Shadow Shapes in a Pandemic

In 2002 Australia called for families to have three children: one for Mum, one for dad and one for the country. A financial incentive was attached. It attempted (successfully) to increase fertility rates and was associated with strident anti-immigration and anti-asylum polemic. It took no account of an overall unsustainable world population or of climate change and its impact on food supplies. Nor did it take into account that the most expensive phase of child rearing is school age. There were other pressures in family life: rising day-care costs, school fees and rental and property prices. There was a lot of hang-wringing and judgement when the “wrong” people took up the offer and spent their bonus in a way thought inappropriate by the hand-wringers. Inevitably women were blamed and a few years later were told that they needed to return to work by the time the youngest reached the age of five. The bonus was then withdrawn. Many women were working in the increasingly casualised workforce in order to cover childcare and maintain child support. Those children are about to enter universities that now have insufficient places and funding. It is bizarre!

Now women are back home, many in tower blocks, with limited access to playgrounds. If they have maintained their employment, they are also managing childcare and variable school closures.

No doubt we will soon be hearing from gender-blind governments how women are not pulling their weight. This is a blindness to the fact that women juggle usually low-paid, part-time jobs with domestic and childcare responsibilities. Research shows time and again that, regardless of men’s increased family involvement, women carry a disproportionate weight for domestic responsibility. This has continued during lockdown even though the male partner was also working from home.

From fairly early on in the pandemic I began to collect information on the impact of the crisis on women. Almost from the beginning it was clear that women were disadvantaged. Because of the nature of their work (services, health and education sectors) many lost their jobs or their hours were reduced. The family income was thus affected. Then there were the reports of increasing violence against women, trapped in the home with the abuser and denied the usual escape and protection beyond the four walls.

But women are resilient and many protests against mysogynistic power have been led by women; Belarus and the USA being two countries where protest movements have grown alongside Covid-19. Simultaneously, there has been a rise in the far-right movements, often marked not only by attacks against ethnic, LGBGTQ, and religious groups, but also against women.

The statistics are confronting. Brazil, Spain, Cyprus, the UK and Australia recorded significantly increased calls to helplines. Google reported a 75% increase of internet searches for assistance against violence. Anthony Galloway in the Sydney Morning Herald (13-07-2020) reported that in a sample of 15,000, 33% reported first time physical and sexual violence. In one weekend calls for help were up by 65% in Britain (Domestic Violence and Covid-19: Our Hidden Epidemic). Jennifer Neil: AJGP, 2020.

Clare Wenham, Julia Smith  (08-07-2020) in their article Women are Most Affected by Pandemics – Lesson from the Past, reported that between the 18th and 26th March there was an increase of 57% of calls to helplines in Malaysia, in part because of closure of sexual and reproductive health clinics. The USA has also restricted access to such clinics and we await to see what happens if Amy Coney Barrett is appointed to that country’s Supreme Court. Wenham et. al. pointed out that during epidemics women’s socio-economic security is slower to recover. This is not just a third-world phenomenon. Australia has recently passed a budget that favour’s men’s economic recovery over women’s, limiting assistance to those sectors that usually employ women. Women in North America and Europe contribute between 35 – 45 % of their country’s GDP and yet their needs are not being calculated into economic recovery post pandemic, thus increasing financial pressures on families.

There is no doubt that economic pressure sits hand-in-hand with domestic violence. While violence is a criminal offence in many countries, it is often not taken too seriously, possibly because it is not witnessed and it is one person’s word against another’s. Again, we only have to look at the casual misogyny of the USA’s president and the movements to which he provides tacit support. Hungary has recently decided not to ratify the Istanbul Convention that targets violence against women. The World Health Organisation’s Covid-19 Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan provides no guidance about what resources should be channelled into safe abortion and birth control.

Sonia Sodha in The Guardian Weekly (18-09-2020) suggests that extreme misogyny should be treated in the same way as we treat terrorism. Through various platforms people are able to groom others, usually the young, vulnerable and impressionable, into misogynist attitudes along with racial and Islamophobic tropes, creating a recruiting ground in much the same way as fundamentalist groups recruit susceptible people into their ideological beliefs. Sodha points out that in the UK between 2010 and 2017, 49 people died in terrorist attacks. This works out to one every 10 weeks compared to two women murdered each week by a current or former partner.

We know that the education and support of girls is a pathway out of poverty and also results in decreased birth rates. During the pandemic, however, girls have had reduced access to education due to increased poverty. An estimated 743 million girls are out of school due to Covid-19. This is likely to increase child marriages, compromising the health of the girl. Teen pregnancies in Kenya have increased and in Malawi 42% of girls are married before the age of 18. In that country local groups have mobilised against child rape and marriage. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFA) set three goals for women for 2030: increasing family planning options, ending gender-based violence which includes child marriage, and ending preventable maternal deaths. Progress towards these goals is likely to be undermined by the Covid-19 pandemic.

On 21 August 2020 The Guardian Weekly published the thoughts of various thinkers, scientists and activists on how to take advantage of the pandemic to create a better planet. Ideas on art, environment, social media, racial tolerance, education, mental health and future action against further pandemic outbreaks were addressed. Nothing was said about what increasingly feels like a war against women. I am reminded that Phumzile Mlambo-Ngeuka, Executive Director of UN Women said at the beginning of the pandemic: “Even before the pandemic, violence against women was one of the most widespread violations of human rights”. It has also been referred to as the shadow pandemic.

There is a gender bias in most governments and institutions. It possibly is not intentional. It comes out of decades of bias. This was graphically illustrated in the documentary Coded Bias which demonstrated that the algorithms of facial recognition programmes were biased toward male Caucasian facial features. Women and non-Caucasian men were not recognised or confused and targeted by authorities. (Perhaps this is reversed in Asian countries where Caucasians may be unrecognised and targeted in the same way). It raises the question: how can a State, being made by humans and all their faults, in particular the fault of gender bias, become gender conscious?

We have seen women take the initiative in countries such as Belarus and the USA. As women we must find ways to stand beside them as well as to confront our own governments. As women we have also been inculcated toward a male view so that, we too, have the dominant gender bias. We need to recognise this and help each other to recognise that bias so that argument becomes stronger even as the opposition to our call increases. Maria Kolesnikova said of the largely women-led protests in Belarus: “Our female faces became a signal for all women – and for men too – that every person should take responsibility.

Feminism is not male-hating as Milo Yiannopoulos suggests; rather it is about creating a fair world where men and women of all religions and races live harmoniously together, living their best lives, securely and prosperously; where we can come together and explore the best solutions for us and our fragile world without prejudice and in peace.

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