The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on the essential roles care work and reproductive labor fulfill in our societies. But will it lead to gender liberation?
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated nearly every kind of social injustice. In the Global North, it has disproportionately killed poor people, Indigenous people and people of color. Working-class women, and especially women of color, are not only more at risk of contracting COVID-19 and dying from it, they are also over-represented in essential care work roles including nursing, elderly care, childcare, food service and domestic labor. Confinement in the home has rendered the double burden of everyday domestic labor into an untenable situation even for white, relatively affluent women.
At the same time, the social crisis of COVID-19 has cast a spotlight on the ways that care workers — both paid and unpaid — keep us alive. Care work, of course, is overwhelmingly relegated to women, who are perceived as “naturally” nurturing, loving and gentle. Feminists have always raised issues of life and death. The pandemic has inspired and empowered social movements that place care workers in a position of moral and material leverage to enact change. For the second installment of the ROAR Roundtable series, I posed the following question to a panel of activists and scholars:
How has COVID-19 affected specific struggles for women’s liberation and struggles to transform reproductive labor around the world?
In retrospect, we should have asked the question in reverse; What does feminism have to contribute to the fight against COVID-19? Indeed, each respondent has, in her own way, answered that very question. With climate change, mass incarceration, intensified state violence, policing of the movement of people across borders, the twenty-first century is becoming a biopolitical century. Given the rapidly changing attitudes towards care work and reproductive labor as our globalized society combats COVID-19, it may finally be time to recognize gender liberation as a practical and necessary achievement.
— Eleanor Finley, Associate Editor
THE TRANSFORMATIVE POWER OF FEMINIZING POLITICS
COVID-19 has brutally demonstrated what we [at Barcelona en Comú] have been saying in Barcelona for the past five years: that we need to put life at the center of municipal politics. Those who were vulnerable before the pandemic — those on low incomes, in precarious jobs, with illness and disabilities, the elderly, or those with weak support networks — have now been made even more so.
From a feminist perspective, the coronavirus will have serious consequences not just for women, but for everyone who does not fit the hegemonic model of the rich, white, heterosexual man. The more one deviates from this hegemonic profile, the more they will suffer the health, social and economic impacts of COVID-19. Racial inequalities, poverty, immigration status, culture and sexual-affective diversity are all intersectional factors that accumulate and exacerbate gender inequalities in our neighborhoods.
Care work has always been a feminized task, and therefore socially undervalued and underpaid. In the context of COVID-19, frontline work has become even more dangerous and undesirable, meaning that those who are doing it tend to be the most precarious and vulnerable women — often migrant women or single parents. Similarly, female sex workers have seen their incomes dry up overnight.
Another important aspect is the double burden faced at home by women with caring responsibilities — whether for children or other dependents. In Spain, we have seen women undertaking care work during the day and teleworking into the early morning, doubling their working hours to get everything done. Those who have male partners have seen them volunteering to go to the supermarket for the first time — in a context where this was one of the few reasons to legally leave the house.
All of this is unfolding when reactionary political winds are blowing around the world. Thanks to social discontent and chronic poverty, politicians like Trump, Orbán and Bolsonaro have emerged in a manner that resembles the developments of the interwar period that eventually led to the rise of fascism. Such fascist movements feed off a romanticized vision of a non-existent past, promising a return to a “natural order” that criminalizes social difference and political dissidence. They promise a return to a time in which women were confined to the domestic sphere.
That is why the transformative power of feminizing politics is so important. Measures like providing mental health support, investing in childcare and guaranteeing food security implicitly value the care work that sustains life itself. And only care and love, in the broadest and most universal sense of these terms, can trump hate.
Eva Abril, teacher, feminist activist and spokesperson of Barcelona En Comú in Catalonia
SUPPORTING MIGRANT WOMEN IN LONDON
Initially, while the media was reporting the explosion of domestic violence and a higher than usual number of deaths of women killed by violent partners, Southall Black Sisters were seeing fewer enquiries for our assistance. It seemed counter-intuitive, but the European Network of Migrant Women reported the same thing. Their member organizations in Finland and Portugal faced a fall in enquiries. It was a mystery.
