform Action which was formulated with the aim to bring about ground-breaking outcomes for gender equality.
Instead, feminism has been locked-down and the progress of achieving gender-equality seems to be slowing down, arrested in the cuffs of the pandemic. In content emerging from across the world, the pandemic has been declared a disaster for gender justice. It has exposed the existing inequalities and even to some extent, further deepened them. One must not forget; the pandemic has not been produced in a vacuum. It is a part of our world now. A world that rests on imbalanced socio-politico-economic structures which amplify the impact of the COVID-19 crisis towards the most vulnerable groups.
Women are at greater risk from the health perspective of facing the pandemic. While early reports that emerged from different parts of the world provide evidence that more men are dying compared to infected women, more women are likely to catch the virus in the first place by comprising 70% in the front-line healthcare workforce. The brunt of inadequate infrastructure, leading to ill-equipped healthcare employees, is faced by women who are nurses and primary care providers in the hospitals. The past experiences of outbreaks present evidence of increased maternal mortality, as resources and priorities are re-allocated to the containment of the virus.
Increase in Domestic Violence across sectors
Gender-based violence exacerbates with the tensions around security, money and health conditions. Within confined spaces, living conditions for certain families are not even healthy and can lead to violence against the vulnerable members of the household. So many women are stuck with their perpetrators in the lockdowns imposed to contain the virus and helpline numbers are limited in scope due to restrictions on relocation or mobility. Across the world, but more specifically in India, the instances of domestic violence against women and young girls have increased by100%.
Kirthi Jayakumar, Founder, The Gender Security Project, Saahas app for survivors of Gender Based Violence says, “Across the sectors, there are a lot of indicators which predispose certain communities to more violence. Communities, where there is more alcoholism, lack of access to alcohol, can lead to violence due to withdrawal symptoms like frustration and aggression. Also, in single-income households where women are sole breadwinners, they are now unable to get the money due to lockdown, even when employers are empathetic and paying. That lack of money leads to more violence. Then there are senior women facing domestic violence and because they are immunocompromised, getting out of the house is not an option at all.”
Even at those homes where every day, non-physical friction exists, the chances of that converting to emotional and physical abuse in such circumstances is high. New cases of violence are being reported along with sectors predisposed to violence where there is a marked increase. Work from home due to lockdown is disorienting for many people, leading to mental health issues.
Adds Kirthi – “Homes which were already unsafe for many and now it is becoming more so because lockdown is forcing people to remain close doors without any chance of seeking support. Similarly, instances of child sexual abuse have increased. I get more instances of child sexual abuse, or people amid gender transition or who have already transitioned to self-determined gender identities because they face discrimination. The family may not accept them. Still, they have to stay in lockdown” . Mental health issues in these times are genuine. There are a lot of people who experience disorientation and discomfort working from home with the challenge of handling so many things
Unpaid care and unequal share in domestic responsibilities
Due to pandemic and lockdown, women have to bear the lopsided burden of unpaid care and unequal share in household responsibilities. Being the de facto caregivers within the homes has put an outsized portion of the domestic workload on women. The children are out of school with numerous online-from-home-classrooms, sick and needy elders, probably office-work assigned by a manager who is under the impression that work-from-home is a single-way ticket to exploit employees has thrown a lot of challenges towards women.
With emotionally detached husbands, women are shouldering more than their share in this pandemic. The time which might seem unproductive and non-functional to the world is most exhaustive for women in families. The weight of the underpaid industry of house helps, nannies, cooks, housekeepers, teachers/tutors, who are now out-of-work have automatically geared towards women.
According to a delivery app (Dunzo), pregnancy kits, condoms, contraceptives, and sanitary napkins are the top four products being ordered and delivered during the lockdown period. The class-divide paints a darker picture for the women who do not even have the awareness means and knowledge to access these services, and under normal circumstances would be taken to a government hospital.
However, the persisting fear of lockdown norms and catching viruses in the hospital will keep many of them away from accessing these services. Shares Kirthi – “At many households, women menstrual products are not even thought about as essential supplies. For example, Kerala had given a beautiful relief package, but you could see there were no sanitary pads made available as part of the relief package.”
