Covid-19 and the Heightened Risks in Human Trafficking

Covid-19 and the Heightened Risks in Human Trafficking

Women
Covid-19 and the Heightened Risks in Human Trafficking
Micheal Martin, Leo Varadkar and Eamon Ryan walking at a distance together
Niamh Elliott-Sheridan
30th July 2020

 

Today, July 30th 2020, marks the United Nations’ World Day against Trafficking in Persons, established to raise awareness about the plight of victims and to promote and protect their rights. Experts have warned that the Covid-19 crisis has put human trafficking victims at risk of further exploitation. New analysis from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has indicated the coronavirus pandemic has impacted procedures for the protection of victims of trafficking at all stages of their ordeal. UNODC Executive Director Ghada Fathi Waly has highlighted that restricted movement, widespread travel restrictions which are “diverting law enforcement resources”, and the reduction of public and social services mean that victims of trafficking have even less chance of getting help or escaping their situation.

 

Resources previously dedicated to fighting crime have been diverted toward Covid-19 efforts, with the result that services assisting victims of trafficking, such as charities and shelters, are being reduced or entirely shut down due to the virus and the lack of personal protective equipment for staff and service users. With many countries closing their borders and enforcing quarantines and sometimes curfews in a bid to curb the virus, some victims are unable to return home. Others face delays in legal proceedings due to courts closing and difficulties in evidence collection. Halting the adjudication of cases delays justice for trafficking victims and prolongs suffering.

 

Even under normal circumstances, identifying and supporting victims of human trafficking is difficult due to the hidden and insidious nature of trafficking and the hold that fear has over victims. During a pandemic, this task becomes nearly impossible as countries divert their priorities elsewhere. Victims of trafficking are also at high risk of contracting the virus because they are less equipped to protect themselves from it and to access testing and treatment if they become sick. And for survivors who have escaped from trafficking, the pandemic is a particularly difficult time because isolation measures and even wearing masks can act as trauma triggers.

 

The marginalisation of vulnerable groups, from refugees and domestic abuse survivors to people who are homeless and suffering from addiction, means our societies and economies fail to protect those who need the most help at this time. And as school closures result in the loss of a vital source of shelter and meals, many children in poorer countries are being forced onto the streets in search of money and food, which increases their risk of exploitation and exposure to violence. Traffickers have adjusted their business models to the current climate and are preying on vulnerable people, including those who may have lost their income due to the public health crisis. It is feared that organised crime networks will continue to further profit from the pandemic, increasing  their current earnings of roughly $150 billion a year of which $99 billion comes from commercial sexual exploitation.

 

 

“Globally, it is estimated that 71% of enslaved people are young girls and women; 29% are men.”

As of 2016, on any given day there are 403,000 people in the United States living in modern slavery, with 50,000 people trafficked in the Americas annually; a staggering figure which helps to illustrate the scale of this problem. According to the Global Slavery Index, 25 million people are trapped in modern slavery in the Asia-Pacific region, with Thailand and Malaysia being known leading destinations for trafficking. In Ireland, an estimated 8000 people are living in modern slavery. The 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report stated 64 people were trafficked in Ireland in 2018 of whom 27 were women trafficked for sexual exploitation, 23 were men exploited in the fishing industries and 14 were in various other labour and forced criminal situations. Globally, it is estimated that 71% of enslaved people are young girls and women; 29% are men.

 

While Covid-19 is affecting all victims of trafficking, children are one group being particularly affected at this time. Sexual exploitation is one main form of trafficking in children and minors. The UN Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, Mama Fatima Singhateh, has stated that travel restrictions have facilitated new methods of exploitation and abuse of children. These include attempts to establish “delivery” services (where traffickers “deliver” children to buyers) and a spike in numbers of people trying to access child pornography online. As young people spend more time online, they are exposed to sexual predators. Ms Singhateh said, “producing and accessing child sexual abuse material and live-stream child sexual abuse online has now become an easy alternative to groom and lure children into sexual activities and to trade images in online communities”.

 

A spokesperson for the Royal Mounted Canadian Police has said: “chatter in dark web forums indicate that offenders see the pandemic as an opportunity to commit more offences against children”. The Victim Services of Durham Region reports that Canada’s Alberta Province has seen over a 50% increase in online child exploitation since March 2020. An ECPAT report says that increasing numbers of Syrian families are marrying off underage daughters to Turkish men for money to afford food for their other children. Turkey also has the highest number of child refugees in the world, making these children highly vulnerable to trafficking, forced marriage and further exploitation, according to ECPAT.

