BBC Anchor Emily Maitlis recently won praise for deconstructing the disingenuous government narrative that the pandemic is a ‘great leveller’. The majority of those on the front lines of the pandemic are women, as women make up 70% of all health and social-services staff globally and also account for the majority of the world’s older population, and thus a majority of potential patients.(1) For countless reasons, we are not in fact in the same boat, and the chasms on an already uneven playing field are stretching, not shrinking.
COVID-19 has both exposed and exacerbated the stark inequalities that tear apart the fabric of our society, and it has quickly become clear that the impact of the pandemic on women is vastly incommensurate with that on men. Recently, I chaired an event with Gill Furniss MP, Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities who previously served on the Women and Equalities Select Committee. We looked at how Labour can hold the government to account by ensuring it is mitigating the disproportionate impact the pandemic is having on women. More broadly, we also examined Labour’s role in the implementation of United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) (5); eradicating discrimination against women and girls. Many of the policies we discussed are interwoven with the topics covered here.
A Catalyst, Not a Cause
“The deadliest pandemic for women in our country, more than the coronavirus, is feminicidal violence”
Congresswoman Martha Tagle, Citizens’ Movement party, Mexico
Karen Ingala Smith, who founded the pioneering project Counting Dead Women, found that femicide has tripled, at 16 women murdered over a three week period compared to 5 in the same period last year (2). In Mexico, almost 1000 women have been killed since the start of the year, up 8 percent on the previous,(3) and national helpline calls have increased by a third in France (4). Spain has also seen a calamitous rise in domestic violence and implemented the ‘Mascarilla-19’ (5) campaign, encouraging victims to ask for the ‘Mask-19’ in pharmacies to signal for help, similar to the UK scheme wherein Boots has made their consultation rooms accessible safe spaces for survivors (6). Media reporting of the murders has reductively attributed the killing to the circumstances rather than the perpetrators; for example the Sun framing it as ‘coronavirus murders’ (7) and the Telegraph as ‘self-isolation murders’ (8). This constructs an insidious narrative that the virus is not only an accelerant to feminicidal violence but to blame, and further implies that these murders and coercive control will dissipate after the lockdown ceases, when in reality they existed before it and will exist after it. The restrictions of lockdown can expedite the transition through the stages of violence (e.g. providing a trigger) but it must not be characterised as a reason in itself which can play into a climate of impunity; killers effectively being exonerated from their crimes, similar to the ‘crime of passion’ defence.
The vital and historic UK domestic abuse bill is now making its way back through parliament, having been reintroduced for a third time at the beginning of March and debated at its second reading on 28th April. But domestic violence isn’t the only issue on the rise, as reports of street harassment both in numbers and threat level have also increased exponentially. A study of 1000 women by Plan International UK (9) showed that women perceived the harassment as worse rather than less frequent as would be expected, with 1 in 5 experiencing it during lockdown.
Parity of Pay: Gender Pay Gap Reporting Abandoned
Women are also the comparative precariat in the pandemic: they are three times more likely to be impacted worse financially as they are radically overrepresented in low-paid insecure sectors such as care, retail and hospitality. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the Government Equalities Office (GEO) and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) have completely abandoned gender pay gap reporting during the pandemic as of 24th March, asserting that ‘there will be no expectation on employers to report their data’ (10). This is a monumental blow to years of progress in gender pay gap closure, and the economic fallout of the pandemic threatens to widen the disparity in remuneration between the sexes. Not only this, but gender equity will be further undermined in furloughing and redundancy decisions with no scrutiny nor routes to accountability.
