The COVID-19 pandemic has had an immense impact on the economy worldwide , particularly affecting the most vulnerable and marginalised groups. This global health crisis has reduced the number of women in the workforce while increasing the proportion of women doing unpaid care work, creating an invisible female army on which many governments now rely. In order to create a gender- just, inclusive and gender transformative way forward, this invisible army must be given recognition and visibility.
Like many hundreds of women, I am part of a growing invisible army of unpaid carers and volunteers underpinning our countries’ economies. Before the pandemic, increasing numbers of women were taking on these roles; COVID-19 has ensured that this conscript army continues to grow, diminishing women’s economic power across all G7 nations. Over and above the blow to women’s economic status through the pandemic-induced loss of jobs across many sectors of the economy, such as tourism and hospitality, reliance on women as unpaid carers and educators has increased as schools have closed.
Women were already fulfilling roles as unpaid carers
Many of these women come from the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups in our communities. They often live in poverty as they are unable to work and may have health problems, including mental health issues sparked by stressful situations with no support. This women’s army receives little or no financial recompense; its labour is viewed as free. In some countries a small social welfare benefit is paid to assist carers, but by no means compensates for the 24-hour care provided. How many governments acknowledge this massive contribution that supports their economies? Imagine your local communities if this army were not ensuring care for all these groups. Who would mind? Who would take their place? During the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries have seen increased financial costs for health services, combined with reduced tax revenues. Governments had to borrow to provide support to the general public and businesses, thus increasing national debt levels. However, as much of women’s labour goes unpaid, the true cost of public services in the social, welfare, and health sectors is disguised.
Countries rely on contributions from civil society organisations, particularly women’s organisations, in supporting those most vulnerable, especially women and girls. These groups provide direct or financial support to clinics, schools, training and skills centres, refuges and hostels. Volunteer women’s organisations provide extensive opportunities for women’s economic empowerment, as evidenced by studies carried out by non-governmental organisations in examples of successful grassroots projects presented to the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development.
As with national armies in traditional clashes, the invisible army of female carers and volunteers experiences conflict and violence especially when isolated and confined to their homes. During the COVID-19 pandemic we have seen a huge upsurge in violence against women and girls, described by the UN Secretary-General as a pandemic in its own right.
Will this invisible army of unpaid female carers be the lowest priority when rebuilding national economies? Will digital support, financial aid, loans and grants, upskilling, and all levels of training across all sectors be available and accessible to women? Priority investment is urgently needed especially in fields with large female work forces or in sectors like STEM, opening opportunities into non-traditional employment. Contributions by women’s organisations and grassroots communities should be recognised and supported by governments, providing funding to replicate past successes securing sustainable economic growth. Governments must introduce or increase financial support through universal benefits and social protection measures to assist these invisible women in moving out of poverty, thus helping them to lift up their families too, boosting their empowerment and economic contribution through education and training, specifically reskilling for new sectors and a digitalised world. Future recovery for all must ensure that no vulnerable group is left behind. Ensuring visibility for all women is vital for a gender-just, inclusive and gender transformative approach to moving forward in post-COVID-19 recovery planning, leadership and management. In order to empower this invisible army, women must become more visible through integration into the mainstream workforce. Governments must recognise the value of unpaid care because economies grow when more women contribute.
Pat Black (she/her/hers) is a long-time activist for gender equality, both in the UK and internationally. She is a strong advocate for women’s human rights, having worked for NGO Soroptimist International as a volunteer for many years.