By Roosje Saalbrink, Womankind Worldwide
“It is high time for our governments to do away with gender-blind policies that provide women with neither protection, nor equality, nor recognition for their essential contributions to the health and economic welfare of our region.” – SIHA-net
It is striking to me how quickly the narrative changed, from being told that the COVID-19 crisis affects everyone equally to evidence appearing all over on how different groups and communities around the world are impacted so much worse. More than 70 per cent of frontline healthcare staff are women, meaning they are more at risk. There is an increased burden of unpaid domestic and care work disproportionately shouldered by women, and they are facing increased domestic violence in lockdown. On top of that, huge shares of informal workers living day by day are struggling to access food.
In Zimbabwe 94.5 per cent of workers are in the informal economy with “most of us living from hand to mouth” and “families are starving because the only source of income is closed due to lockdown”, shares Sibongile Chakabva, First Deputy Secretary-General of the Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA), one of Womankind’s partner organisations, in a video released in April 2020. A huge proportion of informal workers are women. “We don’t have any form of social protection”, Chakabva continues. “Having no income, staying home is not a possibility”, putting informal sector workers in an impossible position to choose between access to food and staying safe from the virus.
While the true scale of the impact of this pandemic and its consequent policy responses on people, our societies and the global economy is not yet clear, what is appearing from the debris is the scathing lack of healthcare, social protection and income security for most people in the world, and especially women and communities in the Global South.
The pandemic, and policies in place to stop its spread and mitigate secondary effects are amplifying existing structural and intersecting inequalities across gender, race, age, class, disability, ethnicity, sexuality, among others. Without the right measures to address people’s different needs, these inequalities are widening rapidly and undermining their human rights.
While this shocking “hierarchy” of human worth is laid bare, behind the scenes it is propping up extractive capitalism. The current global neoliberal economic system is steeped in colonialist and imperialist relationships held in place through institutional racism, patriarchy and international financial architecture. In a powerful collective digital action #FeministBailout Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) reminds us that people and planet centred policy response to COVID-19 would put “the resources in the hands of those most marginalised”, ensuring women’s equal access and control over financial and natural resources.
A #FeministBailout calls for transformative new visions of democracy, accountability and governance. We need to move towards a rights-based system of collective care in which the right to social security as a universal entitlement is provided by the State. The equal value of all humankind is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. African countries have high levels of informality with a larger share of women informal workers living in extreme poverty. The lived experiences of women informal workers in Africa during the pandemic demand government attention and action. Their women’s economic rights, the cornerstone of basic human rights including the right to health and right to social security, need to be urgently prioritised.1
Impact on informal workers in Zimbabwe and Uganda
Women are burdened by cultural and institutional systems that prevent them from owning and gaining property, land and wealth more broadly but are disproportionately responsible for fulfilling the needs of children and family members. Consequently, women are more likely to be in precarious and low paid work, providing critical services with no secure income or social protection. Globally 740 million women work with insecure wages or self-employment in informal sectors that are highly feminised in most countries, including as home-based workers, waste pickers, domestic workers, street vendors and market traders. Across the Greater Horn of Africa, most women work in the informal and lower-level health services sectors, both underpaid, undervalued and among the most at risk of infection of COVID-19. For example, 80 per cent of women across Uganda rely on day-to-day informal labour to support their families. These so-called working poor in the informal economy are vulnerable to hunger, to catching the virus, to lockdown, to domestic violence and to demolitions of their working spaces.
Womankind partner, the Strategic Initiative for women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA net), has been monitoring COVID-19 responses and assessing how women in the Greater Horn of Africa are impacted. They state that “the majority of working women in the Greater Horn of Africa are poor, they are not without power”, demanding governments to listen to women during this pandemic and support their economic recovery.
For Uganda, SIHA net demanded in March the following temporary shock response measures. Firstly, focusing on removing barriers to traders and micro-businesses, for example by waiving of monthly market dues and daily fees for street vendors for at least three months and providing loans and establishing extended payment plans. UN Women state that “direct support to informal workers” is especially critical and “financial support needs to target hard-hit women-led enterprises and businesses in feminised sectors with subsidised and state-backed loans, tax and social security payment deferrals and exemptions.”
Secondly, SIHA net demands the government put in place mitigation strategies and economic alternatives for women working within the informal sector addressing the imminent need for accessing income and food. These workers are particularly vulnerable to being sidelined by a gender-blind policy approach. These demands can provide important entry points for establishing social protection floors and to include women informal workers into an inclusive lifecycle social security system. This would be transformative in the long run and could contribute to achieving gender equality, as set out in SDG target 5.4. Gender-transformative social protection recognises and addresses “the different roles that women play – both paid and unpaid – and takes into account women’s needs and priorities”.
In Zimbabwe ZCEIA, an informal workers’ network, advocates for social dialogue between the government and informal workers: “There is an urgent need for governments to establish fool-proof, corruption-free, realistic and sustainable social protection…for informal economy workers to preserve their human dignity during these tough times. Such measures should not only be put in place to combat the effects of COVID but for the sustainable future” as the world works towards the elimination of violence and harassment in the world of work.” says Mr. Maririmba from ZCEIA.
Even as the lockdown ends, informal workers will have an uphill battle says Chakabva from ZCEIA: “Having used all our capital, we don’t know how we will kickstart our businesses after lockdown”. This means we have to continue to push for decent work. We need to transform informal economy activities to promote decent work, save jobs and alleviate poverty. In other words, we need to scale up social protection rapidly.
Unpaid care and domestic work undermines women’s right to economic security – further setbacks due to COVID-19 WIEGO’s rapid assessment finds this is the reality across the globe for informal sector workers and advocates that any measures must go beyond targeting the very poor and the unemployed to include workers in vulnerable occupations. Measures need to take into account the reality of the working poor, especially women, who face additional challenges because of their heightened burden of care and domestic work. This includes additional care for those falling sick and for children as schools and childcare centres are closed, none of which is compensated or included in social protection measures. Without social protection, falling ill during this time is another big burden for these workers that do not have adequate access to health insurance and health care in the best of times. The less visible parts of the care economy are under increasing pressure during COVID–19, but remain unaccounted for in the economic response and are not guaranteed the income security to match increased demands.
The fact that the world’s formal economies and the maintenance of our daily lives and communities are built on and depend on the invisible, undervalued and unpaid labour of women and girls needs to be seen and addressed. SIHA net draws attention to how much remains to be done in order to ensure just, equitable, healthy working conditions and social protections for women.
Current approaches to social security undermine substantive gender equality and undermines women’s right to social security, for example by not being adequate, available, accessible, or not covering all social risks and contingencies2. A fundamental part of any effort to promote gender equality is “supporting parents through paid parental leave” creating “shared responsibility for social reproduction” and “offering public transfers or services to families alleviates the private burden of care”.
This moment presents a fork in the road and an opportunity for governments to take action: In continuing on the current path governments risk exacerbating gender inequality and other inequalities that intersect, undoing many achievements of past decades. A better route means investing in universal, publicly funded social protection systems and healthcare, and advancing women’s human rights. We need governments to act now to prevent going back decades on gender equality and human rights.
Our guest blogger, Roosje Saalbrink, leads Womankind Worldwide’s policy and advocacy work on women’s economic rights. Roosje sits on the Advisory Group of the Gender and Development Network and is also co-coordinator of the Global Alliance of Tax Justice – Tax & Gender Working Group, looking at the structural causes of women’s economic inequality through a feminist analysis of the current global political economy.
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