We speculated as to whether it was because migrant women had less access to technology, whether their movements were so closely monitored by families and spouses that they were unable to seek support, or whether they expected all services to be closed and were waiting it out. However, the situation did not last long and the enquiries quickly started to come in again.
We embarked on a huge re-organization in order to provide the same level of service virtually. The technology had to be overhauled to allow staff to work from home. Funders were generous enough to respond to the need. We were able to buy phones and phone cards for many of the women so that they could access online counseling and case worker support. Even the support group now meets online twice a week. Workers dropped off food parcels and toiletries for migrant women who have no recourse to public funds.
Finding accommodation for these women was the biggest issue. SBS initiated the COVID-19 crisis project, approaching hotels and hostels to provide free accommodation for three months. At first, they came up with nothing. But then, as a result of their efforts, a much better and cheaper accommodation became available. Yet SBS and Solace Women’s Aid, who helped to deliver the project, met with real reluctance from the London mayor to fund the project and set aside enough rooms for migrant women.
They did succeed eventually; the women loved their accommodation. It reinforced their self-esteem. They asked why this could not be a permanent solution.
That is the key question to emerge from this crisis, one which should fire up our future political campaigns: if governments can magically find the funds — admittedly in self-interest — to treat people with humanity during a crisis, then we should settle for nothing less after COVID-19, all the while keeping an eye on whether this is the revolutionary moment to end a rotten system.
Rahila Gupta is a London-based journalist and author working with Southall Black Sisters (SBS), which provides direct services, information and guidance for women experiencing domestic abuse and violence, focusing on migrant women especially of Asian and African-Caribbean descent.
TOWARDS A RADICAL REORGANIZATION OF LIFE
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed many of the social inequalities that shape the life and death conditions of people around the world. It demonstrated, quite graphically, that even in the context of a virus that spreads regardless of one’s identity, human-made systems are at the heart of whose lives matter and whose can be discarded. The pandemic provided the occasion to struggle and organize worldwide.
The same groups that have been organizing mutual aid systems in their communities also tend to be those who demand the most radical changes. Black women and women of color have been at the forefront of organizing to meet their communities’ needs and demands, despite being among the most vulnerable groups affected by the pandemic. Through horizontal, direct actions that aim to solve problems collectively, these people demonstrate that the protection of life is impossible without social reproduction, care work, mutual aid and, frankly, love.
Feminist and revolutionary women’s movements have long pointed out that we cannot appeal to the mercy of the state to find solutions to our problems. They recognize that the state’s bureaucratic system is simply not designed to keep people alive. Managing life and defending life are not the same.
Organizing during the COVID-19 pandemic has in many ways also helped feminize ideas about heroism. During the pandemic, transnational discussions around labor, value and life have bucked romanticized ideas around work and gender and instead asserted that social relations must change. Reforms are not enough for justice; we must change our way of life.
When the Turkish state decided to exclude thousands of political prisoners from COVID-19 amnesty, the Kurdish women’s movement reached out to different women’s struggles around the world to start an international campaign for the freedom of political prisoners — “Solidarity Keeps Us Alive”.
But why struggle against prisons at such a time?
Despite its role in perpetuating violence, social conflict and injustice, the state often justifies police brutality, surveillance and carceral politics by presenting itself as the sole authority that can grant safety to communities. “Who is going to protect you from murderers, rapists and thieves?” they ask. The prison is the ultimate institution to represent the notion that human beings are fundamentally flawed, corrupt and evil. This deterministic view of life rejects the possibility of justice through social change; it only serves the authoritarian state.
At the heart of abolitionist perspectives such as those held by the Kurdish women’s movement is the idea that freedom and justice are not simply utopias, but are indeed possible. Violence is not fate, but an outcome of systems that can and must be dismantled. In this light, feminists and women’s struggles with abolitionist politics present some of the most revolutionary and hopeful visions and practices.
