Covid & ‘shecession’

24 Sep 2020

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The writer is founder and managing director of Kashf Foundation.
The writer is founder and managing director of Kashf Foundation.

AS 35 million individuals plunge into extreme poverty as a result of the pandemic, there is no denying that such factors will lead to further feminisation of poverty. In almost all societies of the world, women show higher poverty rates than men. The causality of this can be attributed to the way economic resources are allocated as well as overall gender-discriminatory beliefs that emanate from patriarchy and misogyny. Such notions have led to the oppression and brutalisation of women, while sustaining huge economic disparities.

Over time, gender discrimination has been highlighted as a structural issue, where there are inbuilt biases which work against women at all levels — from gender roles within households to legislation to the distribution of wealth or the way in which the economy and workplaces are organised. The Covid-19 world has forced us to reassess the state of capitalism, especially in terms of the intrinsic and extrinsic constraints that women face, which prevent their full participation in the economy while inhibiting the potential gains from their financial contributions.

Beyond doubt, Covid-19 has had an indelible effect on the economy; yet the impact needs to be viewed from a gendered lens in order to determine its true significance. This recession has been termed a ‘shecession’, and for good reason. Although during previous economic recessions or pandemics, men have fared worse, this time, the effects are severer for females. The 1919 Spanish flu for example hit young men between 20 and 39 years, ie 49 per cent of those that died in the Spanish flu fell in that bracket. Essentially, this meant that families lost their primary breadwinner.

At the height of the Spanish flu, many countries in Europe and North America were in the process of industrialisation and transforming into free-market economies. Post flu, market adjustments took place in the labour supply. Research shows that with male labour supply being negatively affected due to higher mortality, women and minors were forced to enter the labour force to make up the differential, as relatively low skills were required. Despite this move women were not paid wages equal to those of males even at the height of the pandemic.

The pandemic has exacerbated the lot of women.

Today, economic realities are somewhat different, with greater globalisation of world markets through a network of supply chains. According to the ILO, there are 3.3 billion workers worldwide of whom 2bn work in the informal sector and in developing countries. Due to lockdowns and reduced demand, over 50pc of such workers will lose their jobs.

Essentially, women workers are ghettoised in low-value, unskilled and insecure jobs, eg in South Asia alone, 85pc of women who work are employed in the ‘grey’ economy. This leaves them without the protection of labour laws including job security, paid sick leave and child care. Women rely on such jobs as they lack the education and requisite skills that are necessary for them to compete with men for employment in the formal sector.

Things haven’t been better from a gender perspective in the formal sector. Among the 20.5m jobs lost this year in the US, 55pc of those who worked in them were females. Female employment is segregated in the services industry, including entertainment, tourism, hospitality sector and the like. Salons, flight attendants, cleaners, part-time agriculture workers; all of these remain vulnerable to the post-Covid-19 economic downturn. Economic data has revealed that Covid-19 has negatively affected these sectors, and thus more females are out of a job today.

A major effect of the ‘shecession’ is the inordinate amount of physical and psychological burden placed on women, which is rarely measured or acknowledged. Women faced by traditional gender roles have double the responsibility at present, with over 1.5 billion children out of school, they not only have to perform as employees while at home, but simultaneously provide child-care and act as homemakers.

They are also the first ones to attend to the sick and elderly. Combine this with the fact that during the current pandemic there has been a 20pc increase in domestic violence globally. All these factors imply that women are getting the short end of the stick.

It is not often that we have the opportunity to reset our priorities in order to build a society that honours the dignity and well-being of each and every human being. There is a clear relationship between patriarchal mindsets which suppress a woman’s growth, and the extreme economic recession that has befallen females during this pandemic.

We need to bring about change by devising economic policies which benefit women, and enable them to be equal participants in the economy, for it is unlikely that market forces will find an optimal solution on their own. There can be no doubt that the gains from gender inclusion are much bigger than ever imagined before.

The writer is founder and managing director of Kashf Foundation.

Published in Dawn, September 24th, 2020