Gender-specific fallout from the pandemic makes it more vital than ever to involve women in policy-making at all levels to devise transformative strategies e.g. to improve access to economic resources, adult literacy programmes and other resilience-boosting measures for women and girls.
Several hopeful signs across the world signal the potential end of the COVID-19 pandemic. Slowly, we seem to be entering the much-anticipated post-Covid world where promises to rebuild will be put into practice. During the pandemic, the economy was hard hit, with the greatest impact on the poor. Women were badly affected, as pre-existing gender inequalities were exacerbated and unfavourable socioeconomic conditions diminished well-being. Discriminatory gender norms, often reaffirmed within the capitalist system, which benefits from feminisation of labour and unpaid care-work, dictate social relations and continue to govern labour practice. This resulted in precarious working conditions and intensified burdens for women across broad categories of responsibilities – be it in paid or unpaid work. The crisis has revealed multiple fault-lines, yet these could also be seen as opportunities for collective identification of changes to help women cope with and recover from the crisis.
Economic measures must focus on micro-level changes to initiate a new course in global economic recovery:
Many countries have a “sedentary bias”, reflected for example in the requirement to provide an address to access worker welfare. Where labour migration occurred during lockdowns, this bias became apparent as migrant labourers lacked a documented address to draw on welfare provisions, and they come to cities to work on their own or accompany their husbands and provide a supplementary income to their families. Due to the sedentary bias, coupled with patriarchal structures that deny women’s identities except in relation to their families/husbands, households headed by a woman migrant labourer had no means to obtain official support. Where welfare measures were announced for women, obtaining them involved queuing, in addition to already increased household chores. Governments must focus on providing welfare to women labourers, who also help keep urban centres running. Women’s economic choices tend to strengthen communities as they invest in education, health and other care facilities for their families and dependents. Women’s purchases of food, clothes or daily essentials stimulate local economies and ultimately contribute to wider economic flows.
The pandemic has led to many children of all genders dropping out of school. Adolescent girls are especially affected and early marriages are on the rise too. Young girls who have married are unlikely to continue school. That means it is vital for governments to recommit to adult literacy programmes that declined when universal primary education or Education for All gained ground. Completing education has several benefits and is more viable in classrooms with learners of the same age, who perhaps share similar circumstances. Expecting a young married girl to join a classroom full of her unmarried peers might alienate girls from education forever. Adult literacy programmes have proven fairly effective, both in increasing functional literacy and in developing skills that impact on health, nutritional, financial and social outcomes. If life outcomes at the local level are improved, considerable gains can be achieved for the global economy.
More studies and research in various fields must pay greater attention to gender discourse, practices, and norms, while addressing theories of how gender intersects with socioeconomic inequalities and public policy. Many development initiatives to support women’s empowerment are not well equipped to address structural constraints. They were created to alleviate immediate hardship – e.g. by cash transfers, provision of food or health supplies – without strategic plans to improve women’s long-term resilience. More empirical data and knowledge concerning women’s lived experience, as well as widespread dissemination of findings, are vital to clarify gender bias in the context of current events; this offers potential to assist policymakers and non-state leaders in identifying a more just and transformative approach for women and girls during recovery from the crisis.
Research shows that extended closures of schools and other public places produces heightened care burdens at home, leading to higher school dropout rates for girls and preventing women from taking employment opportunities. Meanwhile, most paid care workers are women, frequently migrants in the informal economy, working under poor conditions and for low pay. Investing in the care sector can promote women’s economic empowerment by enabling women and girls to return to school and work. First and foremost, it involves dismantling discriminatory gender norms about unpaid care work. Resources must be allocated to incentivize the private sector in leveraging workplace measures that help redistribute the care burden within households: e.g. paid leave, more flexible working hours, and cash-based programmes to fund childcare. Furthermore, public investment needs to identify gaps and deficits in provision of affordable quality public care services for various groups. A focus on improving care employment is also crucial to foster decent jobs that attract both female and male professionals.
The sudden onset of the pandemic meant incumbent ministers of health, home affairs, social welfare and finance had to make quick decisions to curtail the virus’ spread. Simultaneously, ministries for women and child welfare had to adopt gender-equitable welfare measures. When the pandemic began, most ministries had male leadership, and consequently measures to curtail the virus did not take full account of vulnerable groups such as women and children. In the vast majority of countries, women were side-lined in political leadership, as well as in areas such as health, medicine and science. The lack of a gender-sensitive approach left women bearing the brunt of increased domestic violence, household chores, and the burden of accessing welfare – all a result of the pandemic. These ill-effects of a gender-blind approach still persist and are one reason why a large number of women are not vaccinated against COVID-19. Policies must ensure that women’s voices are heard in all decision-making bodies to attain equitable progress. The Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA workers) of Maharashtra, for example, formed a union and had their demands met in part through their sustained and strategic action, bringing relief to many government employees. Women in Global Health, a collective of leaders in medicine and health likewise came together to shed light on scant attention and care given to health workers and ensured PPE sizing was adjusted to fit women. These groupings have shown that commitments on the part of WHO or the Indian government to foster more leadership and gender equality in public medicine have failed. It is imperative that women and feminist ideas are incorporated at all levels to create more transformative gender-just policies.
Efforts must be made to increase women’s access to economic resources, with a view to aiding their recovery from the pandemic and its deleterious effects. In addition, other forms of support that bolster women’s future well-being, such as access to education, vaccines and other resources, are also vital. Increased female leadership in decision making can help attain this, ensuring intentional economic advances for women thanks to conscious efforts to that end.
Fiona Vaz is a gender researcher with a focus on education, labour force participation, politics and leadership.
Peny Rahmadhani has six years of combined experience in the fields of curriculum development, teaching and research. She has been exploring the relationship between education, gender and wider social contexts.
Rizki Amalia Affiat has a decade of experience in research and activism in gender, post conflict development and social justice. She continues to be part of various research projects with transnational scope.
All three authors are co-founders and Directors of InteGRAL, a gender-focused research and consulting firm based in the global south.