by Isabella Garcia
The outbreak of Covid-19 and the harsh measures introduced to mitigate the spread of the virus by national governments across the globe have exposed and entrenched various inequalities. A key matter of concern is the impact of the crisis on gender equality and women’s economic autonomy due to the loss of employment opportunities, an intensification of unpaid care and domestic work, and a paucity of social welfare policies targeted towards the specific vulnerabilities that women face. Even before the pandemic, it was estimated that globally women were responsible for 76.2 per cent of all unpaid care work and were in lower-paid, more precarious forms of employment (Lakot & Bhatia, 2020).
To some extent all women’s lives have been impacted by Covid-19 because of their gender; however, it is essential to recognise that women are not a homogenous group and that intersecting structural oppressions will produce varied consequences and experiences for different women. Indeed, Ryan and Ayadi (2020) have argued that “gender is an intersecting component of wider structural inequalities, thus an intersectional lens, integrating an interconnected focus on gender and other identities and social determinants of health, must be prioritised within our assessment of and response to the COVID-19 pandemic” (p. 1406). The term intersectionality is used in this article to explain the co-constitutive nature of oppressions and inequalities predicated upon the social relations of class, race, gender, sexuality, disability, and citizenship (Bhattacharya, 2017). Within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, recognising intersectionality is vital for researchers and policymakers to accurately dis-aggregate the multiple risks and consequences that Covid-19 and national mitigating measures pose to different demographics. This is an urgent task as research has increasingly found that those with compounding vulnerabilities are more likely to face socio-economic insecurity as a result of the pandemic aggravating pre-existing inequalities (Ryan & El Ayadi, 2020).
Unpaid Care Work & Covid-19
There is a wealth of feminist scholarship that has emphasised the centrality of unpaid care work for the successful function of the so-called ‘productive’ economy. This research has aimed to understand how domestic and care labour supports the process of capital accumulation and how this connection shapes women’s oppression. (Roberts, 2016). The process of reproducing families has been described as ‘social reproduction’: “the gendered biological, material, and care-based work that is required to reproduce households day-to-day, primarily undertaken by women” (Brickell et al., 2020, p.10508). Unpaid care work is consistently undervalued and exploited, which has contributed towards socio-economic inequalities and hierarchies between men and women. These activities and relationships are shaped by historically and culturally specific understandings of traditional gender roles (Roberts, 2016). A key example of this is the way in which the term ‘woman’ has conventionally been defined in relation to biological capacities and social norms of motherhood, which has legitimated a gendered binary between what types of labour are deemed ‘productive’ or ‘unproductive’ in a narrow economic sense. For example, the standardized measure of economic productivity, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), fails to acknowledge how unpaid care work contributes towards economic activity. However, feminist researchers have estimated it would account for an immense $10 trillion per year globally, which is around 13 per cent of global GDP (Dhar, 2020).
These pre-existing care responsibilities have only intensified against the backdrop of Covid-19 and national lockdowns as institutional and community childcare has not been available for most families. Consequentially, essential caring and teaching has been relocated to the household, which further compounds the pre-existing responsibilities that women disproportionately face there. The feminist writer Chloe Cooney (2020) recently noted the pandemic response shows how problematic the existing system is for families, saying: “it’s always been a farce to think about caretaking and family responsibilities as ‘personal life decisions’ that get handled outside of work hours. This current situation is almost prophetically designed to showcase the farce of our societal approach to separating work and family lives.”. A report by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that UK mothers on average are spending an extra three hours a day on care work, compared with just two hours extra for fathers. This may not seem like a huge disparity immediately, but it is on top of the extra unpaid care work that women were already carrying out prior to the pandemic. Additionally, the UN reports that adolescent girls on average are spending more time on household chores than adolescent boys, which is reinforcing regressive gender norms and undermining girls’ educational progress. Evidence from previous crises shows that girls are at a higher risk of dropping out of school and not returning after a crisis, but particularly those girls who are living in poverty, those with disabilities, and those who live in isolated or rural areas (UN, 2020). Therefore, the Covid-19 pandemic has led to an increase in the amount of unpaid care work carried out by women and girls as well as revealing how vital this work is for the reproduction of families, communities, the economy, and for the mitigation of the virus itself.
Paid Work & Covid-19
It is clear that a lack of government and employer support for childcare is undermining women’s capacity to work at home during the pandemic as well as their ability to return to work as lockdowns relax, leading to them either having to reduce their hours or leave work completely. A survey conducted by the UK charity, Pregnant then Screwed, questioned working mothers on the effects of Covid-19, it found that 72 per cent worked fewer hours due to a lack of childcare and around 15% had been made redundant or were facing redundancy, with 46% stating no childcare as the reason for this. This indicates that women’s ability to participate in the paid labour market is being hindered as a result of the societal expectation that they should take on the extra caring responsibilities that have arisen. This is for a number of reasons however a key factor is that prior to the pandemic women and especially mothers tended to be in lower-paid, flexible or part-time employment in comparison to men and fathers. Therefore, leading to situations where a family’s income becomes more dependent upon the fathers and where domestic and childcare responsibilities are passed onto mothers. A recent UN report examining the gendered dimensions of the Covid-19 crisis states:
Emerging evidence on the impact of COVID-19 suggests that women’s economic and productive lives will be affected disproportionately and differently from men. Across the globe, women earn less, save less, hold less secure jobs, and are more likely to be employed in the informal sector. They have less access to social protections and are the majority of single-parent households. Their capacity to absorb economic shocks is therefore less than mens (UN, 2020, p.4).
