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What a feminist response to the coronavirus crisis could look like

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Who holds the camera helps determine what we see, and what the outcomes are. Overcoming ‘gender blindness’ requires society to see from different perspectives. Photo: Marie Arago (www.mariearago.com)

In just a few months, the novel coronavirus has upended daily life for billions of people, triggered massive job losses, and threatened lives in nearly every country on Earth. And yet, it is not just the virus itself that is novel. We know little about how the effects of the virus — and the many attempts to mitigate it — will affect groups differently, including men and women. Already there are suggestions that the virus could both hurt women in the short run, while helping them in the long run through challenging social norms that tend to advantage men.

So, in this confusing and rapidly changing environment, how can policy makers, development agencies, non-profits, and civil society respond to such a swiftly moving crisis effectively, and in ways that don’t make situations worse for the most marginalized?

A feminist approach may help. While the term ‘feminism’ has long been misunderstood — we’ll write about this, soon! — at its heart it simply means that when society limits one sex, it limits both. In other words, society will be better for women and men when both sexes have equal opportunities. A feminist approach, then, is one that starts with that goal, and works to identify ways to create opportunities for all people to thrive, regardless of identity.

Based on our own experiences working to improve gender research and policy in rural development, understanding how this crisis may affect women and men differently and making sense of appropriate responses requires three things: responsiveness to sociocultural context, the right kinds of data, and a framework for making sense of it. With these elements, we can start to build a feminist approach to this crisis, and create a more equitable world going forward.

Disasters aren’t only biological, seismic, or climatological — they’re also social.

The coronavirus presents an acute, immediate, global crisis, yet in some ways it only makes visible a multitude of crises that have been long hiding in plain sight: broken health care systems, unequal access to paid sick leave, workplace vulnerabilities, income inequality — crises that are both directly health-related, and ones with a more tenuous link. In truth, disasters are largely social, and by exposing the fault lines of inequality running through human societies, it’s often the people with the fewest advantages to begin with that are most severely impacted when disaster strikes.

After just a few weeks of practicing “social distancing” many countries are already seeing massive disparities in who is impacted and how, with many higher-paying office jobs continuing, albeit remotely, while tens of millions of lower-paid service workers are suddenly out of work entirely. While wealthier governments are stepping in with massive relief plans, undocumented workers, many of whom were already among the most vulnerable, may not only face unemployment, but do so without relief funds, or face fear of deportation even while being deemed ‘essential.’

In lower-income countries, where informal work is more predominant and governments may lack the resources for large relief spending, the inequalities exposed by the virus — and its response — are likely to be much more severe, leading to calls for massive debt relief. Regardless of country, the poorest and least resourced are often already far more likely to face chronic health issues, be underinsured, and more vulnerable to falling seriously ill with the coronavirus. And that’s assuming they haven’t already lost their jobs.

In many contexts women have less control over resources than men, may be more heavily represented in the informal economy, and often have less mobility, exposing potential vulnerabilities. Women more often tend to be responsible for informal domestic care work (for children and / or elderly parents), and globally make up a larger share of professional health care workers, potentially increasing their exposure and their work loads. Professional women who now find themselves working from home due to the lockdowns are likely to face increased distractions as they balance job tasks with care roles. For these reasons and many more, there are valid reasons to be concerned about how the current crisis could disproportionately impact women.

However tempting it is, though, we should resist binary thinking about who is impacted, and how.

First of all, the coronavirus itself appears to have a gender bias. While it’s too early to conclusively say why, and the exact reasons are likely culturally grounded to some extent, men tend to fall critically ill more frequently than women, and to make up a disproportionate share of fatalities. In some ways this echoes statistics showing that men are far more likely to die from work-related accidents, and have shorter average lifespans.

Second, the concept of intersectionality reminds us that other social factors, such as race, ethnicity, class, education — even marital status — all play important roles in shaping each individual’s opportunities in life, and each of these intersect with each other, and with gender. Even if she still faces workplace descrimination, a well-educated, well-connected, high-earning woman may easily be less affected by a crisis than a man with lower income, education and connections, and whose job is not portable.