Sushmita Dev, former Member of Parliament and All India Mahila Congress President said, “There is a gender angle to poverty. It is because when the resources are limited women tend to cut down on their own requirements. She even feeds the man over herself. In such times, households’ re-budget their priorities and menstrual hygiene and related products do not feature in the list. Therefore, Mahila Congress has been at the forefront for distributing thousands of sanitary napkins in the slums of New Delhi.”
Compared to men, women are usually earning less, saving barely, mostly engaging in contractual, temporary, unorganized and insecure jobs as per the availability of jobs in the market offered to them. In the post-pandemic world, women are predicted to comprise of major-share of lay-offs by corporations. Women getting back to work after a lay-off may see an impact because of the cut in jobs and budgets, a shift in employers’ attitude and inclination towards hiring a male employee due to obvious reasons of ROI.
Also read: Can A Pandemic Be A Patriarch, Too?
This, in turn, shall impact economic empowerment. Ms. Dev shares, “In absence of a gendered-approach in handling the crisis, nobody is thinking about the women. Women comprise 65% of the unorganised sector. In a single shot, they are rendered unemployed. And then the burden of Funpaid care work is also shouldered by women alone in most of the households. It is a double whammy”.
Kirthi who has been reaching out to women across sectors in these troubled times, shares “In one organization I know, women have decided not to take the WFH option because the entire domestic burden of domestic work is on their shoulders. They aren’t able to. There is a tendency of women dropping out of work and then facing issues in upskilling to get back to work. There are instances where women continue to work from home. Not sure about numbers, but there are reasons to believe that there will be a greater impact on women in such a situation.”
Women in Politics during Pandemic Times – The silver lining
Women leaders across the world are showing better handle over the situation. The countries which have managed to flatten the curve, and reduced the spread of the virus- Denmark, Finland, Germany, New Zealand, Ice Land, Norway, Taiwan have one thing in common; women as the head of the states. While the so-called world leaders and politicians like Bolsonaro, Trump, Xi-ping, Modi, Putin, Netanyahu have exemplified ignorance, suppression of data and facts, delayed action and arrogance or irresponsibility, the leaders of the above mentioned countries acted with composure and brought out measure that benefited the country in fighting the pandemic through empathy and compassion.
Ms. Sushmita Dev shares, “Despite that the women in politics have been questioned, demotivated and heckled in politics around the world they have shown the world that they are better at leadership roles and are much more efficient. A crisis is a situation where one sinks or sail and it requires nothing short of competence to come out of it. Women politicians, not only belonging to these countries, but also MLAs like Seethakka (Telangana) are leading from the front with empathy and conviction”. She also points out at the paradox of the situation given that on the other extreme “lockdown has pushed women deep into the gender-roles against which they have been fighting for years”.
The Future – Feminism in Post COVID times – should we be worried?
Women across sectors are feeling the social and economic impact of COVID-19. In the political sphere, women are stepping up to take new roles to take care of fellow women in these troubled times. The social and economic inequalities foreseen in the post-pandemic world would be better handled with more women leadership in politics and strong anchoring of sisterhood which would help women at the other end of spectrum thus building an equitable world.
Adds Kirthi Jayakumar, “Feminism as a movement has faced a lot of obstacles. It is not a kind of movement that will stop existing because COVID has come. Rather feminists are very vocal and active in responding to multiple challenges whether calling attention to domestic violence survivors, or to people with disabilities or senior citizens. A lot of feminist work and advocacy is still going on and will keep happening. Intersectionality lets you see these things and I think feminism will definitely employ these tools to look at the areas and respond to them through either civil society work culture or advocacy in larger sector.“
Kanksshi Agarwal, is a gender activist, researcher working at the intersection of technology, society, gender and politics. A former LAMP Fellow, she also works towards increasing women’s participation in politics at NETRI. You can find her on Twitter and Facebook.
Featured Image Source: World Economic Forum