Gender (in)equality in time of COVID-19

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 by Helena Ferraz, Master's student in Human Rights, UMinho


“The Captain looked at Fermina Daza and saw on her eyelashes the first glimmer of wintry frost. Then he looked at Florentino Ariza, his invincible power, his intrepid love, and he was overwhelmed by the belated suspicion that it is life, more than death, that has no limits.”
Gabriel García Márquez[i]


Humanity sails in rough seas. It is possible to see from a distance the yellow flags. “Plague’s on board!” – leaders from all around the world announce. The sign of death and illness, unlike what Florentino Ariza did, is not just an artifice to take pleasure of Fermina Daza’s love without any kind of discomfort. This year’s rough reality makes humanity mourn the loss of another two hundred thousand lives – and, unfortunately, it is still not possible to see the redeeming light at the dark sea-line of uncertainties.

The coronavirus, an invisible and common enemy, understands us as what we unquestionably are: human beings. We share the same vessel – the planet Earth – but it is possible to take notice that the trail of destruction does not hit everyone in the same way. In exceptional times like the ones we live in, we are indeed faced with indigestible underground realities, left in the zone of the unsaid, of what is normal, natural, as if they are given realities, whose symbolic representation is culturally reproduced.

In this article, we will focus our analysis on the impacts of the pandemic in relation to the gender inequalities, specifically in relation to the sexual division of labor, and its consequences in the personal, family and professional life of women, with reference to the European Union legal framework on gender equality.

The pandemic puts us in front of a health crisis with undeniable negative impacts in the economic, political, social and cultural spheres. To date, the only effective measure in combating the proliferation of COVID-19 is social distance. To avoid the collapse of health services and the uncontrolled increase in lethality, many states have urgently enacted mandatory social isolation, as there is no treatment or medication available – and studies for the development of a vaccine demand a time that social interaction (at work) and the intense circulation of people (in the world of globalised consumption) do not have.

Thus, millions of people were forced to stay inside their homes, which had a profound impact on many dimensions of human life, changed the dynamics of 21st century society and broke the evolutionary path of human history. The attentions of the state, society and International Organisations, which previously prioritized events in the public sphere of social relations, turned entirely to the private and family sphere, in which the interactions and interests of women are primarily situated – and where gender inequality is reproduced and revealed.

Statistics reveal that the number of families that are economically dependent on women’s productive work is increasing – or those where women supplement family income in addition to assuming most of the responsibilities for domestic work and childcare. In Portugal, the National Survey on the Uses of Time for Men and Women[ii] conducted in 2015, showed that women spend more than 1:30 hours (than men) on domestic work.

In relation to the current pandemic context, a recent study by ColaBor on Work and Inequalities in the Greater Confinement[iii] shows that it is women who suffer the difficulties of organizing time and work space (telework), in addition to monitoring school activities for their children in classes, as well as home care and family food preparation. This work overload (verified in the study) is a reality aggravated by confinement – which, however, precedes it and remains invisible in the routine of family relationships, in which domestic work, when performed by the wife / partner, is not considered work, due to its naturalization[iv] and non-remuneration.

During the Second World War, the demand for female workers increased significantly in Europe due to the scarcity of male labour and the need to produce inputs for the battlefields. Thus, women were recruited into jobs and proved to be fully capable of performing new functions as well as men – which became a problem within the working class itself, as women produced with the same levels of quality and performance for lower wages. At the end of the war, women’s work helped to rebuild bomb-ravaged countries.

However, at the end of the state of exception, those who had the power to decide – that is, men – understood that the work of women outside their homes was no longer necessary, and an intense campaign began to value women as the home queens. This took place through advertising, films, books, as well as intense scientific production in order to support the theories of female inferiority and the naturalization of reproductive work, as inherent to the social condition of women.

However, the breadth of their potential for work, and the consequences of this fling of autonomy for their identity, provoked the union of women forces which, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, led to the emergence of organized feminist movements in the West aiming for the defence of gender equality. The theoretical feminist production at the time was abundant, with several approaches tending to explain the origins of female oppression and to produce solutions capable of altering reality.

However, the adaptation of feminist demands to the male narrative, and the consequent difficulty in provoking a profound change in social structures, ended up restricting the fight for gender equality to the regulation of women’s rights – consolidating initially with the Universal Declaration of Rights Human Rights of 1948 and, subsequently, with the internationalization of Human Rights (World Conference on Human Rights in 1992, Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women in 1993, Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in 1995).

However, the advances achieved through the standardization of the principle of gender equality and non-discrimination as human / fundamental rights are undeniable, including in the broader discussions of civil society the issues dear to women, previously separated from the political sphere because they are considered exclusively private – or not subject to state interference, as it was for the case of domestic violence, for example.

Under this premise, the Treaty on European Union (Lisbon version) already established in Article 2 equality between men and women as one of the common values ​​of all Member States, in addition to being one of the objectives of the Union in the terms of Article 3/3. To demonstrate the EU’s commitment to implementing the values ​​and objectives that underpin and guide it, the promotion of equality between men and women as an imperative was included in Articles 8 and 10 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union for all the Union’s actions – and the fight against discrimination as an objective in the definition and execution of its policies -, in addition to Article 157 – prohibiting the differentiation in the remuneration of  men and women work in the performance of the same activity.

However, despite the efforts of Western feminist movements of the last century, aimed at overcoming gender inequalities through the inclusion of women’s rights in the minimum standard of Human Rights, the advances achieved were not enough to change the material reality of women, especially women who are urban and rural workers. Let’s take the example of black women and migrants, who remain exposed to financial capitalism and the disruptions caused by unexpected situations.

The COVID-19 pandemic and mandatory social isolation have brought about realities of oppression, exploitation and domination that are quite common in the lives of women in all corners of the planet. However, depending on the specific context – ethnic origin, social class, nationality, age, religion, culture, etc. – each one experiences and / or resists this reality in different ways. What is important to understand is that the inequality caused by the asymmetric division of labour between genders, and the devaluation of productive work performed, primarily, by women – generally in the area of ​​care and cleaning -, impacts on many dimensions of women’s lives, not being restricted to the economic issue.

A practical alternative for changing this reality is the inclusion of gender studies in schools and the development of scientific works aimed at i) deconstructing culturally inherited symbology and ii) building new meanings about women. Female emancipation involves the creation of lines of dialogue between academia and women involved in oppressive relationships, so that the experience of oppression is redefined as an instrument of political engagement. Only female participation in decisions that have the power to change the forms of distribution of socially produced goods can make it more equitable.

[i] MÁRQUEZ, Gabriel García, Love in the time of cholera, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman, Ed. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1988. <https://archive.org/details/LoveInTheTimeOfCholera/page/n453/mode/2up&gt; Access in 2020, May 21st.

[ii] Link: <http://cite.gov.pt/pt/destaques/complementosDestqs2/INUT_brochura.pdf&gt; Access in 2020, April 03rd

[iii] Link: <https://colabor.pt/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Estudos-CoLABOR-2.pdf&gt; Access in 2020, April 03rd

[iv] Link: <http://cite.gov.pt/pt/destaques/complementosDestqs2/INUT_brochura.pdf&gt; Access in 2020, April 03rd

Pictures credits: Gabriel García Marquez… by Ross Angus.

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