 

While the UNODC has recently increased its support for its global partners to help them combat trafficking, it is imperative for individual countries to keep NGO services, shelters and hotlines open . Access to these essential services is crucial at a time when trafficking is being driven further underground. Access to justice must be safeguarded and countries need to prioritise legal proceedings for trafficking victims. Meaningful collaboration between countries’ official powers and human rights organisations is necessary to ensure proper protection for victims. Covid-19 responses must be continuously monitored, with adjustments made to meet the needs of specific groups, e.g. children. International law enforcement and cooperation have to remain vigilant. There is a need for systematic data collection and analysis on the impact of Covid-19 on trafficking and on the human rights of victims. As Professor Siobhán Mullaly, Director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights (ICHR) at NUI Galway, and the newly appointed UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, especially women and children, has said: “It is critical now that effective protection measures are taken to vindicate the human rights of victims of trafficking, and that Governments and the international community take seriously their obligations to prevent human trafficking.”

 

 

Featured photo by UNODOC

 

 

Period Poverty is an Unknown Consequence of Coronavirus Shutdowns

Period Poverty is an Unknown Consequence of Coronavirus Shutdowns

Women

Period Poverty is an Unknown Consequence of Coronavirus Shutdowns

shopping aisle of period products
Lone protester, against a line of riot police

27th July 2020

 

I get my period. People get their periods. Half of the world’s people will get a period at some time in their life. Yet, period poverty exists and is exacerbated by Covid-19. The virus has revealed the cracks in our system. One of these cracks is the lack of support and supplies for people who have periods.

 

‘Period poverty’ describes the inability to afford sanitary products. It can also relate to the lack of understanding and education surrounding periods. The term ‘toxic trio’ helped me to understand period poverty better. This is the trio of elements which create and exacerbate period poverty. Firstly, there is a lack of education about periods. Secondly, there is the cost of sanitary products. Thirdly, there is a taboo and stigma surrounding menstruation.

 

A lack of education about periods persists. Generally, the institutions which provide information on periods are educational institutions such as schools and health care services. With schools closed due to Covid-19 in many countries and health care services only dealing with critical cases, the flow of information provided to people who have periods has been disrupted. One might assume that this problem is resolved by the wealth of information available online. But I can tell you as someone from rural Ireland that internet access is a privilege and not one which everyone has. Internet access is estimated to be 53.6% worldwide by the end of 2019. Although this seems like an encouraging figure, there is a significant gender gap in internet access. In fact, the global internet gender gap is 17%. Women, girls and marginalized groups are much less likely to have access to the internet. This directly affects people’s ability to educate themselves about menstruation at a time when access to traditional education resources are out of reach.

 

This lack of education feeds into myths about links between menstruation and Covid-19. For instance, in Tanzania, rumours spread that menstruation is a symptom of Covid-19 and that people menstruating are more likely to transmit the disease. These rumours are without any scientific basis and feed into the stigmatization of people who have periods. The stigma and taboos about periods are directly linked to a lack of education or miseducation on the subject of periods. This societal misperception is also reinforced by how we see periods on television and in advertisements. For example, I have never seen red blood spilled onto a sanitary product in an advertisement. Instead, I see a blue liquid poured onto the pad. This signals to me that periods and blood are not something to talk about. They are something to whisper about. We need to question why society makes us feel that our natural body functions are not normal.

 

The cost of sanitary products prohibits many people from managing their period safely and hygienically. In Ireland, tampons can cost anywhere from €1.50 to €6 per pack, and sanitary towels range from €2 to €6 per pack. Although Ireland has no tax on these items, there is a tax on reusable menstrual cups, which are more environmentally friendly and cost €24 to €30, plus 23% VAT. There are also other associated costs with having a period. In Ireland, nearly 70% of young women needed pain relief medication for their period. These things add up and disproportionately affect people who cannot afford sanitary products. 12.8% of women and girls live in poverty worldwide.  In India, for example, approximately 355 million menstruating women cannot afford sanitary products and are vulnerable to period poverty. Poverty is also persistent in Ireland. 2,221 women were recorded as homeless by the State in May 2020. These women do not have free access in emergency accommodation to sanitary products. The same is true for asylum seekers in Direct Provision centres. The meagre weekly allowance in Direct Provision is €38.80 per week, making it difficult to manage periods. It is clear that the government should provide sanitation products in these instances. Without access to these products, the ability to have a period with dignity is threatened.

