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International Women's Day isn't a day for sales or roses

On International Women's Day, a look at how the pandemic put a spotlight on women’s right to livelihood, which is central to their right to life

89% working women felt covid19 pandemic has adversely impacted their professional lives.
89% working women felt covid19 pandemic has adversely impacted their professional lives. (iStock)

Let me start by repeating the reminder that International Women’s Day, on 8 March, was founded as a day of advocacy for women’s rights. It is not a day for sales or roses or once-in-a-year performances of shared housework. Like last year, this observance occurs in the time of a pandemic. Typical observances of International Women’s Day either mistakenly romanticize women’s roles in the family and their unpaid labour in the household or focus on their safety, that is gender-based violence.

Early in the pandemic, when lockdowns were put in place around the world, UN Women used the term "shadow pandemic" to describe the sharp rise in domestic violence incidents globally. No surprise for women’s rights activists who have seen every crisis result in increased levels of sexual and gender-based violence but a surprise, apparently, to governments.

What was crystal clear, in India especially, was that there were no reliable support services and shelters in place. Women’s rights organisations around Tamil Nadu, for instance, report not just a rise in domestic violence but also trafficking, child sexual abuse, early marriage and elder abuse. We did not care enough to prepare or watch for any of this.

But we tend to fixate on one dimension of an issue and this year, we have focused on violence to the exclusion of everything else. So let me draw your attention to something else, which is likely to have long-term consequences for gender equality. The pandemic placed a spotlight on women’s right to livelihood—which, in turn, is central to their right to life.

The 2020 images that will haunt me all my life are those of workers walking home, sometimes barefoot, in the summer sun, across the length and breadth of a subcontinent. There were countless women in those images. They too worked far from home—in homes, in construction, as farm labour, in factories. That walk back, without food, water, sanitation or shade, would have been an obstacle course of harassment and hardship. We do not know how many died on the way, how ill they were on arrival or what kind of reception they found. We do not know whether and how many will return to their places of employment and how they are surviving now. They have faded back into invisibility.

Most women work in the informal, unorganized sector. They set up vegetable or flower shops; ironing stalls or roadside eateries, for instance. When the lockdown happened, their businesses shut down. Without public transport, their access to wholesale supplies was choked. When lockdowns began to ease marginally, those that could return to work returned to empty streets with fewer clients and also, in the absence of the usual milling crowds, greater opportunities for harassment with impunity. Let us also recognize that the lockdowns made sex work very difficult and that is another large group of families whose lives have become more precarious.

Domestic workers could not reach their workplaces. Some did not get paid because they did not work, some were casualties of a chain of economic hardship as their employers found their own incomes diminished. For many women domestic workers who may have eaten at their workplace, this was also a loss of one square meal that may have not been available at home. In August, in Chennai, Penn Thozilalar Sangam, a women’s trade union of garment and domestic workers reported that 80% of their domestic workers’ union members had lost jobs.

Essential to preventing the spread of covid-19 was the effort of Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA workers). Mostly women, they were asked to go into their communities to create awareness about covid-19 protocols, track community health issues and help with contact tracing. Neither were they well-paid nor well-protected. At home and outside, care work is seen as service naturally provided by women.

For thousands of migrant workers who returned home during the 2020 lockdown, that walk back, without food, water, sanitation or shade, would have been an obstacle course of harassment and hardship.
For thousands of migrant workers who returned home during the 2020 lockdown, that walk back, without food, water, sanitation or shade, would have been an obstacle course of harassment and hardship. (Reuters/Danish Siddiqui)

For women in white-collar jobs, working from home was a nightmare—having to keep up with office work, coping with housework in the absence of the usual support systems and facing an increased demand for fresh food, snacks and beverages from entitled family members. Children were home and when schooling went online, women were also largely responsible for taking care of that shift.

Women’s needs, including their work from home needs, always come last in patriarchal households, and the result is that around the world, women have struggled to keep up with professional demands. Academic surveys in the US have shown that while men published more research this year, women fell sharply behind. Recently, LinkedIn's Opportunity Index 2021 report indicated that 85% of women in India's workforce have lost out on an opportunity for a pay rise or job due to the pandemic.

These shifts will have long-term implications for women professionally and that means in the coming years, fewer women will be able to advance to middle management and leadership positions as the pandemic year curtailed their productivity. Some women who have the economic choice may also drop out of the work-place out of exhaustion and exasperation.

Feminists repeat ad nauseum—gender violence is about power and impunity and not lust. For professional women working online, the pandemic presented a new menu of harassment as work crept literally into every corner of the home. From cyber-stalking to invading webinars and video-conferences with pornographic videos, harassers innovated with abandon.

One might rejoice briefly in the new electoral polemic around paying home-makers for care and domestic work. Women usually feature in party manifestos as home-makers, future wives, destitute widows and sometimes, as police recruits in sections on "women safety" (and where have all the apostrophes gone?). It is significant that someone has thought to monetise their 24x7 labour. But we do not know how sincere this is, nor, more importantly, whether any exchequer can actually afford to pay for this. Our economic progress, as families and countries, has always depended on exploiting the free labour of some sections of society and our evil genius is in the ideologies we spin to justify this.

“Precarity” sums up this last year. When women’s livelihoods are affected, household incomes and living standards plummet. Notwithstanding patriarchy’s benign imagination of men as primary breadwinners, countless women head and support their households singly and women’s incomes are less often diverted away from the needs of their dependents. With the loss of household income, we know that women would have prioritized their families and therefore we are looking not just at a shadow pandemic of domestic violence but also a dramatic undoing of our paltry gains in women’s nutrition, access to their healthcare and well-being.

Prior to the pandemic, we were already bemoaning women’s low labour force participation and their insignificant presence at leadership levels across fields. The pandemic will have reinforced that, sending women home to ‘protect’ them (this time from the virus), back to patriarchal distributions of work that ensure they will have to fight their way out again.

Today, we will nod at this gravely, and tomorrow, we will forget. But the pandemic did not create these problems; it simply showed us that we never bothered with them before. This International Women’s Day, we really should be ashamed of ourselves.

Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist, author, peace educator and founder of Prajnya, a non-profit that works in the area of gender equality.

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