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Farthest field: women and Covid-19 

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Dr Farzana Bari

Heralded as the greatest equaliser of our times, the coronavirus pandemic was expected to blur boundaries of class, race, and gender, and become the common denominator for lifestyles across the world. But two months yet into a global lockdown, this judgement has proven absolutely wrong. The pandemic like all complex emergencies, including armed conflicts and natural disasters, has selected victims through ordered social hierarchies whereby the disadvantaged bear a disproportionate burden. Pakistan has been slow in releasing gender and class disaggregated data, however, numbers from hard-hit countries reveal an expected variance in vulnerability. Evidence from the United States, for instance, shows that coloured people are faring much worse in the face of the contagion: one-third of nationwide infections and deaths are among African-Americans, even though they constitute only 13 per cent of the national population.

The pandemic has laid bare power imbalances, skewing the scale in favour of the more powerful, rich, and privileged. This has been especially clear in the case of gender imbalance, as women bear the double burden of work and care. Gendered paradigms underlying the production and reproduction of our society are shaping the risks and impact of coronavirus on women’s lives. Normatively, women’s primary roles are within the private arena of homes, making them responsible for domestic chores and care work within their families. Lockdown measures, closure of workplaces and schools, have confined family members to their homes, leading to an exponential increase in domestic workloads for women and girls. In addition to bearing the increased burden of the care economy and unpaid domestic work, they also support the psychological and emotional health of their family members. Power imbalances in gender relationships render the family unit a site of constant negotiation and contest, and the ‘cooperation model’ simply does not hold for women in cases of family conflict. Women are being subjected to patriarchal control and violence, reflected by rampant domestic violence in the country. According to the Demographic and Health Survey 2017-2018, 34 percent of ever-married women have experienced spousal violence in Pakistan. In the lockdown when people are suffering from fear, depression and anxiety, male family members are far more likely to express anger and frustration through violence.

A spike in domestic violence has also been reported globally – the WHO has called it the ‘shadow pandemic’. There is no research-based evidence in Pakistan yet, however, the media is regularly reporting cases and a rise in domestic violence ever since the country began its experiments with the lockdown. In the absence of protective, supportive and redressal mechanisms for survivors of violence, which were already inadequate and weak, to begin with, women are a far greater risk of psychological abuse, grievous bodily harm and death.

The virus also threatens women’s livelihoods. Division of labour within and outside households is heavily gendered, with women’s roles confined to child-bearing and domestic work, resulting in lower investments in women’s human capital by both family and the state. When economic strain forces women to enter the workforce or “productive sphere”, they operate at a disadvantage as they lack education and marketable skills and invariably resort to working in the informal sector where barriers of entry are negligible. Despite being the backbone of rural and urban human resource, their productive role in the public sphere is not recognised. Women account for 70.7 percent of informal sector workers in Pakistan. In the formal sector, they are concentrated in the service economy which is currently the most badly affected by the lockdown. So far, women are largely excluded from the bail-out package announced by the government for reviving businesses and industry.

The approach to Covid-19 

The gendered dimension of COVID-19 is visible to anyone studying data, however, this has gone unacknowledged by Pakistan’s decision-makers. The class context of the pandemic is frequently discussed in policy debate, but there is little to no mention of women or the gendered effects of the coronavirus. The government’s approach towards women has always been paternalistic, and it is no different now; women are viewed as passive victims of a socio-economic and healthcare disaster. Their agency is unknown or denied, and their voices are excluded in Covid-19 response efforts. Women representing the gendered dimension of the pandemic are not at the decision-making table, nor in implementation bodies responsible for policy and management of Covid-19, such as National Coordination Committee (NCC), National Command and Control Centre (NCCC), Core Group established at the Ministry of National Health Services, Regulation and Coordination (NHSR&C) and Emergency Operating Center (EOC) at the National Institute of Health (NIH). Gendered perspectives are not fully integrated into Covid-19 response efforts at the national and provincial levels.

The multi-sectoral relief package for poor and vulnerable communities is dispensed through PTI’s Ehsaas program. Although it is a ‘woman-centric’ program, none of its initiatives have the transformative potential to lift women out of socio-economic distress. Doling out a monthly stipend of Rs2,000 to women under the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), and Rs12,000 to support basic food needs of 12.5 million poor households during the lockdown, presumes that women are more likely than men to invest in the health, education and wellbeing of their families. They are not seen beyond their traditional roles in the reproductive sphere. The government’s policy to eradicate poverty and empower women through safety-net programs instead of mainstreaming them in economic processes is essentially flawed. More than 130 initiatives of the Ehsaas Program have failed to bring about any significant impact on poverty alleviation or women’s empowerment in the country.

The pandemic has forced the state to allocate a sizeable amount of Rs1.25 trillion to tackle multisectoral challenges. The pace of rolling out relief packages and cash transfers reaching beneficiaries is frustratingly slow, and the disbursement of Rs140 billion cash to the poor can be planned far better. Gathering women in crowded spaces and making them wait in long queues to collect the cash exposes them to a higher risk of contracting coronavirus.