Abolishing injustice means building free societies, as Black abolitionist feminists point out. This mean abolishing rape, domestic violence, poverty and many other issues — and not by locking people up but by creating the material conditions for a more just society. And that happens through what the Kurdish women’s movement calls a “mentality revolution.”
Abolishing the system is a call for the radical reorganization of life with social relations that can serve as the new terms of life. In this sense, radical women’s struggles embody in the here-and-now that which is necessary to address the COVID-19 crisis and which is imminently realizable: a life without violence and inequality.
Dilar Dirik, Kurdish feminist and research fellow at Oxford University:
GRASSROOTS ALLIANCE, INTERNATIONAL SOLIDARITY
International Women’s Alliance
As an international alliance of grassroots women’s organizations, the International Women’s Alliance has witnessed its members battling with all of the contradictions that COVID-19 has exposed and intensified. State and domestic violence against women have reached pandemic proportions as the pressure on families, employment and livelihood increases and the lockdowns confine women at home with abusive partners.
At the same time, women have been forced to double and triple their workloads of unrecognized reproductive labor — taking on the care of family, children and elderly relatives as lockdowns suspend schools and public services.
COVID-19 has also been no impediment to continuing wars of aggression by imperialist powers like the US and its allies, including Israel’s planned annexation of the West Bank and Jordan Valley and India’s growing occupation of Kashmir. While basic health and education systems are weakened, NATO countries are spending billions preparing for war and new ways of dividing the world. In these places, women are on the frontlines of the resistance.
For women, the militarization in response to the COVID-19 crisis also means they will be at risk of suffering more violence through rape, forced displacement, land-grabbing and openly misogynist policies and attitudes promoted by authoritarians like Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte and Modi. In Latin America, violence against women, which is linked to drug trafficking and maquiladora industries, has reached femicidal proportions. Campaigns to stop this violence are being coordinated across borders and are gaining visibility.
At the same time, COVID-19 has exposed the key role that working women play in society.
In the Global South, small farmers, particularly women, are the majority of food producers. COVID-19 lockdowns have prevented their productive activities. While announcing food scarcity and hunger for themselves and the planet, the monopolization of agribusiness continues unabated.
In the Global North, COVID-19 has starkly revealed the crucial, frontline role of women migrant workers as care workers and in food and agricultural production and distribution. Their plight and precarity as migrant and refugee workers have also been laid bare and sparked struggles and solidarity from other sectors even under the confinement rules.
In the face of all this, women are finding new ways to move forward in struggle through mutual aid, health care and community-based food preparation and distribution. The IWA — soon to celebrate its 10th anniversary — is connecting from the grassroots to form strong international alliances, build stronger solidarities, exchange analyses and share campaigns.
Members of IWA are at the forefront of food sovereignty struggles both through advocacy and grassroots organizing. Hand-in-hand with the International Migrants’ Alliance and others, we are helping coordinate struggles that demand fundamental protections and basic rights for migrant workers worldwide.
The very hardships of the COVID-19 crisis are pushing our Alliance forward. Progressive women’s movements continue as a vibrant part of struggles for justice and equality by the peoples of the world.
The International Women’s Alliance is a global alliance of grassroots women’s organizations, institutions, alliances, networks and individuals.
THE WOMEN’S MOVEMENT IN COLOMBIA
Blandine Rachel, the People’s Congress, Colombia.
In Colombia, as with many other places in the world, the pandemic and the measures taken by the government have had a serious impact on poor communities and informal workers. While the focus of this roundtable is the impact on women involved in women’s liberation struggle, it is necessary to highlight that all poor women are going through similar struggles.
The work that most Colombian women do is neither formally recognized nor economically compensated. The lockdowns have had a severe impact on them, because they lost their sources of income necessary to survive the pandemic. These women often rely on the public healthcare system as few can afford private insurance.
For more than a decade, Colombia’s public healthcare system has suffered cuts and been weakened in favor of a private system. As such, the public system cannot provide high-quality care and those that use the public system are at higher risk if they do get sick.