 

“With schools closed due to Covid-19 in many countries and health care services only dealing with critical cases, the flow of information provided to people who have periods has been disrupted”

Menstrual supplies are essential items. Without them, we are unable to manage our period with confidence and dignity. Unfortunately, Covid-19 disrupted supply chains and stock, meaning that there was a loss of access to sanitary products. The lack of awareness in government about this issue was highlighted when sanitary products were not initially listed as essential supplies in many countries. This reflects the general lack of female leadership as without women in decision-making positions issues such as sanitary supplies are an afterthought! National committees set up to deal with Covid-19 responses have been gender imbalanced. A report which surveyed 30 countries found that of the countries which established these committees, 74% had fewer than one-third female membership and only one committee was gender-equal.  Notably, countries with more women in leadership positions have had on average a more gender-sensitive response to Covid-19. Women are needed to create a more equal and holistic response to Covid-19 and ensure important issues like menstrual health are not forgotten about.

 

The lockdown of society, economic uncertainty and widespread job losses have put menstrual products out of reach for many. UN Women Reports have stated that people are resorting to newspaper, socks and toilet paper to soak up menstrual blood. Charities working on period poverty have also noted an increase in demand for sanitary products. One charity said that the number of sanitary packs it handed out has increased five-fold. A national charity in the UK stated that it usually distributed 5,000 packs a month but this increased to more than 23,000 in the three months after lockdown.

 

Covid-19 has brought period poverty to light. I hope that Covid-19 will not only reignite the conversation on the issue of period poverty but also prompt vital action. We have an opportunity to reimagine a world in which period poverty does not persist. In this world, the government will ensure access to education and digital technologies is affordable and accessible, and that information flows to those who need it most. Sanitary products should also be made available to those who are most vulnerable and need them as essential items. New Zealand has already begun to provide free period products for girls in certain schools and will roll this out nationwide within three years. Unfortunately, this endeavour has been disrupted by Covid-19 with school closures. This is a start but it should not be the end in providing sanitary products for people who menstruate. Those experiencing poverty, homeless and in direct provision should not have to pay for essential products. The state should provide these.

 

We need to end period poverty. Period.

 

 

 

Featured photo by Anique

 

 

Marianne: Things we Can Learn from a Normal Person

Marianne: Things we Can Learn from a Normal Person

Women

Marianne: Things we Can Learn from a Normal Person

Streedagh Beach Sligo
18th July 2020

 

Sally Rooney’s fascinating characters, Marianne and Connell, have entranced TV fans over the lockdown period. Their love story models the turbulent relationship that often exists between two young adults. From breakups to makeups, their love transforms from an innocent flame to a burning fire over the course of twelve episodes.

Memorable, captivating and, most importantly, relatable, the deep bond that Marianne and Connell develop over the course of the series is the Rose and Jack, the Ross and Rachel, the Romeo and Juliet of the 21st Century.

The character of Marianne has gathered a lot of attention from media and critics since her arrival on screen in the BBC series Normal People (adapted from the book for television by none other than Rooney herself). The character of Marianne has come under intense scrutiny due to the show’s depiction of the sexual relationship between the star-crossed lovers, some even classifying it as something out of a ‘porno movie’.

It was these words that motivated me to delve into this story, particularly from Marianne’s point of view. Firstly, I personally struggled to pinpoint any problem with the moments of intimacy shown on screen. On the contrary, I applaud the BBC for breaking the taboos that still exist around sex and young people in this country. For me, the relationship between Marianne and Connell is nothing short of iconic as it shows the audience that teenagers experience real and complicated feelings.

The depiction of Marianne’s ‘unconventional’ sexual relationships raises important issues of how people relate to their sexuality and their bodies, including as the result of trauma. It also poses interesting questions about whether such relationships are inherently liberating or damaging or if this depends on the context. This is something that I have not seen explored in such detail before and, while the show has faced some criticism that it gets BDSM wrong, it is fuelling conversations on these issues which is positive.