Gender biases coupled with the disconnect in relief and rehabilitation prevents decision-makers from “building back better” through leveraging the socio-political dynamics unleashed by Covid-19. The private sector and predatory market forces have receded and left governments all by themselves to think through this health crisis, now morphing into a serious economic recession on scales not seen since the Great Depression. The virus has exposed the malaise of neoliberal predominance over markets, economic thought and procedures defining our capitalist system. The historic neglect of public health, inadequate social protection systems, illiteracy and poverty – occasioned thus far by market impulses and investment preferences – are making it extremely difficult for federal and provincial governments to respond to the Covid-19 crisis.

It must be acknowledged, however, that despite the havoc created by Covid for health systems and national economies globally, the pandemic presents key opportunities for societies to reorient themselves for reducing gender inequality, social injustice and environmental degradation. It has created public awareness on the importance of social reproduction; the centrality of care work within the family and in the health sector; the need for job security; universal health cover; and social protection for the marginalised on a more efficient pace than had otherwise been done. Similarly, there is a shifting culture of work. Digitisation, flexible hours, teleworking and weakening of gender norms are pushing domestic and piece-workers out into the public spheres due to economic compulsion (many more women are seen selling fruit, or hair accessories on the roadsides). These social dynamics must be reflected in social protection initiatives and in economic stimulus packages.

Recommendations

The proposed recommendations can be adopted within the short, medium, and long-term frameworks.

  • Gender and age disaggregated statistics are vital to developing effective policy options. The government is required not only to gather and report gender-disaggregated Covid-19 transmission and fatality data but also collect statistical evidence on the gendered impacts of economic downturn. Accurate, reliable and timely statistics will provide a credible base for effective design and evaluation of social protection policies and measures established to mitigate the effects of Covid-19.
  • An intersectional gender perspective should be fully integrated into Covid-19 response initiatives. Gender audit with intersection lens needs to be undertaken to ensure equity in Rs. 1.25 trillion resource allocation to meet Covid-19 challenges. All measures, from cash transfers to credits and livelihood support, should be equally targeted at women too.
  • Women-specific institutions such as National and Provincial Commissions on the Status of Women, Women Development Departments, Gender Studies Center etc., should be included in the decision-making of Covid-19 management.
  • Covid-19 has put the spotlight on the centrality of care work within families as well as in the health sector for the social reproduction of society. The value of unpaid domestic work and the role of women in the health sector must be fully recognised and supported by the state and society.
  • The National Association of Young Nurses has been raising the issue of lack of availability of protective gear for nurses. Protection of healthcare frontline workers should be the top priority of the government.
  • Health facilities for corona patients should be geared to serve male, female and transgender patients. Also the health sector must ensure the continuity in reproductive health services for women.
  • Crisis often exacerbates gender inequalities and intensifies gender-based violence. Therefore, it is important to ensure that hotlines and shelter homes remain open and accessible to women in distress during the pandemic crisis. Federal and Provincial Governments should instruct Covid-19 response teams and law enforcement agencies to consider these services essential and ensure the functionality and accessibility of support mechanisms for the victims of domestic violence.
  • Strengthening the engagement of local government, community leaders, media and civil society to create public awareness about Covid-19 and protective measures at the national and provincial levels is crucial. Women councillors, teachers, and lady health workers should be mobilised to play a role to create awareness about coronavirus at the community level.
  • There is a digital divide in the country. Men have greater access to and familiarity with communication technologies and teleworking as compared to women. Work in the future will be radically altered and digitisation of work will further disadvantage women workers. The government should offer free training to women workers to learn new skills to use communication technologies effectively.
  • Covid-19 provides an opportunity for the government to bring the undocumented sector of the market into the formal sector of the economy. Women will hugely benefit from the formalisation of the informal sector as majority of them are concentrated in the secondary sector of job markets where they lack social protection and labour rights. The government should focus on identifying enterprises that engage women as pieceworkers in the factories or at home. These business enterprises should be registered with authorities and their employees should be reached out to for support as they are paying the highest price for the lockdown by losing their income. Financial support and incentives for women-run small businesses and start-ups will also go a long way to improve women’s economic status.
  • The reverse migration from urban to rural areas due to Covid-19 should be used as an opportunity to retain the migrant workers in rural areas by creating income-generating possibilities for them. The government should provide technical and financing support to develop agro-based industries in rural areas. Special measures should be taken to engage rural women in value-addition supply chains through women collectives. In the urban and peri-urban areas, the government should earmark stalls and space in open markets for women vendors.
  • Closure of schools for a long stretch of the period is having negative implications for students. Female students especially belonging to poor families lack access to smartphones and internet facilities so they are not benefiting from Tele-School initiatives by public and private schools. The drop out ratio is already high amongst female students in Pakistan. There is a possibility that some female students may not return to schools. This will widen the existing gender gap in education in the country. To mitigate this eventuality, the education ministry and department should come up with well thought out gender strategy for ensuring the continuity of girls’ education.
  • Finally, there are valuable lessons to be learnt by the world community from the global pandemic. The value of social reproduction as an integral part of economic systems and the need for well-resourced health systems in the public sector must be fully recognised in order to mitigate any hardships caused by unexpected natural or anthropogenic disasters in the future. Public health spending should be increased substantially to address possible health emergencies at a similar scale in future. This policy brief has been published by Jinnah Institue, a think-tank, with the support of Foundation Open Society Institute-Pakistan (FOSIP).

Dr Farzana Bari is a human rights activist and academic who served as Director, Gender Studies Department at Quaid-e-Azam University.  She is also a member of AWP Federal Committee

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