The Pandemic and Female Academics
Whilst writing on algorithmic bias against women in artificial intelligence, I came across contemporary reports that academic submissions by women have tanked compared to men. ‘Negligible number of submissions to the journal from women in the last month. Never seen anything like it’ (11) wrote Elizabeth Hannon, British Journal of Philosophy of Science editor. Astrophysic journal editors, Dolan and Lawless and a study by the University of Toronto have all noted concurrent results; the female publishing rate has fallen relative to men’s amid the pandemic (12). Women already juggled more domestic and affective, or emotional, labor with their actual work prior to the pandemic, but much of the support structures they had in place, e.g. childcare, have been stripped away. As the home becomes an intersection of work, family and admin, women are having to take on more ‘silent chores’ like housework, cleaning and shopping, as well as childcare responsibilities compared to men. There is also the motherhood penalty to contend with; that even if women are also earning in their relationships, there is much more of an expectation that men can be working full time than there is for women. Academic women who do ascend through faculty ranks also pay a considerable price for doing so, in the form of much lower rates of family formation, fertility, and higher rates of family dissolution. For men, however, the pattern has been either neutral or even net-positive (13).
The Regression of Women’s Services
During the event, Gill and I spent a fair amount of time discussing an effect that has had grave consequences for women worldwide; the reduction of women’s services. As countries respond to the crisis, resources have been drastically reallocated, and it is women who are being left behind. Funding has been stripped from prenatal and maternal care, and even more worryingly, access to contraceptives and safe abortions have been rolled back in several countries. Northern Ireland decriminalised abortion on 22 October, and a new framework came into effect from the 31st March 2020. However, the arguably archaic DUP has used the crisis to stymie the rollout of abortion services, and during the pandemic, pregnant women needing reproductive services have had to make a 16 hour roundtrip to England to access terminations. Abortion rights activist Emma Campbell, co-chair of the Alliance for Choice group, which has seen a five-fold increase in calls for help since the travel restrictions were introduced, said “Access is worse than it has been for over 50 years.” (14) In America, Orwell’s totalitarian state language ‘Newspeak’ has been brought to life. Newspeak was characterised by the elimination or alteration of certain words, ‘designed to diminish the range of thought’ (15). Trump has exploited the crisis to leverage the World Health Organisation to delete references to women’s sexual and reproductive health services, threatening to withdraw funding if they do not comply.
A Historical Opportunity for Equality
The COVID-19 crisis has certainly thrown gender-based differences into even sharper relief, but as with the climate crisis and homelessness, it has also created an opportunity for long term change to systems that are not fit for purpose. The grim reminder of mortality and the prolonged time spent at home with severely reduced social spheres has put much into perspective for individuals in terms of introspection and re-evaluation, but also the ideologies and structures that underpin our society. By inadvertently increasing awareness of women’s issues, it has created more scope for progression. The crisis transcends political parties, and with women’s lives literally being on the line, it is not the time for partisan politics. Hosting Nick Thomas-Symonds, Shadow Home Secretary recently, I touched on the fact that he and Jess Phillips MP had been blocked from attending the key government coronavirus domestic abuse virtual ‘Hidden Harms’ summit. Parties must work together on shaping policy like this, because otherwise, it is us who get left behind. Policymakers at all levels must engage with women and women’s rights organisations when formulating responses to this crisis, and we must review our valuation and compensation for women’s contributions to health care, home-based labour, and the economy. Women’s support structures (e.g. shelters, charities, emergency housing) must be not only maintained but strengthened going forward, and defunding of women’s services must be prevented at all costs. Strategies similar to affirmative action need to be implemented in academia and it is imperative that commitment to female representation be renewed in politics, business and positions of authority. Gender pay gap reporting needs to be restored and businesses required to publish their data. Street harassment also needs to be criminalised as in France, and fighting domestic violence and abuse must be prioritised in terms of campaigns, funding and resources being made available. A holistic approach needs to be taken in tackling the crisis which takes into account women’s experiences at all levels to achieve fairer outcomes, and international cooperation needs to be reinvigorated rather than relegated at a time when the world is turning in on itself.
Cecilia Eve Jastrzembska is a parliamentary policy advisor, women’s rights activist, animal welfare campaigner and former leader of two international NGO outreach programmes. She writes on artificial intelligence, coaches public speaking and is on the Fabian International Policy Group and Young Fabians Environment Network Committees.
She tweets at @CeciliaEve4