Many people are discussing ways of ‘building back better’ but few are actually fleshing out what a transformative gender-just COVID recovery should look like. This blog examines prospects for gender equality in the global economy and the world of work in the post-coronavirus era.
As I write this blog, wars rages in Ukraine. Quite understandably, there is a sense of urgency amongst the G7, EU and others when it comes to addressing the basic needs of those fleeing the war zone, finding ways to de-escalate the situation, and pushing parties to seek diplomatic and peaceful solutions. However, this has meant that many of the discussions around the COVID-19 recovery have been paused or derailed. This, I believe, is a huge mistake and a myopic way of understanding war and conflict as well as their underpinnings.
As with previous and/or parallel crises, policy-makers often concentrate more on the human rights violations arising from war and conflict than on the structural violence responsible for igniting them. This gap tends to lead, for example, to militarisation and fossil fuel investments that clash with a sustainable and human rights centred agenda. However, that is not all. By making decisions that focus solely on dealing with the symptoms of a broken system, policy makers are, by default, shying away from fundamental discussions on tax justice, as well as on topics such as calls to reform the global financial system, inadequate financing of human rights commitments, and, most importantly, the intersectional and gender-differentiated impacts of our economy.
We should not go back to the old ‘normal’. COVID-19 made it evident that our economic system is rigged in favour of a small proportion of the world population, in particular white men from the Global North. The gender inequalities that exist globally are manifested differently, depending on the context. Wherever women and girls face violence and discrimination, it is symptomatic of wider power imbalances in society, including patriarchal norms and neoliberal practices that still render women ‘the second sex’. Often, these norms and attitudes intersect with power imbalances based on markers such as race, caste and national origin, which, in turn, widen the vast disparities between those deemed ‘rich’ and ‘poor’.
The growth-based model often puts women and other marginalised people in adverse positions: trapped in poverty, in unequal power relations, and exposed to abuse and violence. The economic system, or rather the multiple existing economic systems, must enable women and girls to have greater economic autonomy, to become more educated and more aware of their rights, while also working with communities to counter backlashes and patriarchal narratives that subjugate and exploit. To reduce both structural and physical violence, those with power need to turn their attention to shifting structural inequalities, addressing societal power imbalances, and building peaceful societies.
We need a decolonial and gender-just approach to our economic system that puts women and girls, in all their diversity, front and centre. Our current economic model assumes that unrestrained ‘competition’ is good. However, it pits groups against each other in a false zero-sum game. In contrast, decolonial and gender transformative economic models are grounded in human rights commitments and principles. Adopting them would entail fostering an enabling environment for economic models based on values such as dignity, equity, fairness, solidarity, accountability, and justice. It likewise means guaranteeing the material, social and environmental conditions necessary for the global populace to live with dignity on a flourishing planet.
While there has been huge progress in policy changes on paper, as well as in practice, in some cases, the lived reality of many falls far short of human rights and gender equality principles. Feminist macroeconomics provides very constructive, feasible solutions that could inform and shift our post-COVID realities (e.g. raising tax revenue through progressive taxation). As already highlighted by some feminist organisations and movements, a just and equitable COVID-19 economic recovery must be centred on care, sustainability and wellbeing. This means that the G7, the EU and other key stakeholders must protect and promote democratic, participatory decision-making, apply intersectional feminist analyses in policymaking, and adopt alternative feminist economic proposals (ex. ensuring trade and investment agreements are only negotiated and based on ex ante and ex post gender impact assessments).