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The COVID19-crisis exacerbates gender inequalities – but who cares?

By Vice-President PES Women, PvdA Netherlands, Coordinator working group on gender in Progressive Alliance, Marja Bijl

It is already over 6 weeks since the Corona pandemic hit Europe right at its foundations and shook the entire globe out of its proportions. The pandemic affects all our lives. We are staying at home – if possible – working from home, home schooling our children and keeping in touch with our loved ones by phone or all kinds of video messaging. And of course, we are scared. These are devastating times.

We have read thousands of articles and news updates, emergency plans were adopted, financial aid allocated and researchers consulted. This is vital and important, saving lives must stay a priority, without  any doubt. But while contemplating the situation and watching the news,  we could raise the question if there are only male experts and virologists? Why are right-wing populist leaders like Trump, Bolsonaro, Orban and co. not only denying science and the gravity of the pandemic but also clinging to toxic forms of masculinity? For many people, such questions could seem minor, but they echo the concerns of women and women’s organizations around the globe – the corona pandemic shows us again who owns the power in the world. Men believe they have the solutions, while women make up the majority of those working in essential professions. Does anyone really care about how this crisis is affecting women?

While there are some great examples of women leaders who acted early and decisively in the context of the COVID19 crisis, there are not enough of them. In January 2020, according to IPU[1], only 10 of 152 elected heads of state were women and 73% of people in mainstream news media were men. As UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka says: ‘We have created a world where women are squeezed into just 25% – one quarter – of space, both in physical decision-making rooms, and in the stories that we tell about our lives.’ The disproportionate number of women leaders so far successfully controlling the pandemic should show us that gender equality is critical to global public health and international security. On the other hand, 70% of the global health and social workforce like doctors, nurses and care workers are women. Cashiers and cleaners are in large majority women as well. They are not only often in precarious working conditions and only paid minimum wages, but they also don’t have the necessary platforms to raise their voices and to bring their concerns into the discussion, even though they are at a higher risk of being exposed to the virus. Let me tell you that my heart aches every day, listening to women who work on the forefront of this crisis. I took up – for the time being – my old job as a psychological care provider to give assistance to those who need to talk about their experiences. Care workers who have dealt with corona patients. They are my heroes, 99% of them are women. And beside what they have to deal with at work, they look after their families, do the shopping, home school their children. Talking of a triple burden.

As we have witnessed many times before, in times of crisis, women are among the most vulnerable groups, but stay invisible. Gender-based violence was worryingly high before the virus spread, but has significantly increased since women are trapped at home with their abusers due to exhaustive lockdowns. Access to sexual and reproductive health and rights is limited or under attack in many parts of the world, and has become even more restricted during the pandemic. Extreme right governments even misuse their emergency powers to further attempt to ban access to contraception and abortion services[2]. In normal times, women do on average 3 times as much unpaid care and domestic work than men. As a result of the current crisis and taken measures, the unpaid work for women has increased, as has the pressure and insecurity causing additional mental and physical strain, in particular for single parents, who are mainly women (85%). Women had economic disadvantages already before the crisis, but they will be heavily affected also in the long-term, as history shows, risking poverty, unemployment, social exclusion or homelessness.

In a nutshell – COVID19 exposes and reinforces existing gender inequalities. The consequences are devastating, especially for the most deprived: older women, women from ethnic minorities, women of colour, women with disabilities or mental illnesses, migrant and refugee women, those at risk of poverty. It is not just a problem of patriarchy but also of white privilege.

While more men are dying of the virus, women are nevertheless among the most affected groups if we consider the broad socio-economic impacts of the pandemic. Yet, at the same time women are absolutely vital to the recovery process. Overcoming this pandemic and rebuilding a sustainable, just and equal society will only be possible if the role of women in this fight and in general, beyond this crisis, is properly recognized and the disproportionate burden they are carrying is addressed accordingly. But as long as money is valued more than people, we cannot lay the foundation for a sustainable and inclusive recovery. There is a real opportunity for radical economic change; returning back to the status quo must not be the response to this crisis or our long term future in Europe. It is a unique chance and our common duty as a global community to seize the moment and to use this far-reaching event to finally shift towards a more equal and just society that leaves no one behind. But too often, the issue is not taken seriously and is being sidelined – just as women are.

We are raising the bar with this pandemic. What European and global women’s movements have been saying and shouting about on the streets for the past decades, is not only proven truthful and necessary but now more important than ever. We need increased investment for gender transformative public services, as well as legislation and prevention mechanisms against gender-based violence. We need to guarantee sexual and reproductive rights as a fundamental human and public health right. We must also ensure better social safety nets for families, upward wages in the care sector, recognition of unpaid care work, more women in decision-making, gender-sensitive education, sex-disaggregated data collection, gender mainstreamed budgeting and overall policy making, just to name a few things.

It is high time for world leaders to care for women as much as women care for our societies. It’s time to make women visible, make their voices count and to speak up for those who cannot. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is setting a good example using his position to call on putting women and girls at the centre of efforts to recover from COVID-19. Unfortunately, he is one of very few who realize that gender equality and women’s rights are essential to getting through this pandemic.

Already, COVID-19 is establishing a new normal. Itis testing the values we want to live up to and the kind of societies we want to build. If you ask me, this pandemic requires solutions that must be framed in the context of global justice, human rights and equality. But who would listen to me, I am a woman. Who cares?

[1] Inter-Parliamentary Union
[2] E.g. Poland