As we’ve seen with education, work, healthcare, and other socioeconomic factors, COVID-19 is once again impacting women and girls disproportionately compared to their male counterparts. The pandemic is yet another illustration of the obstacles to gender equality that remain, explains Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, gender equality advocate and ONE’s France director.
Najat argues that the pandemic has left “women rendered invisible” and has “significantly worsened” their living conditions. COVID-19 is bringing new urgency to the global fight for gender equality.
“If we look at the world scale, because that’s something I’ve really tried to do, you realize that everywhere in the world, women have had their rights watered down,” Najat explains. “And unfortunately, that’s even more the case in countries which still have a lot of work to do in the gender equality area.”
The pandemic’s toll on domestic work
COVID-19 has impacted women first. Everywhere women’s rights were put into question. In low-income countries, the crisis has also exacerbated vulnerabilities in terms of food, security and economy.
The pandemic has also revealed another dimension of gender inequality. COVID-19 highlighted how essential care workers are, despite often being under-appreciated, with everyone suddenly discovering “that this vast, indispensable and invisible population of care workers is overwhelmingly made up of women.”
With schools closed, children home, and healthcare systems stretched thin, demands in the care field and at home have increased during the pandemic. And the burden still falls primarily on women — but this hasn’t necessarily resulted in increased appreciation and recognition of domestic work, Najat warns.
“Rather than seeing [jobs related to care] as real professions, we see them as the natural continuation of women’s altruistic generosity, the extension of their maternal instincts, basically, the extension of the domestic field they are associated with,” she explains, and that’s why those jobs are so under-appreciated in our societies.
In many societies, this crisis has brought to light the paradoxical nature of our current social hierarchies, in which “the most useful citizens” — those who take care of others and hold societies together — are also given the least recognition. Najat calls this a system of “inversed values,” where care-related tasks are seen as just part of the domestic field, and therefore immediately devalued. Among these “most useful citizens,” we find a huge proportion of women.
COVID-19 has proven how essential those care workers are (from cashiers, to nurses, to housekeepers) even though they’ve been treated as invisible for many years. After the peak of the pandemic, Najat and others “really thought society opened its eyes and was now ready to fix this injustice and bring care back to a central place in our social order.”
Sadly, this hasn’t happened. ”This concern has been absent from political discussions, thus rendering women’s roles and contributions to social life invisible. In the media, women have only been pictured as the second or third lines in the war rhetoric used,” explains Najat “Women’s reality was once more subordinated to the priorities selected by the political discourse.”
The paradox of equality
More broadly gender equality is — obviously — still an ongoing fight in all societies, Najat explains.
“Generally speaking, I believe that feminist discourse comes up against two things,” she says. “First, the conservatism of established actors who have no interest in agreeing to let go of some of the power they monopolise, [and] second, there is a form of blindness to gender inequalities, including on the part of women, in our societies, even though they have evolved.”
“This is what we call the paradox of equality: the few victories we have, in a country like [France], that we won on the gender equality front mean that a large number of women do not realise what is at work and believe with sincerity that they are equal to men.”
Prior to joining ONE, Najat saw this paradox of equality among young girls during her roles as the French minister for women’s rights and the minister of national education, higher education and research. Working with high school girls, she learned that they “found the feminist discourse a bit old-fashioned or victimising.” But that changed once these girls entered the workforce.
“Four or five years later, you had to see us resume the same conversation with them,” Najat says. “That was enough for them to realise the insidious nature of promotions that are never offered, the persistent glass ceilings, the difficulty of juggling between domestic and professional life.”
Najat explains that there’s “another profile of women” who don’t see “the reality” of gender inequalities that fall into this paradox.
“[These] are the women who have been empowered through a remunerative occupation, which certainly takes them away from home but allows them to delegate to others, by the means of fees, the management of the domestic life, children, elderly parents, etc. Many of these women see themselves as an illustration of an unfolding progress for women since they no longer take care of ancillary tasks,” she says.
But there is a blind spot, Najat says. Women have not yet achieved this autonomy thanks to sharing the burden at home with men. Instead, it’s generally “other women — more precarious, generally foreign and therefore more vulnerable” taking care of these tasks.
Lifting the veils of ignorance
Unfortunately, women were totally forgotten in the economic and social responses to the crisis, Najat says. Very few government or international institutions have integrated a gender-related clause in one of their stimulus packages. Even the UN’s $2 billion plan does not have any kind of gendered response.
In a post-COVID world, we must include women in decision-making.
In her recent book “The society of the vulnerable: feminist lessons,” Najat draws upon Simone de Beauvoir’s quote, “all it would take is a political, economic or religious crisis for women’s rights to be called into question,” and the world is seeing that with COVID-19. But, there are actions individuals, leaders, and governments can take to circumvent that, Najat says.
“We should lift all the existing veils of ignorance, all those blind spots that prevent us from seeing the reality as it exists and as the crisis we are going through reveals it profoundly,” Najat explains.
“For this, we need figures, data, statistics, which are still lacking too much. In order to achieve that, we need voluntarist policies that understand that this subject is not the last wheel of the coach, but what derails our societies,” she continues. “Women are the first victims of the COVID-19 crisis and … their situation should be taken into account when thinking about public policies to implement.”
And lastly, “what if the feminist struggle for equality was also that for a care democracy, that is, for a society that finally recognizes an economic, political and social value in the work of care, of relationships and of service to others, and thus a value to the contribution of everyone rather than to the power of a few?” Najat writes.