Tackling the COVID-19 pandemic extends beyond our borders and requires a feminist response

by Diana Sarosi | Oxfam Canada | April 3, 2020
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It is hard to imagine what the world will look like a few months from now. But what we do know is that the actions governments and communities take today to respond to the coronavirus have the potential to shape our society for years, and potentially generations, to come. The time is now for the world to unleash the most heartfelt compassion we have ever known.

The devastating humanitarian toll of this pandemic, along with the economic shocks it will create, will be far-reaching and long-term. Rich countries are in the position to put into place public health measures that will prevent their medical systems from overloading and are investing in economic rescue packages worth billions of dollars. While it makes sense national leaders are focused on tackling this crisis in their own countries, they also need to realize beating this disease extends beyond their own borders.

The coronavirus knows no borders and does not discriminate.  In a world marked by extreme inequality, there is no doubt that particular populations will be impacted more profoundly. The impacts will be devastating for those already living in fragile, conflict-affected settings or in displacement. How are you able to practice social distancing or access clean water to wash your hands if you’re on the run or living in tight quarters?

In every country around the world, the poor and marginalized groups will be hit the hardest. They are more likely to catch the disease and to die from it because of a lack of access to quality healthcare. They are more likely to lose their jobs and livelihoods, which were precarious and low-paid to begin with. They will have few supports on which to fall, with limited access to social protection. They will also be the first to fall victim to racist, xenophobic and misogynist attacks that we already see on the rise.

Not only does the pandemic have the potential to further widen the gap between rich and poor, it could seriously undermine the progress that has been made over the past decades to advance gender justice for women, girls and persons of diverse sexual orientation and gender identity. We cannot let that happen. Too much is at stake.

This is why we need a feminist response to the pandemic

A feminist approach challenges patriarchal structures and puts women’s leadership front and centre. As governments work to put in place urgent measures to help minimize the impacts of the pandemic, these solutions must be informed by women in all of their diversity. The only way this will happen is if women have a seat at the table where decisions are made.

History has shown that gender inequality holds back progress on governance, peace, economic performance, food security, health, wellbeing, environmental protection and social progress. The security and stability of our nations literally depends on the status of women.

The gendered impacts of COVID-19 are already apparent

Women make up 70 per cent of health care workers globally. Every day they put their lives on the line caring for those infected by this pandemic. Where health systems are weak and absent, it is women who fill the ranks of community health workers, often without financial support or medical equipment to keep them safe. Women’s work, including care work, is amongst the most precarious and lowest paid.

Even in the best of times, women do three times more unpaid care work at home than men. With the virus spreading, women’s care load significantly increases as schools and daycares are closed and family members become ill. Considering there is already a massive shortage of care workers, it is inevitable that more and more women and girls will drop out of work and school to take on caregiving, pushing them further into poverty. As the need for money increases within families, we’ll see a rise in child and early forced marriages as daughters are sold off into marriage.

With communities worldwide retreating to their homes to flatten the curve, there is an underlying assumption that homes are safe for everyone. But that’s not true for millions of women. We have seen over and over again how violence against women increases in times of crisis. During the Ebola outbreak in 2014-2015, women and girls experienced high rates of violence and rape, in what was termed the “silent epidemic”. During the COVID-19 crisis, gender-based violence will reach new levels. Already in China, during the height of the quarantine, calls to women’s shelters increased threefold. If government responses do not include measures to protect and support women facing violence at home, the numbers will increase.

For many, accessing sexual and reproductive rights and services is already challenging in ‘normal’ times. As health care systems falter under the pressure to treat COVID-19 patients, there is a risk that sexual and reproductive health services and providers will be diverted to the larger public health crisis. And, in turn, services and medications, including contraception, will become less available or affordable. And if key services such as maternity, contraception and abortion care are disrupted, it will lead to higher maternal morbidity and mortality, unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortions and STIs. Anti-rights movements are already using the pandemic as an excuse to rollback hard won sexual and reproductive health and rights.

All of these impacts are further compounded for women and gender diverse people who have already been living in crisis before the pandemic hit due to conflicts and humanitarian disasters. In these situations, access to basic services, such as housing, clean water, food, and jobs are acutely compromised and women are at heightened risk of domestic and sexual violence. Patriarchal and cultural attitudes and behaviours might restrict women’s access to information about the pandemic or services, exposing them further to risks.  Donors need to step up and ensure COVID-19 interventions are tailored to and informed by women living in these challenging contexts.

This pandemic is of global proportions. It requires global commitments and solutions. But the response will be delivered through local actions. Local women’s rights and gender justice organizations must have the capacity and resources to roll out comprehensive, intersectional, and gender-transformative responses tailored to their own communities. It is local women’s rights organizations who are the first to respond, but the last to receive funding. They need our support now more than ever to tackle the greatest pandemic in the past century.

As Oxfam ramps up our global response to COVID-19, we will put our feminist approach to the test. We will be working with women’s rights organizations here in Canada and around the world to support their leadership in this crisis. Our aim will be to sustain their capacity to hold ground on women’s rights, while also supporting them to leverage this moment to transform existing patriarchal structures and norms.

This pandemic will no doubt transform the way we live and the structures that underpin how our societies function. But there is reason for hope. Crises, while devastating, can open up opportunities for transformation. If we prioritize women’s leadership and gender justice now, we have a chance to end up with a world that is safer and more inclusive for everyone.

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