Ever since the First World War, women have made steady inroads into occupations that were once considered exclusively male bastions. They are increasingly visible in corridors of power and decision-making and constitute nearly fifty per cent of the workforce. Of the 193 members of the UN, 19 states have women Heads of State/Government.
In Taiwan a woman is the President though Taiwan is not a member of the UN. In Bolivia a woman is the acting President. Many of these women leaders have provided exemplary skills in tackling the present coronavirus pandemic.
However, this spectacular but limited gains that women have made are imperilled by the pandemic. All segments of a society suffer economically in a pandemic but it is in recovery that there is considerable variation.
The current pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities of women more than their male counterparts within their homes, labour market and as frontline healthcare workers. It has increased their unpaid work as caregivers, magnified pay disparities and widened the existing gender divide with its inequalities.
More than men it is women’s jobs, roughly 740 million globally, as these are overwhelmingly in education, healthcare, food, retail services, social assistance and hospitality, referred to as pink-collared jobs that have been severely impacted by the lockdown.
Even though lockdown measures have been eased but many of the pink collared jobs are yet to resume normal operations though the blue collared ones in manufacturing and construction, that are still predominantly male dominated, have done so.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that in 104 countries women constitute approximately 70 per cent of health and social workers and are on the frontlines in the fight against Covid-19, but earn 11 per cent less than men with similar responsibilities.
In India, the ASHA grassroot level healthcare workers draw a meagre salary of Rs 3000 per month and many have no access to sanitizers, masks and PPE. Women healthcare workers also face shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and masks as most of these by default are made to fit men.
The stipulation for home care for many Covid-19 patients has not only increased women’s burdens but also puts them at greater risk of getting infected.
Furthermore, the diversion of critical resources to fight the pandemic has seen an increase in maternal mortality and morbidity, adolescent pregnancy, HIV transmission and sexually transmitted diseases.
In Latin America and the Caribbean alone, approximately 18 million women have lost regular access to modern contraceptives. An important lesson from the West Africa Ebola outbreak of 2014-16, Zika in 2015-16; and recent outbreaks of SARS, swine flu, and bird flu is the loss of thousands of lives of pregnant women due to inaccessibility of safe delivery, neonatal and family planning services. Another worry is the decline in the rates of childhood vaccination and when children contracted preventable diseases mothers had to take out time to take care of them.
The same dynamic is repeating right now on a larger scale. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that women perform 76.2 per cent of total hours of unpaid care work, more than three-times as much as men and this figure rises up to 80 per cent in the AsiaPacific region.
The New York Times reports that one in three jobs in the US designated as essential in this pandemic, namely healthcare, cashiers at grocery stores and drugstore pharmacists, is held by a woman of which 78 per cent are non-white.
Though essential they are underpaid and undervalued. Women in nonessential work, for example in retail sectors and women with lower skills are more likely to lose their jobs. During India’s severest lockdown, 4 out of 10 women who were working during last year have lost their jobs and women in rural areas are among the hardest hit.
The biggest relative decline in employment has been among Scheduled Castes, 36 per cent as compared to 23 per cent among the upper castes. Despite easing of restrictions domestic helps predominantly women, are prohibited in many residential areas as they are considered to be super spreaders.
According to UNESCO, women’s childcare responsibilities have increased in view of closing of childcare centres and schools due to total lockdowns. Medical professionals and healthcare workers, who are expected to be on duty too, have no access to childcare facilities.
As schools and creches are yet to open, many women perhaps would delay returning to the labour market and for some it could also mean that they might have to stay at home by default are caregivers for young children and ageing parents and relatives at home.
Women could also end up being at home as they are the ones who earn less.
Many who are single parents find it harder to juggle both earning and caring. In the US, 21 per cent of children live with their mothers as compared to only 4 per cent with their father. Another study points out that 45 per cent of BAME (Black, Asian minority ethnic) women are struggling to cope with their multiple responsibilities and 24 per cent find it difficult to feed their children.
With joblessness worse than the figures registered in the 1930 Great Depression, extensive childcare facilities and parental leave benefits in many European countries might not accrue to the majority of women.
With remote working or WFH now seen as the new normal for many jobs, working mothers are more likely to be interrupted than fathers and this in turn could affect their pay and future promotions.
The Guardian Weekly reports that working mothers have to do only one hour of uninterrupted paid work for every three hours put in by men during the lockdown.
The mothers did 1.7 more hours doing housework than fathers and 2.3 more hours than fathers taking care of children.
Since the lockdown, several journals have seen fewer submissions by women academics than their male counterparts. “William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton”, according to Helen Lewis, “did some of their best work while England was ravaged by the plague as neither of them had childcare responsibilities”.
Less educated women find the new normal tough as they have to combine their jobs with extra childcare responsibilities. Many fear regression of society to a “1950s way of living” with women ready to return to work but unable to do so in the absence of affordable childcare.
Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society points out to the lockdown having multiplied ‘motherhood penalty’ and said “this will reverse decades of progress on women’s participation in the labour market unless the government intervenes to address it”.
Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor and Europe’s longestserving elected woman leader, has assured that she would do all that it takes to halt ‘retraditionalisation’ of roles and instead work towards “giving women and men the same opportunities”.
There is however a silver lining in WFH as it might enable mothers to pick up jobs that will give them time to be with their children. An alarming number of women and girls estimated to be between 25 per cent and 30 per cent face an increase in domestic violence as they are trapped in their homes with the abuser; the latter taking advantage of women’s inability to seek help or escape and women suffering silently for the fear of being thrown out and/or nowhere to go.
The UN describes this as a shadow pandemic alongside Covid-19. The coronavirus pandemic is a wakeup call to recalibrate societies post crisis by correcting what Stiglitz calls economic globalization with the IMF as ‘the cockpit of market fundamentalism’. Globalisation in the absence of effective international regulatory agencies has brought in manifold miseries to a larger number of marginalized, unskilled and semi-skilled workers, a large percentage of them being women.
The present pandemic has deepened their problems and enhanced their vulnerabilities. Gender inequalities ought to be addressed alongside other inequalities in a common political space. Though gender is an important social division it is not the only basis of mass political identities that structure political debates. A person in a modern society has multiple identities that of class, ethnicity, race, religion, language and region thus preventing any single identity from becoming decisive.
Since a large number of women across different countries are facing numerous problems, both national and international initiatives are needed to mitigate these. Without such initiatives major areas of Human Development would regress which in turn would inevitably lead to a drastic decline in GDPs.
The writer is Associate Professor, Dept of Political Science, Jesus and Mary College, New Delhi.