I spent many days agonising over the complex character of Marianne. Due to the negativity which has arisen in some quarters since the show has aired in Ireland, I wanted to look at the real Marianne, the one that exists behind the titillating headlines.

Marianne is a girl who dances to the beat of her own drum and remains true to her idea of herself in countless ways. At the same time she finds herself in situations that suppress her freedom and appear damaging to her, in particular her relationship with Jamie. However, these contradictions also add a layer of complexity which is essential for any realistic character, especially a character who is on a path of discovery as Marianne is.

Her individuality is first shown at the beginning of the series. It is evident that Marianne’s ideas about school life differ from those of many other students in her school. Marianne refuses to follow the crowd and she suffers the consequences in the form of bullying from her classmates who target her refusal to conform.

 

“Marianne is a girl who dances to the beat of her own drum and remains true to her idea of herself in countless ways.”

Marianne’s devastation at Connell’s behaviour surrounding the Debs Ball and her own vulnerability arising from his actions is also something she doesn’t try to hide or suppress. She comes to the conclusion that Connell doesn’t treat her exactly how she wants, or how she deserves. I was impressed by her courage to put her own feelings first and step away from a person that simultaneously causes her both joy and pain (an action which also foreshadows her final action in the story in removing herself from her abusive family situation).

When accidentally reunited in college, Marianne’s kindness towards Connell at her boyfriend’s party is a testament to her moral attitude and personal strength. She gives Connell a second chance, something that cannot be underestimated as it takes courage to let someone back into your heart. Marianne is not perfect, and she understands that nobody is, not even Connell.

The full horror of Marianne’s home life is brought to the forefront in later episodes. The abuse she suffers at the hands of her brother is vile and abominable. It is also an inescapable element of everyday life for people, especially women, all around the world. When we meet Marianne she is submerged in this toxic environment, but her ability to move away from the abuse and create the life that she deserves is inspirational.  Thus, while the ending to Marianne’s story is not as obviously exciting as that of Connell’s (he is presumably on his way to a prestigious writing career in New York while she chooses to remain behind in Ireland), it is equally momentous because she finally frees herself from her oppressive family environment in a true display of power and resilience. This makes her character arc extremely satisfying as it signals the promise of future growth for Marianne.

Although this is only a brief insight into the character of Marianne, these characteristics are the most poignant to me. Yes, Marianne is not perfect, and she makes mistakes; she doesn’t have an ideal life, and she is the victim of her life’s circumstances in some respects. But she holds many desirable qualities which I feel have been underrepresented in the media to date. Her courage, resilience and strength throughout the series, and particularly in the closing scene, act as a reminder to everybody who is struggling that there is light at the end of the tunnel. That changing your life circumstances is possible, even if it sometimes involves sacrifice.

This is my message to all of you normal people out there: We all have some sort of cross to bear and we are all massively flawed and inconsistent. In this respect, Marianne is someone we can identify with and even aspire to be like. She is a real person with real experience. She is a normal person.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Featured photo Caroline Johnston

 

 

Coronavirus and Care Part 2: Bringing About Change

Coronavirus and Care Part 2: Bringing About Change

Women

Coronavirus and Care Part 2:

Bringing About Change

Protest sign advocating love

17th July 2020

 

This article forms part of our women and coronavirus series. Part One here.

 

Yesterday we started a discussion about how the coronavirus crisis is shining a light on the gendered nature of care work. The virus is also causing a shift in consciousness regarding the value of care work and caring principles to our lives. This appears a crucial time to harness the dialogues that are currently happening around care and achieve radical change in this area. In thinking about how to bring about change, several perspectives are helpful.

Firstly, I think the work of care feminists can offer crucial insights at this time. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, ethics of care, also called care ethics, is a feminist philosophical perspective that uses a relational and context-bound approach toward morality and decision making.

Care ethics emerged from the work of Carol Gilligan, a social and moral psychologist, in the 1980s. Gilligan researched the difference in male and female responses to moral dilemmas. Through experiments, she found that women tended to respond using a different voice of moral reasoning which she called the ‘voice of care’. This voice was based principally on values of relationship, and thinking that was contextual and narrative. By contrast, men tended to apply moral principles universally to different situations. Gilligan called this the ‘voice of justice’, and this ethical juxtaposition is sometimes referred to as the care-justice debate.