Thus, while there has been huge progress towards enabling women to enter the formal economy over the past couple of years, there continues to be gender disparities between what type of employment is readily available for women in comparison to men. Women occupy a larger proportion of particular professions (such as nursing, social care, cleaners, and domestic workers) because they are closely aligned with their caring and domestic ‘nature’; however, the assumption that women have an innate capacity for ‘caring’ is itself rooted in out-dated and patriarchal gender roles. Therefore, indicating that “gender as a category of social and economic differentiation influences the division of labour, and the distribution of work, income, productivity inputs and the economic behaviour of agents (Young, 2018 p.458). Due to the gendered divisions of occupation women face a higher exposure risk to Covid-19, as they constitute 70 per cent of the world’s health and social care workforce as well as making up a higher proportion of these front-line community roles (UN, 2020). Nevertheless, despite making up the majority of these key worker roles many women are being forced to reduce their hours and income; often citing a lack of available childcare support as the reason (Guardian, 2020). Highlighting once again, why insufficient support for unpaid care work in the ‘private’ sphere has a direct impact on the successful function of the ‘public’ sphere, whether that be regarding the economy or national health.
Moreover, domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to catching the virus as well as the adverse socio-economic consequences of lockdowns. This sector is disproportionately occupied by women; with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimating that 80 per cent of the worlds domestic workers are women. However, it must be stressed that the majority of women working in paid domestic roles are working-class women who are often ethnic minorities and migrants. These roles are overwhelmingly low-paid, uncontracted and highly precarious, and domestic workers generally cannot access social security support if they are unwell or restricted from working, which leads to situations where they are compelled to work for wealthier households despite the exposure risk (Lakot & Bhatia, 2020). Similarly, female workers in the global south will be impacted by Covid-19 in different ways from those within wealthier countries due to their different socio-economic and cultural contexts. For example, up to 70 per cent of female workers in the global south work in the informal economy. This essentially means they have little or no employment rights and benefits as well as having limited access to state social security lifelines, such as welfare payments (UN, 2020). This has led Al Ali (2020) to make the bleak assessment that “famines and malnutrition might eventually kill more people in the Global South than the actual virus itself” (p.334). For example, since the start of the pandemic, the number of people facing food insecurity in West and Central Africa has increased by 135 per cent, and similarly the number of people receiving food assistance in Latin America has tripled (CARE, 2020).
Researchers and NGOs have now started to emphasise the link between food insecurity and gender because it is not included in the majority of food security analyses. A recent report by the NGO CARE has shown that women and girls are more likely to face food insecurity than men and boys: “women and girls make up 60 % of the population facing chronic hunger, and moderate and severe food insecurity is higher among females than males” (2020, p.6). For instance, in Afghanistan, both women and men were eating less, but women were eating fewer meals 4 days a week whereas men were eating fewer meals 3 days a week (Ibid). Furthermore, food insecurity is not exclusively a problem for countries in the global south as 8.1 million adults in the UK have reported experiences of food insecurity since the outbreak of the pandemic (ENUF, 2020).
The 2014-16 Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa provides a recent example of how a public health emergency combined with quarantine measures can adversely impact the income and food security of poor populations. Travel restrictions and other social distancing measures undermined the production, trade, and accessibility of food. This in turn caused food prices to rise and at the same time communities were unable to engage in the majority of their normal income generating activities, such as farming and trading (UN, 2020). Women and girls make up the bulk of the world’s food producers, which means they are disproportionately impacted by public health measures that restrict access to agricultural supplies and land, and markets to sell their produce (CARE, 2020). For instance, in Liberia women and girls constitute 85 per cent of the countries market traders. (UN, 2020). This loss of income is generating an environment whereby women are forced to take on debt to purchase food, and in some cases engage in transactional sex for money and food (CARE, 2020). Food insecurity is not simply a supply issue, rather it is a problem of accessibility and thus inequality, stemming from a person not earning enough money to purchase food for themselves and their families. Crucially, this must be understood as an issue of gender inequality as well, because it is women who have disproportionately seen their incomes decline or who have lost their income completely since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
This article has aimed to examine some of the gendered implications of the Covid-19 pandemic, whilst stressing the necessity of understanding these implications with reference to intersectionality. The pandemic has impacted everyone to varying extents, but in nearly all cases unpaid care giving and domestic work has increased in households and often this increase has been transferred onto women: further entrenching pre-existing inequalities between men and women in the household and in broader society. At the same time, the pandemic has disproportionately impacted the socio-economic autonomy and income of women for multiple reasons, such as a lack of institutional childcare support which is preventing women from returning to work. This insecurity is heightened for female migrant workers and those in the informal economy as they have very few employment rights and they tend to live in middle and low-income countries, which do not have the type of state-funded safety nets that we see in wealthier western nations. Fundamentally, what the varied effects of Covid-19 highlight, is that it is reductive to frame gender inequality as a stand-alone issue that is separate from questions of income inequality and racial inequality. Thus, in order for policymakers to adequately tackle the root causes of gender inequality they must understand it in relation to other social stratifications like class and race because they intersect and compound each other.
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