IFI Op-ed #14: Global Feminist Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic: Social Justice and Care at the Forefront
Lina Abou Habib | Wednesday, April 1, 2020
The term “feminist” is used because it goes beyond working toward equality and rights of women. Feminist change means dismantling the patriarchal beliefs, systems, and institutions that oppress women, girls, trans, intersex and non-binary people globally. This includes the dominant economic system, which makes its profits from the exploitation of people and nature. Achieving equality within these systems is not enough. We want to change – indeed, transform the systems themselves.
Source: Toward a Feminist Funding Ecosystem, AWID, October 2019
Global feminist mobilization to respond to COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic generated a vast array of responses, analyses, and insights from global feminist movements. In this essay, I will try to highlight the key issues and concerns that feminists raised, as well as recommendations that were brought forward for immediate action and for thinking through ways to envision a post-COVID-19 world.
Before doing that, it would be useful to circle back to what constitutes “feminist principles” and the kind of human relations that these principles advocate for. At the heart of the struggle are the principles of human rights, individual rights and freedoms, equality in access, benefits and results, non-discrimination, inclusivity and diversity especially across sexual orientations and gender identities, an awareness of what constitutes vulnerability, intersectionality and the differential impact of any factor, be it internal or external, based on the identity and positionality of the individual.
"The unfolding pandemic has shown that patriarchal principles of inequality and injustice render all societies and governments ineffectual in attempting to curb the crisis and secure the basic right to health care and health services to all”
Based on these principles, two weeks into the pandemic, a number of feminist networks, coalitions, and alliances launched a collective statement for a Feminist Policy on COVID-19 which was subsequently conveyed to the Member States of the United Nations calling on governments to “utilize a human rights and intersectional based approach to ensure that everyone has access to necessary information, support systems and resources during the current crisis”. The statement highlights key areas of concern to be addressed whilst taking into consideration the “lived experiences of people in vulnerable position — especially women and girls that endure a disproportionate impact due to their sex, gender, and sexual orientation — and steer policymakers toward solutions that do not exacerbate their vulnerabilitiesor magnify existing inequality and ensure their human rights.”
The nine focus areas highlighted by the statement include:
In focusing on these nine areas, which incidentally bear resonance in most if not all of the world, the statement proposes specific ways to address existing inequalities and injustices coupled with a long history of exclusion and absence and/or denial of social, economic, cultural, and political rights. These are based on the well proven facts that any crisis will exacerbate inequalities and as such, will affect people differently including their ability to recover. This has been the case during wars and conflict, displacement, natural disasters, climate change, economic crisis, and now, a global and deadly health pandemic.
The nine focus areas cited above represent some of the ways in which social and gender inequalities continue to manifest themselves especially within the framework of patriarchal systems which control all forms of power and means of production including women’s bodies and agency. In other words, even in times of crisis, it is business as usual for patriarchal institutions, policies as well as ways of thinking and doing. This is indeed ironic when the unfolding pandemic has shown that it is exactly these kinds of patriarchal principles of inequality and injustice that render all societies and governments ineffectual in attempting to curb the crisis and secure the basic right to health care and health services to all.
Adapting to and addressing the emerging crisis at the level of grassroots and communities
On another level, grassroots feminist organizations in many parts of the world including Lebanon, have been working on the nine areas of concern and beyond with emphasis on identifying the various levels of vulnerability amongst women and across sexual orientation and gender identity. This work is quite visible and grounded when targeting women in rural areas, women with disabilities, women headed households, and refugee women (in Lebanon, this includes both the earlier waves of established refugees namely Palestinian refugees as well as the more recent consecutive waves of refugees culminating in the larger numbers of refugees from Syria). At the heart of these grassroots interventions is the acknowledgement that women and girls face serious issues in accessing and controlling production and reproduction resources owing to the unequal relations of gender and their positionality as being subordinate to the men in their families and communities. The situation is worsened by family and civil laws which confine women and girls in such power dynamics. At the level of grassroots feminist organizations as well, we have started to witness since early March 2020, immediate attempts to adapt work to the emerging needs of the escalating pandemic. During the early days of the crisis, this was mostly in the form of awareness raising as well as strengthening women’s knowledge about the pandemic and means of prevention. With the lockdown coming to force in mid-March, many of the women and feminist grassroots organizations carrying transformative agendas turned their attention to the specific predicament that women and girls face as a result of the pandemic, notably in a situation of confinement and lockdown. This mostly included ensuring that the little services available to victims of domestic violence remain operational despite social distancing (including hotlines, availability of shelters, legal and psycho-social support, etc…). In addition, grassroots organizations and feminist activists identified the burden of care work during confinement coupled with the expectation that women whose jobs allow them to transition to teleworking are able to do so whilst at the same time attending to their care responsibilities.
Feminist analysis and shaping or re-shaping pro-citizens public policies
Whether addressing the issue at the level of direct interface with individuals and communities or on the global level, the feminist discourse is clearly stating that the way in which power, wealth, resources, and people’s labor were distributed and used is counterintuitive for the majority of people, and notably for women and non-binaries.
At this stage, there is a convergence if not an agreement that “life as we knew it” was very much the problem and that significant shifts have to be made. A major change is indeed toward systems and policies that ensure equality, participation, and a fair distribution of resources, wealth, and power as well as an investment in people’s wellbeing that is inclusive of all social categories and identities.
In fact, there is a body of knowledge and feminist analysis which indicate that the continued privatization of healthcare, and a gradual dismantling of social and health care services over the past decades is increasing the vulnerability and poverty of large population sections and especially women and women headed households. In addition, and as we are readily seeing during the current pandemic, the devaluing and undermining of care work and poor investment in professional frontline care workers has undermined national capacities in fighting the pandemic and consequently, save lives.
In addition to proposing counter policies based on the principles of equality, inclusivity, and justice, feminists in the region and beyond have also brought forth new and creative forms of everyday resistance through solidarity and community outreach, feminist art, communication and writings. Women and feminist funds have mobilized and moved towards reviewing their ways of funding and supporting the work of women and feminist groups. Indeed, many of these global organizations have mobilized fresh funds to allow women organizations to address the pandemic as well as survive it. Also, and at the time of writing this essay, there are on-going initiatives in rethinking research and research questions which will help us identify the best policy solutions to inequality and injustice.
The pandemic is likely to cause a severe human toll and irreparable damages. The cruelty of our social and health care systems and the fact that most of our countries do not have pro-poor policies will mean that this will be the battle of the fittest. But it has also created new opportunities for solidarity and collective action.
In the case of Lebanon, the pandemic has validated the causes that have led to the popular revolution of October 17th. A reminder that since the first day of the revolution, women and men were calling for social justice in the form of adequate and accessible health care, pension schemes, a reform of the National Social Security Fund, and policies that ensure that citizen’s fundamental rights are secured. With the absence of such policies, the population in Lebanon has been left to fend for itself amidst loss of jobs, poor health care, and increasing poverty. However, and rather than stifling the revolution, the pandemic has indeed provided more resilience and power to the feminist voices. Indeed, never before has a feminist mobilization for rights, entitlements, equality and accountability been more essential especially when a return to the tried and tested confessional system can no longer be envisaged.
Lina Abou Habib, Senior Policy Fellow at IFI. Strategic MENA advisor for the Global Fund for Women.
This article is part of a new series launched by the AUB Issam Fares Institute to reflect on the impact of the #COVID-19 pandemic on various levels: the economy (global, and national), globalization, multilateralism, international cooperation, public health systems, educational system, refugee response, among other topics.
Opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.