While assuming that women are more naturally caring than men has been criticised for being essentialist, it is worth pointing out that second-generation care feminists view care as central to human life, rather than linking it to gender. Care ethics has also been labelled apolitical and irrelevant beyond the domestic sphere. However, care feminist Joan Tronto understands care in much broader terms, defining it as ‘everything we do to maintain, continue and repair our world so that we can live in it as well as possible’.

Care ethics is fundamentally based upon relationships and interconnectedness, particularly the relationships of care-givers and receivers. This is fitting because the coronavirus has newly revealed our independence and the value of community and relationships. The care ethics perspective recognises the centrality of care in everyone’s lives (again, especially true in a global pandemic) and the need for care work to be adequately valued.

In yesterday’s article, I referred to a phenomenon known as the ‘care drain’, referring to the fact that the majority of women who make up care workers (particularly those in the most precarious, low-status jobs) are from migrant or ethnic minority backgrounds. Because feminist care ethics has a world view that is relational, contextual and narrative, centring on women’s and other marginalised groups’ experiences, it can be a useful lens through which to interrogate the structural issues and power relations at the heart of the feminisation of care and survival, and to seek to design better, more caring policies and politics as a result of this investigation.

Feminist care ethics recognises that a feminisation of care, both in formal and informal care work, is wrong due to the burden it places on women, but also because, according to Fiona Robinson, “men are not participating in this aspect of what it means to be a human being”.

A practical approach to combating this lack of participation can be seen in the work of photographer Johan Bävman. Featuring portraits of the small percentage of Swedish men who choose to stay at home with their child for at least six months, his Swedish Dads photo-exhibition used a care ethics approach to shift societal attitudes and values and cut through centuries of conditioning. Despite Sweden having one of the most generous parental leave systems in the world, enabling parents to stay at home with their child for 480 days (while receiving a state allowance), women were still using 95% of the leave days. It was not “until the Swedish state’s support of the photo project…that a new groundbreaking imagery of fatherhood emerged”. Swedish Dads has now been exhibited in 65 countries and has been turned into a successful book that is on its third edition.

This creative approach could be easily replicated in other contexts, i.e. to highlight other marginalised groups and voices and thereby achieve seismic shifts in societal norms. This is helpful as we begin to think of ways to embed the values of care in our society, and to orient our politics and policies towards more caring ethics.

Secondly, and relatedly, many other theorists besides care feminists have advocated for placing values of care (and love) at the epicentre of our politics and policies and suggested ways to bring this change about. The wisdom they offer is crucial too. Central to American philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s text, Political Emotions, is the idea that “loving values” such as compassion and commitment can guide action and inform policy. For example, Nussbaum visualises a health service built on ‘care, concern, and moral equality’, which ‘rather than shunting people from service to service would “wrap around people”, nurturing them throughout their lives.’ For Nussbaum, the media, public projects and artistic endeavour can play a crucial role in whatever governments do to express, and bring about, love in politics and the public sphere. Some of the valuable lessons to draw from Nussbaum’s work is love’s potential to be an inspiring value which binds people together and motivates collective action; and her attention to creativity as something which can bring forth love in a way that normal politics perhaps cannot.

Feminist and activist bell hooks also promotes love as a political process to transform systems of injustice such as capitalism, patriarchy, and racism. She writes that:

 

 

A love ethic emphasises the importance of service to others. Within the value system of the United States any task or job that is related to ‘service’ is devalued. Service strengthens our capacity to know compassion and deepens our insight. To serve another, I cannot see them as an object, I must see their subjecthood.’

Referencing Martin Luther King’s declaration, “I have decided to love”, hooks says she shares the belief and the conviction that it is in choosing love, and beginning with love as the ethical foundation for politics, that we are best placed to transform society in ways that enhance the collective good. In All About Love, she notes that “All the great social movements for freedom and justice in our society have promoted a love ethic”.

Both Nussbaum and hooks share a specific recognition of the importance of emotions and values as a galvanising and motivating force that can inspire collective action, and which can be harnessed to bring about change.

And Ireland’s 2015 Campaign for Marriage Equality shows that harnessing emotions and people’s positive values can indeed be a powerful tool for securing genuinely transformative change. Dr Gráinne Healy was the chair of the campaign which culminated in the successful marriage equality referendum. It was a historic result with 62% of the Irish population voting ‘Yes’ to same-sex marriage in a country that was traditionally considered one of the most socially conservative in Western Europe. 

