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Why the COVID-19 Pandemic Needs an Intersectional Feminist Approach

Updated: Apr 28, 2020

Understanding the variety of challenges, marginalizations, and consequences posed by COVID-19

by Kristina Hinz and Izadora Zubek

African immigrants line up for aid packages distributed by Kram Municipality at Beji Caid Essebsi Sports Complex, on April 23, 2020 in Tunis, Tunisia. Aid packages were distributed to African immigrants affected by the new type of coronavirus (Covid-19) precautions in Tunisia. Yassine Gaidi / Anadolu Agency/picture alliance

According to the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, the COVID-19 outbreak is the “most challenging crisis we have faced since the Second World War.” On 24 April 2020, the World Health Organization registered more than 2.5 million confirmed cases, which caused the deaths of almost 200,000 people in 213 countries, areas or territories.

As a consequence of widespread curfews and lockdowns, almost 4 billion people—half of humanity—are currently confined to their homes. The International Monetary Fund announced that the world economy will experience the worst recession since the Great Depression.

To deal with this unprecedented crisis, we need analytical tools capable of capturing the variety of challenges experienced by different groups, in light of their specific marginalisations, but also their inherent strengths, and the myriad of consequences resulting from COVID-19.

Previous studies have shown, for instance, that the COVID-19 pandemic affects women and men differently. However, an analysis focused exclusively on gender would fail to embrace the intricate diversity of experiences of COVID-19.

These can be decisively shaped by the country of residence, ethnicity, migration and refugee status, sexual orientation, disability, and class. Additional structural factors, such as environmental degradation, poverty, political instability, corruption, and armed conflict, can determine how the health crisis impacts individuals and communities worldwide.

An intersectional feminist approach reveals how the ongoing pandemic, and the policy responses to it, affect social groups distinctively, and highlights how particular measures which are beneficial for certain groups may reinforce pre-existing situations of injustice, notably in the case of overlapping and mutually reinforcing marginalisations produced by global and local power structures.

Furthermore, this approach offers a suitable tool to decentralize and amplify the current discussion, by calling attention to neglected and marginalized perspectives, and to the complexity of issues at stake in the context of systemic inequalities.

Intersectional Feminist Perspectives on Health

Across the world, health care professionals are coping with extreme work conditions, exposing their lives to provide care to an impossible number of patients. Nevertheless, health risks and access to proper health care are not the same for everyone.

While men still hold most of senior or leadership positions in the health sector, women are the ones standing on the front line of the fight against COVID-19, making up an estimated two-thirds of the health workforce worldwide. Despite their key role in combating the pandemic, with great personal risk of infection, female health professionals receive on average 28 percent less than their male counterparts.

The access to health care varies according to one’s nationality, geographic location, and class. In many countries, proper health care is a privilege of very few. In the United States, racial inequities can hinder access to health care, as African Americans are more likely to lack health insurance and live in medically underserved areas.

Moreover, in Brazil, only 30 percent of the population has any private health insurance, as for certain age groups such insurance costs more than one minimum wage per month. The vast majority of the population is covered by the public health care system, which counts with only a limited number of intensive care units, and is lacking health professionals, especially in the rural areas.

Likewise, in Papua New Guinea, there are only 500 doctors, less than 4,000 nurses, and around 5,000 beds in hospitals and health centres for more than 8 million citizens. In other countries, access to public health care is dependent on citizenship and migration status. In Jordan, refugees can only access a limited number of clinics, as they generally have to pay a significant share of the treatment by themselves.

While access to sexual and reproductive health care was already precarious under normal circumstances in numerous countries, the COVID-19 pandemic might severely worsen this already life-threatening situation.

Amid lockdown, the Polish parliament is set to discuss a draft bill which would further tighten the country’s restrictive abortion regulations. In Latin America and the Caribbean, it is estimated that 18 million women will lose regular access to contraceptives in the context of the crisis.

Intersectional Feminist Perspectives on Confinement and Policing

Nationwide lockdowns and curfews have been imposed by several governments, and police and military forces deployed to enforce home confinement. Staying at home, however, is not a safe option for those who live with abusive partners or relatives. In France, reports of domestic abuse have increased by more than 30 percent in the first week of movement restrictions.

Similarly, South African authorities indicated that there were nearly 2,300 reports of violence against women in the first week of confinement. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, deplores the current “shadow pandemic” of violence against women.

Gender-based violence and intimate partner violence are increasing problems in confined societies, in general, but they can be accentuated by economic and social stress, deteriorated housing conditions, and the prevalence of impunity from police prosecution. Displaced or refugee women, as well as marginalized ethnic minorities are particularly vulnerable to gender-based violence.

In Brazil, women of colour represent the majority of victims of femicide, rape, and firearm-induced death. Women with disabilities are two to four times more likely to experience intimate partner violence than those without disabilities, as a study from six Asian and African countries revealed.

