What gender responsive strategies can ensure that gender equality receives attention during the state of emergency?
Looking at the gender dimension of COVID-19 points to an aggravation of gender inequalities. Women have long been the primary caregivers within families. With school closures and loss of caregiver support, households are witnessing a return to traditional gender roles. Many women have to undertake acute dual responsibilities.
Our tendency to classify gender concerns as either inexistent or secondary reinforces society’s gender gap. Rejecting that tendency, UN Women reminded us in an April 2 Tweet that “Feminism isn’t cancelled.” Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres has called for including women’s needs as part of the strategic response to COVID-19.
In Morocco, the necessary government-imposed lockdown, combined with the increasing demands of homeschooling, care work, and housework, and with employers requiring uninterrupted flows of productivity through teleworking, women in particular are exposed to considerable levels of stress.
Due to social norms and cultural expectations, women also provide emotional labor, ensuring the care of the elderly and the ill in their families. Previous research shed light on the difficulty working women face when they start their second shift at home after 6:00 p.m.
It is difficult to apprehend the lack of separation between home and work that so many people now face, producing a new anxiety over the “feminine” skill of “multitasking” and accomplishing tasks through interruptions.
We should pay attention to another remarkable phenomenon of highly accomplished women who leave the workforce to become homemakers. They do so not because of nostalgia for a better past, but because the dual demands of career and family become too burdensome to bear.
Patterns in gender-related progress
Pushing women back into traditional roles in the private sphere signals once again that the march towards gender equality is not always a linear ascension. Many decisive moments in history constituted a backlash against the women’s rights movement, including the periods of previous pandemics and outbreaks (Ebola, Zika, SARS, Swine Flu, Bird Flu), which all had long-lasting effects on gender equality.
The current trend of re-securing women’s rootedness in the private sphere reinforces the male/female dualism through which men gained access to the public sphere, while women remained confined to the private realm.
These binary oppositions do not only operate in ideology. They had a fundamental role in constructing gender differences. The dichotomy produced material consequences evident in the prevalence of sexual harassment and violence against women, and in architectural home designs that ensured that passersby could not see women from the outside.
Gender segregation most dangerously denied women’s access to education and to the most interesting professional fields—remember the historical exclusion of women from prestigious universities in the US, and how they were not allowed historically to practice medicine or engineering—disabling their access to society’s most interesting and powerful positions.
Gendered consequences amid COVID-19
Women are more likely to work in insecure labor and in the informal economy, and therefore experience greater economic impacts from crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Migrant women and the unemployed, as vulnerable populations, are likely to experience exceptional disparities in health and socio-economic impacts.
Ensuring the delivery of targeted payments for informal workers, migrants, and the self-employed would provide financial relief to these vulnerable populations, but women’s struggles during the crisis extend beyond economic challenges.
Domestic violence is on the rise. We mourn the lives of those who tragically succumbed to COVID-19, but women’s well-being has been statistically endangered in “normal” times.
The Higher Planning Commission (HCP) reports that in 2019, 52% of Moroccan women were subjected to domestic violence. Also in 2019, a study by the Ministry of Family, Solidarity, Equality and Social Development found a national prevalence rate of violence against women at 54%.
During confinement, psychological pressure and physical proximity exacerbate gender-based violence. Many female victims of domestic violence now feel further entrapped and unable to find an escape route.
Providing survivors of violence with the right to leave their homes would constitute a vital layer of protection. In its worst form, domestic violence leads to committing femicide (i.e. the killing of a woman or girl on account of her gender).
Promoting communication campaigns that inform women subjected to violence about available care and resources could protect and save lives. Some of these resources include the anti-violence against women toll-free number “8350,” the National Union of Moroccan Women’s (UNFM) “KoulounamaaK” platform of assistance to women victims of violence, and various initiatives of women’s rights associations and NGOs.
Likewise, communication campaigns that promote the shared responsibility of childcare, care work, and housework would contribute to empowering women and giving them more equal access to the workforce.
Incorporating women’s participation in response measures
A gender-sensitive response would first and foremost involve women’s participation in all stages of COVID-19 policymaking, and particularly in decision-making processes regarding new policies and practices. Ensuring diversity in all task forces on COVID-19 and in the upper echelons of decision-making bodies would draw attention to the ways in which pandemics affect men and women differently.
While some feel that many women in leadership positions lack a feminist sensibility and therefore are ill-equipped to “represent” women’s interests, their experiential authority might lead them to approach the COVID-19 outbreak through a gender lens.
The urgent collection of gender-disaggregated data would also improve understanding of epidemiological, economic, and socio-cultural pandemic impacts. Such data collection would involve examining any gender disparities and differences regarding infection, health impacts (including reduced access to maternal and reproductive health care), economic impacts, and social impacts (including analyzing the burden of care and rise in domestic violence).
I believe these types of studies would go beyond the monitoring of fake news and infodemics. They would allow researchers to delve into the pandemic’s gendered framings, pointing to the material consequences of images and discourses that chronically reinforce normative gender roles and expectations. For example, constructing childcare as women’s responsibility in the media normalizes gender-segregated work in society.
Value in challenging norms
While mainstream discourse appears to dismiss gender as a factor in this health emergency, the most effective policy responses must account for how women and girls experience the crisis. Including women in decision-making bodies could reduce deep-rooted socio-cultural and economic inequalities.
In the current state of emergency, men’s increased participation in sharing caregiving duties and housework during lockdown might change them into more empathetic and supportive care providers. If decision makers integrate a gendered perspective in the strategic response to COVID-19, it could also offer insights, examining how the current crisis has the potential to challenge gender norms and structures.
A key ingredient in change lies in the youth’s capacity to challenge norms and practices. In researching and teaching on the topic of gender and communication at Al Akhawayn University for the last several years, I learned that imparting enlightening knowledge on the topic has the ability to destabilize long-held assumptions and inspire ethical and responsible citizenship, thereby exhibiting the potential to exert positive social change.
The question remains as to how the post-COVID 19 world will lead to a reconsideration of gender roles and expectations, as well as their material consequences in society.
Kenza Oumlil is an Associate Professor in Communication at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane (AUI), Morocco. She holds a Ph.D. in Communication from Concordia University in Montréal, Canada.