*By Osai Ojigho
The COVID-19 virus pandemic has clearly shown what many feminists have known all along and tried to draw attention to – that institutional mechanisms are not only gender-blind but structured in ways that exclude women. If women’s rights were institutionalized, the responses to COVID-19 would be as well. Feminists, gender activists and women groups would not be clamoring for gender to be on the table as decisions are being made globally—it would be standard practice. We would not have to explain that water for feminine hygiene is as important as washing of hands to fight COVID-19 and one should not be dispensed with for the other.
Since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the world has shut-down and imposed series of actions notably, lockdowns, curfews, quarantines, stay-at-home orders, social distancing, emergency laws, to slow the rate of infections, manage healthcare for the sick, and enforce strict sanitation regulations. Current evidence indicates that the virus disproportionately affects men more than women, with men accounting for approximately 70% of those who have died from virus. The world’s largest number of health workers are women, and at home, women as traditional caregivers are having to look after sick relatives thereby increasing their risk of contracting the disease despite measures put in place by governments to control and eliminate spread.
The suggested incubation period for this virus is 1-14 days. Governments, therefore, believe that urging people to stay home would help ensure the safety of those who have not caught the disease, and enable the health authorities to identify and provide care for those infected. Staying home means more burdens for women. Those who work a 9am-5pm jobs are expected to work from home with fewer opportunities to concentrate uninterrupted. Negotiating childcare during the time with partners and other family members can be stressful especially if they are accustomed to women taking care of children. Juggling webinars and conference calls when supervising children’s homework or online school at the same time requires a whole new way of working. Throw in electricity blackout, internet fluctuations, expensive data cost and a normal day becomes a nightmare. If one is financially unstable, anxiety takes over as the next meal, medicine and provisions needed to make staying home comfortable becomes more challenging if not impossible.
More than ever before, in many homes in the global south, the absence of social safety nets provided by government threatens life itself. “Hunger will kill us before the virus does”, is a statement that resonates with women bearing the fear of starving children and families. Home is synonymous with safety, for some, the case is different if this means spending 24/7 with your abuser. It can be an intimate partner, a relative or if you are a domestic worker, your boss.
Domestic violence and sexual and gender-based violence is on the increase and has been linked to stay-at-home orders which traps victims with their abusers. With many courts closed in areas where lockdowns are in effect, it is unlikely that cases would be prosecuted during these times. Home may not be safe if you live in informal settlements or slums and cannot maintain physical distance required to beat the virus. If you are a single parent and must leave kids home alone because you are a health worker on essential duty, you need additional support and measures to keep everyone you care about safe.
The Feminist Alliance for Rights released a feminist policy to address COVID-19 calling for a human rights and intersectional based approach to tackling key issues including, food security, healthcare, and violence against women. The world has shut down but our commitment to human rights and gender equality should not. There are opportunities to improve government responses to women’s rights exacerbated by COVID-19. One way is to ensure resources for fighting the pandemic should include funds for shelters for victims of violence, and social services like cash transfers to support vulnerable and poor women. A feminist world after COVID-19 is possible if we take the lessons from state responses to improve implementation of women’s rights. The world we live in is changing and those changes must work positively for everyone including women.