While many states have mobilized great efforts to set up emergency quarantine centres, sometimes requisitioning hotels or conference centres, they do not show the same level of commitment to protect victims of gender-based violence. Numerous countries lack appropriate shelters for victims and survivors of domestic violence—not only for (cis)women, but also the LGBTQI population.

In too many cases, the state is not the protector, but the perpetrator of violence. This is especially true in racialized communities and low-income neighbourhoods. In Brazil and the Philippines, the numbers of police killings are alarming, surpassing those of many armed conflicts in the world.

Although men of colour comprise the majority of its fatal victims, law enforcement violence is also directed against women, and often takes the form of harassment and sexual violence, a documented by the African American Policy Forum. Besides, LGBTQI individuals, especially those of colour, suffer disproportionately from police harassment and violence.

Reports from Indonesia reveal that transgender women have been arbitrarily detained, stripped naked and beaten by the police. In the context of COVID-19, confinement measures and its policing have already potentialized the occurrence of racial profiling and police misconduct in some countries, with incidents expected to rise as the disease progresses.

Intersectional Feminist Perspectives on Work and Economic Well-Being

The health crisis is causing a major global economic downturn with substantial implications for gender equality. It has been observed that job and business loss related to social distancing measures has a large impact on sectors with high female employment shares, such as tourism, food and beverage services, and retail. With lower incomes and less wealth than men, women seem to be especially at risk of crisis-driven poverty.

Women usually have greater caring responsibilities at home, looking after children and disabled or elderly relatives, and carry out most of domestic chores. This unpaid work burden has increased with the closure of schools in 192 countries.

School closures also disproportionately affect girls. UNESCO underlines that progress made in the education of girls - may be jeopardized by the COVID-19 shutdown measures. This because they might significantly increase dropout rates which, in the long run, could reduce women’s chances of getting qualified, better-paid jobs.

Furthermore, in many countries, in particular of the Global South, women are employed in informal and poorly remunerated activities, such as agriculture or day trading, which might experience severe disruption as a result of this health crisis. During the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, where approximately 85 percent of daily market traders are women, disease prevention measures drastically compromised women’s businesses and economic security.

In addition, female migrant workers are especially likely to suffer from the economic consequences of the pandemic, since many of them are employed in the service sector or exercise unregulated care professions, such as domestic work or caregiving, which are suspended during lockdown.

Several countries have already implemented travel restrictions, which either prevent women from returning to their place of work or their countries of origin. Female and transgender sex workers also face particular difficulties. In India, for example, they are experiencing not only a total loss of income, but also further marginalization and discrimination.

Feminist Insights, Resilience, and Resistance in Times of COVID-19: Perspectives from the Global South

The COVID-19 crisis reveals how different forms of discrimination intertwine and must be addressed collectively. So the present moment is also an opportunity to radically rethink taken-for-granted policy approaches and introduce new, decentralized forms of organization.

Women, and particularly women of colour, migrants, refugees, and those employed in informal settings, are among the most heavily affected groups of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they are also leading the way for finding sustainable solutions, resisting injustice, enhancing solidarity, and thus making their communities more resilient to this crisis, and others to come.

Feminist activists, grassroot movements, and unions all over the world are working tirelessly to bring about change despite movement restrictions, scarcity of funds, and uncertainties about the future.

In an attempt to shed light on the myriad of experiences of women across the world, and their work to mobilize, resist, and foster solidarity in times of COVID-19, we are launching a special dossier on the gendered impacts of the pandemic. This collection will bring together a series of articles written by female activists, syndicalists, human rights defenders, and journalists based and active in countries of the “Global South”.

Through these perspectives, this project aims to decentralize the debate on the crisis, and to highlight voices that are often underrepresented or marginalized, as current discussions are dominated by the viewpoints of a few countries, generally those with more economic and political power.

With this new dossier, we hope to share diverse feminist insights, and learn from them, in order to imagine and start building the world after COVID-19—a world in which, as Debora Diniz once said, “feminist values will become part of the common vocabulary.”

This article is an introduction to an upcoming special dossier on gendered effects of COVID-19. The dossier will consist of 5 articles written by authors from different regions of the "Global South", i.e. Brazil, Jordan, India. The dossier will be published in the coming weeks. 

Kristina Hinz is a lecturer, researcher and policy advisor specialized in gender-based violence, urban conflict, arms control, and public safety in Latin America. Currently, she is pursuing her Ph.D. at the Free University of Berlin with a scholarship by Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

Izadora Zubek is a French, Brazilian, and Peruvian international relations specialist with experience in research, nuclear disarmament activism, and anti-corruption policies.

This article was original published on the rosa luxemburg stiftung Website. Reproduced with the authors' permission

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