International Women’s Day: experts discuss Covid's impact on gender equality

Women’s groups believe the UK’s response to Covid-19 suffered from the lack of a female perspective

Joeli Brearley, founder, Pregnant Then Screwed

Pregnant women and mothers are quite simply not OK. They have been put under enormous strain at work because of safety issues, have had to make choices between their livelihoods and the health of their babies. They’ve gone for hospital appointments, received terrible news and often had to go into labour on their own, and then they have been at home, not able to see anybody else. When they want to go back to work they can’t get childcare, or they’ve had other kids to home school.

The gender-blind policymaking from this government has at no point considered their needs. And as a result, this group of women’s finances are severely impacted and their mental health is on the floor.

We haven’t seen the worst of it yet. Redundancies will come when furlough ends and it is more likely to be women who lose their jobs. Once mothers are out of the workforce, it’s very difficult to get them back in and I think we’re going to see quite severe levels of poverty among families as a result. We are going to be dealing with the fallout from this for a very long time to come.

Mary-Ann Stephenson, director, Women’s Budget Group

It’s been a pretty terrible year for women, even if the furlough scheme has meant it’s not been as bad as in some countries. But the furlough scheme is going to come to an end and significant sectors of the economy – particularly those that employ large numbers of women – are going to see major job losses. That’s really worrying.

The impact of school and nursery closures have seen women leaving work or reducing hours or, if they’re self-employed, not taking on new contracts. At the same time 58% of local authorities are warning of nursery closures in their area. So even as those women might be able to get back into jobs, the childcare is not going to be there – and no suggestion of help for that sector in the budget.

I think that, throughout the year, we’ve seen the government kind of struggling to catch up with the idea that you can’t design policies that don’t take into account the needs of half the population and expect them to work.

Mandu Reid, leader, Women’s Equality party

This pandemic has really shown that not having women in the mix when decisions are being taken causes massive damage.

When you neglect childcare and social care and poverty, an inadequate response to the virus is inevitable. If you have more women around the table, who are tuned in to those issues, who understand community and family from other perspectives, you’re more likely to get those issues factored into decisions.

We’ve seen progress of a sort, in that now we have provision for maternity leave for a few female parliamentarians following the Braverman bill [which gave cabinet ministers six months’ maternity leave on full pay]. It shouldn’t have taken until 2021, and Braverman’s provision is far superior to that available to other parliamentarians or many other ordinary women, but it does open a discussion about parental leave rights.

It’s hard to be hopeful about the future of gender equality in politics if we’re in a situation where many of the women whose voices need to be heard are being ignored. Women living in poverty, women from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, disabled women are even less likely than normal to be able to participate in the democratic process – and that is a very serious problem.

Farah Nazeer, chief executive, Women’s Aid

The impact of the pandemic on women and children experiencing domestic abuse has been profound. Lockdowns saw them trapped with abusers, who used the situation to intensify fear and anxiety. Our report last year found 67% of women experiencing domestic abuse said Covid-19 had been used as part of the abuse.

At the same time services reduced as Covid hit staffing and safe spaces. And it’s far from over – 63% of our services anticipate the spike in demand to last until at least June.

The government was slow to act – it wasn’t until May that the complicated and bureaucratic funding process opened. We estimated that £65m was needed for specialist services but, of the £750m package of support for charities, the VAWG [violence against women and girls] sector was allocated £48m. There has been a worrying lack of available funding for services led by and for black and minoritised women, disabled women and LGBT+ survivors.

Looking to the year ahead, there is some reason for hope with the introduction of the domestic abuse bill, but it worries me that there is no support for migrant women and women without recourse to public funds. The bill also fails to reference women’s refuges, which is likely to mean generic provision, which disregards the fact that this is a crime perpetrated by men and the majority of victims are women.

Caroline Criado-Perez, author, Invisible Women

At the beginning of the pandemic there was a very strong sense that it was not the time to talk about feminism. Men had a higher death rate, and it was seen as unseemly to start talking about who was doing the caring, and who would suffer the long-term economic impacts.

We saw an increase in women’s unpaid work, women leaving the workforce and domestic violence increase across the globe. We’ve seen female healthcare workers exposed to the virus because PPE has been designed for men. Perhaps this was inevitable, but the worst could have been mitigated if women had been included in government responses to the pandemic from the beginning.

Now as we look to economic recovery the government’s focus is on construction, even though research points to women being hardest hit. It feels like gender is completely absent from the recovery plan.

At least now we are talking about the impact on women, and that is something to take heart from. Now we need a proper sex analysis of the economy and collection of sex disaggregated data on the impact of the virus, for the benefit of both sexes.


Alexandra Topping

The GuardianTramp

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