Third, societies are not homogenous, and what constitutes ‘women’s work’ in one country or region may not in another, and in every location there are men and women who don’t neatly conform to gendered norms or stereotypes.

Furthermore, no one exists as solely a man or woman, we all have overlapping identities, roles, and characteristics that enable or hinder our ability to respond in times of crisis, and these are both complex and highly variable. Essentializing women as the victim fails to account for the fact that, due to all the reasons mentioned above, women are not always worse off, and at times the reverse is true.

Finally, a more feminist approach doesn’t leave men behind. Men can, and must, be allies and targeted beneficiaries in creating a more equitable future.

Still, generally speaking we know that women and other groups tend to have lower access to resources, and be more vulnerable to crises. So how can we address this, without essentializing women as victims, falling back on stereotypes, or simply overlooking the nuance in who really is most vulnerable?

We need to shed light on the circumstances.

Epidemiologists can’t model, respond to, or even understand a disease’s spread without reliable data. Operating in such a vacuum, public health officials would be blind to what’s actually happening in the community. Similarly, without robust, disaggregated data, we simply cannot know who is being or is likely to be impacted by a policy, intervention or program, and how. Disaggregation means more than just knowing the resources or income sources, for instance, that a family or household has as a whole, it means breaking this information down by demographic details (sex, age, ethnicity, etc.), and importantly, at the individual level, not just the household level.

Without sex-disaggregated data, interventions, programs, and even institutions are effectively gender blind, meaning that more often than not, our actions are more likely to benefit those with greater access to resources, and potentially bypass or even harm those who are more marginalized.

In terms of gendered impacts, gender blindness means that we aren’t only often unaware of how these impacts play out, but we’re also unable to do much about it. Robust, disaggregated data can shed light on how women and men engage differently in relation to access to resources, mobility, decision-making, work and roles, and much more. Importantly, disaggregated data can also enable us to see nuance and differences from town to town, region to region, and across differences in class, ethnicity and race.

Yet, for all that’s being written in the press about men being more susceptible to Covid-19, or women being vulnerable in the face of governmental responses, there’s still a shocking lack of sex-disaggregated epidemiological data (and the picture may be even worse for racial data) being collected in the United States, and almost certainly in many countries, about who gets the illness, and its impacts (kudos to UN Women for compiling all the sex-disaggregated Covid-19 data they can find, here). Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised; despite research showing that even at a cellular level, men’s and women’s bodies exhibit marked sex differences throughout their entire bodies, men’s bodies have for decades been the only model used for testing most drugs, diseases and treatments.

And such a legacy of gender blindness directly translates into deeply problematic epidemiological responses to crises. A March 6th, 2020 letter by Clare Wenam, Julia Smith, and Rosemary Morgan on behalf of the Gender and COVID-19 Working Group, published in The Lancet, points out this problem simply,

“Policies and public health efforts have not addressed the gendered impacts of disease outbreaks. The response to coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) appears no different. We are not aware of any gender analysis of the outbreak by global health institutions or governments in affected countries or in preparedness phases. Recognizing the extent to which disease outbreaks affect women and men differently is a fundamental step to understanding the primary and secondary effects of a health emergency on different individuals and communities, and for creating effective, equitable policies and interventions.”

Without sex-disaggregated data, we simply cannot change this.

Data on its own, however, means very little if we can’t understand what it can show us.

To better understand data, when it’s available, many institutions have adopted gender frameworks, grounding their data collection and analysis efforts with a perspective informed by theory and experience. This enables knowing what data is most useful to collect, making wise decisions about how to collect it, and designing smart policy and interventions around the data — i.e., knowing what to do with it once you’ve got it. A gender framework provides a lens — a gender lens — for viewing how gender fits into all activities, plans and policies. In this way, institutions can reflect their gender frameworks back onto themselves, to determine where their own structures may, in fact, be getting in the way of their own goals. Is the organization’s board composed predominantly of men or women? Do work spaces, work culture and policies make women or men feel welcome and able to thrive, or do they impede women’s/men’s success? Are other activities or programs the organization conducts actually undermining the work their gender programming is attempting to address? Though a gender framework, organizations can assess where they fall on a gender integration continuum, like the one presented below.

