COVID-19 is not only a challenge for global health systems, but also a test of our human spirit. Recovery must lead to a more equal world that is more resilient to future crises. Women will be the hardest hit by this pandemic but they will also be the backbone of recovery in communities. 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. The year 2020, is also marked as the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, which was intended to be ground-breaking for gender equality. Instead, with the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic even the limited gains made in the past decades are at risk of being rolled back. The pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems which are in turn amplifying the impacts of the pandemic.
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.
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 by 100%. 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 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.
“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 inside the four walls of the house in this 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
In developing countries like India, women are the primary caregivers at the household level. With the mobility restrictions, educational institution closures the burden of household care is likely to be increasing on the women. The burden of care and responsibility – of home staying children, extended family members, and elderly – can make the situation more stressful for the women, even for those who do not work outside of the home. For those who do, working from home will imply lower productivity. Male involvement in the domestic activities has been a hard nut to crack despite many long going gendered and family welfare interventions.
In rural areas, women’s involvement on farms may go up in regions where there is shortage of labour due to a decrease in the number of migrant labourers. For instance in India, during this year’s harvest season (March-April), many migrants have moved back to their homes. This may result in higher agricultural wages for women in the short-run. Therefore, the demand for women’s time both within and outside the household may rise in rural India. The net effect on women’s time allocation will depend on the relative net benefits of time at home and outside.
In urban areas, due to the greater proportion of nuclear families, women may be needed to support the family by being at home to take care of the sick and/or due to loss of jobs/earnings in the immediate future. In the long-run, however, if working from home becomes the norm; more work opportunities may become available to women who often prefer home-based work.
Moreover, in many countries, women’s participation in the labour market is often in the form of temporary employment. Across the world, women represent less than 40% of total employment but make up 57% of those working part-time. In many sub-Saharan African countries, travel restrictions will constrain the many women in the informal sector, who depend on incomes that are earned on a daily basis, from plying their trade.
This is perhaps the clearest lesson emerging from the pandemic. This includes gender-responsive economic and social policies and placing women’s economic lives at the heart of the pandemic response and recovery plans. 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. 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.
(The author is a PG Student)