War in Colombia has also not ceased because of the lockdowns. In fact, many organized communities have reported that the conflict has gotten worse because the government is taking advantage of the situation to militarize many regions.
There has been a noticeable increase in attacks on the Guardias — autonomous, unarmed community-based security organizations — and the frequency of assassinations of social leaders is also increasing. There have been several cases of rape of Indigenous girls by soldiers, who know that very little can be done in response right now. Due to the focus on the pandemic, this increase in violence has been met with little public outcry.
In its campaign to militarize these regions, this same military has brought the coronavirus to remote parts of the country that had yet to be affected.
Despite these impacts, women’s liberation movements and social movements against capitalism gain strength every day, as the current crisis further evidences the need to change the entire system. The means to do so are complicated.
The women’s movement participated in the march for dignity — walking from Cauca, Arauca and the North East region towards the capital. In the search for shelter, many women have also been participating in massive actions to take back the land in the peripheries of big cities.
The People’s Congress brings together peasants, Afro-descendants, Indigenous, urban, workers, women, youth in Columbia. Through training, communication and social mobilization, the Congress aims to consolidate popular power in the territories and create an internationalist alternative against patriarchy, capitalism, colonialism and imperialism. The People’s Congress in Columbia is represented here by Blandine Rachel
HOPEFUL MODES OF REVOLUTIONARY CARE
Chia-Hsu Jessica Chang, Lais Gomes Duarte and Vanessa Zettler of Colectiva Sembrar
Women across the world, besides dealing with intersectional systems of oppression, often do the invisible labor of caring for the most vulnerable. The pandemic exacerbated the vulnerability of many women involved with care work, while simultaneously activating mutual aid networks focused precisely on these very issues. In our international project to gather stories about COVID-19 mutual aid, Colectiva Sembrar have found hopeful models of revolutionary care from Brazil to Portugal, Taiwan and beyond.
In Hsin-Kang, a rural community in Taiwan, the population is largely aged, and most of its households are poor peasant families. At a communal dining space in Hsin-Kang, where elders come and gather, a woman in her 60s contributes by cooking for the people every day. Despite having severe rheumatoid arthritis and constant physical pain, she still insists on providing for those in her community who are older and more vulnerable.
Similar examples of frontline community work can also be found in Lisbon, Portugal. Women in Lisbon have come together to form Plataforma Geni, an online platform to empower migrant women whose vulnerability has been exacerbated during the pandemic. Shortly after the Portuguese government announced that Lisbon would go under lockdown, these women started an online campaign connecting women who could offer free legal and counseling services with women in need of these services.
The platform also collected money to redistribute among undocumented, unhoused or unemployed women whose labor is often invisible, undervalued and overlooked. Plataforma Geni’s decolonizing feminist practices show us a more equitable future built upon redistribution of power and in which the structural inequalities of race, gender and nationality that sustain colonialism will not prevail.
So far, the governments of Taiwan and Portugal have contained with COVID-19 relatively successfully. However, other governments, such as Brazil’s, have utterly failed, making networks of care even more important.
In Brazil, again, these networks are led by women. Suzi Soares, who comes from an artistic collective in the periphery of São Paulo, has mobilized thousands of families. Helena Silvestre, also from São Paulo, used the power of Abya Yala, a feminist school she had previously founded, as a hub to provide material, psychological and legal support for mostly Black and Indigenous women in the peripheries and favelas of the city.
In all cases, this mutual care work is done mainly by women and often remains hidden in the shadows. Yet, this work represents the possibility of a communal and better future. It must not only be made visible, but also redistributed and decolonized.
Chia-Hsu Jessica Chang, Lais Gomes Duarte and Vanessa Zettler of Colectiva Sembrar are co-authors of Pandemic Solidarity: mutual aid during the COVID-19 crisis (Pluto Press).
Teaser photo credit: By Vivian Morales C. from San Antonio, Chile – 08/03/2020 Marcha Día Internacional de la Mujer – 8M – San Antonio, Chile, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=87872539