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A Continuum of Approaches to Action on Gender and Health. Source: British Columbia Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health

Organizations that do this, are better able to holistically look at how their activities can work together to achieve larger goals. Canada’s move in 2017 to ground their entire international development agency in a feminist approach is one such example, and also demonstrates that gender frameworks are not only good development policy, but are simply good foreign policy. And in doing so, organizations can also be held accountable to their goals.

Public health, like many sectors, faces serious gender barriers to women’s advancement and well-being, making institutional transformation all the more essential before pandemic responses can translate into equitable outcomes. A 2019 Weill Cornell Medicine (WCM) survey of women health workers from WCM and international centers in Haiti, India, and Tanzania found major barriers faced by women at all stages of their global health careers, including the challenge of work-life balance and harassment on the job. Most seriously, unwelcome sexual advances in the workplace were reported by 29% of participants. 7% reported that they felt coerced to engage in unwanted sexual behavior. Only 22% of 160 participants who experienced sexual harassment or assault reported it to anyone. The authors say the consequences of inaction leaves the international health care system vulnerable.

“Work–life balance was the most common barrier. However, the most alarming finding was the high prevalence of gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and assault, which we found were systemic barriers participants faced at all stages of their global health careers in all countries included…We must commit to providing a safe environment for everyone or risk losing a generation of female health workers who play a crucial part in improving health globally.”

Understanding and acting on data also requires breaking down disciplinary silos. In our own sector, agricultural research for development, crop breeders, plant pathologists and other biophysical scientists often work with little direct engagement with agricultural economists, extension agents, and other social scientists who typically have more direct knowledge of rural communities. Bridging this gap requires more than merely working side-by-side, it requires knowing each others’ disciplines well enough to contextualize the work they do.

Bringing it all back to the coronavirus, and now.

All these changes are important and necessary for creating a more equitable future, but what can organizations do now, in the face of our current crisis? Based on our experiences in agricultural development, we offer some suggestions.

  • First, use existing data, where possible, but contextualize it. Pay attention to what the data obscures, or what is missing. Check the assumptions of the data collectors, and check your own assumptions, to hedge against falling back on stereotypes or generalizations.
  • Second, learn from the past, cautiously. Crises, unfortunately, aren’t new, and lessons can be learned from previous crises — especially where things went wrong. Did previous efforts end up harming one group or another in a way that was preventable? What could a more gender-responsive approach have looked like? The past is of course not precedent, so previous experiences need to be grounded in current realities, something that can be tricky without adequate data.
  • Third, apply a gender lens not just to your analysis of the problem, but to every aspect of your engagement and response. Are important perspectives missing from key discussions? Does your organizational culture marginalize diverse voices? Pay attention to sources of information, ideas, and solutions. How might the current climate of social distancing and working from home prevent important voices from being heard, or adversely impact people within your own organization, and what are the gender dimensions? More balanced workplaces bring new perspectives, creating space different leadership styles and different problem solving approaches, which may end up being more supportive of women and children; results from a 2014 randomized trial demonstrate that women in leadership positions in governmental organizations implement different policies than men and that these policies are more supportive of women and children.
  • Fourth, document and capture what’s being done now, to allow learning for the future. Apply a gender lens to ensure that you capture the right kinds of data to enable better analysis and decision making down the road. Now is a great time, too, to take stock of how your own organizational structure affects people differently; the virus itself, and our responses to it, cast gendered workplace realities in sharp relief, creating a profound organizational learning moment.

Times of crisis are also times of profound learning, for all of us. By taking a long view of the current crisis, we can forge a more equitable society in the future, and ensure we’re not just better prepared for handling the next crisis in an equitable, informed manner, but that we’re better able to handle all the times in between, as well.

Devon Jenkins is an agricultural development practitioner, and project manager for the Gender-responsive Researchers Equipped for Agricultural Transformation (GREAT) project, based at Cornell University. Chris Knight, Elisabeth Garner, Brenda Boonabaana, Margaret Mangheni, Elizabeth Asiimwe and Hale Tufan contributed to this story.

Some resources and tools to explore:

Additional reading on gender and the Covid-19 pandemic:

Exploring the intersection of gender, agriculture and international development, and welcome guest posts. Hosted by www.greatagriculture.org.

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