Dr Healy has since published a best practice guide on values-based campaigning in the hope of enabling other activist groups to replicate her success. Her key findings are understanding the values at the core of your campaign, tell the human story and  connect with people’s emotions and core positive values:

 

Values based campaigning involves leveraging people’s emotions and connecting people with values they hold dear or to which they aspire. It connects individuals to groups or communities. It increases engagement of supporters. It attracts those open to moving towards your proposition, because they now understand that your proposition links to their values and their aspirations

During this pandemic, people are hosting and tuning in to webinars and Zoom calls as never before. This time of global pause offers a crucial opportunity to bring the personal stories and lived experiences of women and other marginalised groups to the fore, sharing them with different and more widespread audiences. This can open up fresh spaces for connection, collaboration, and exchange, bringing new actors to the table; and allowing groups to collectively mobilise around feminist, care-oriented, principles.

The success of the Swedish Dads Project and Ireland’s Marriage Equality campaign point to the value of interdisciplinary cooperation and creativity in bringing about change on the issue of care. It could be beneficial to explore combining  the perspective of feminist care ethics with other disciplines, especially creative ones. There is also merit in drawing upon broader sociological insights and social research in this endeavour. For instance, researching the values and messaging of love, care (or both) that will best connect individuals to the change we need to see. 

Already there is a strong counter-narrative of austerity politics and a return to the status-quo emerging. Economic stories are compelling, but so too are stories of care and love. Why not harness their power? The time is now.

 

 

 

 

 

Featured photo by Ben Mater

 

 

Coronavirus and Care: Redefining the Value of Care

Coronavirus and Care: Redefining the Value of Care

Women

Coronavirus and Care Part 1:

Redefining the Value of Care

Care worker with elderly person in a wheelchair
16th July 2020

 

This article forms part of our women and coronavirus series.

 

Every crisis presents a possibility. This crisis, the coronavirus crisis, is shining new light on care and its gendered nature. The good news is that, at the same time that women’s care burden is being exacerbated, society is waking up to the importance of care in our day-to-day lives and our flourishing as human beings. There is a crucial window of opportunity to harness this awareness and push for real change.

In late December 2019, Covid-19 arrived and the world as we knew it swiftly turned upside down. In our coronavirus-world, care (or lack thereof) is a critical issue. The pandemic proportions of this disease require enormous amounts of care at virtually every level of society.

While the virus has brought about an overarching care crisis, many people are experiencing crises in care that are not an inevitable result of the pandemic, but rather are directly linked to the unfit-for-purpose state of public infrastructure and the low value placed upon care in many countries.

For example, in Ireland, we witnessed our nursing homes become centres of a national catastrophe, rather than centres of caring for our elderly and most vulnerable citizens. There have been similar patterns in other congregated residential settings, such as Direct Provision centres.  There were issues with a lack of PPE for health-workers, reflective of a broader societal failure to protect the caregivers.

Despite a prevailing narrative that the virus is ‘a great equaliser’, not everyone is being affected equally and experiences of the virus differ significantly. As in previous pandemics, like Ebola and Zika, the gendered impacts of this virus soon became apparent.   One of the main reasons for the different impact upon women is the fact that care work (or the labour of care) is highly gendered, whether it is paid or unpaid.

Already, women carry out two-thirds of all care work done around the world, and much of this work is either unpaid or poorly paid. There are studies which show the value of this work is about two-thirds of the total market economy (ca. 10.8 trillion US dollars each year).

In the formal care sector, women are disproportionately impacted by coronavirus as they make up over 70% of the global health and social care workforce, according to WHO figures, and are thus more likely to be exposed in their workplace. If one expands the definition of the care workforce to include other ‘caring’ occupations like cleaners and supermarket cashiers, EIGE data shows women make up 95% of cleaners and workers, and 82% of those working in supermarkets.

Women are also more likely to take on the burden of care at home, and globally women’s domestic burdens are increasing exponentially due to the virus. For these reasons, the pandemic has been called a crisis for feminism; and a need to work to shift the balance of care between women and men is evident. In Ireland, a recent CSO report found as follows:

 

“Women are more likely to report Covid-19 related childcare issues than men. More women than men are caring for a dependent family member or friend because of the crisis and a higher percentage of women are finding it more difficult to work from home with family around than men.”

A NWCI survey also found that 85% of Irish women have increased care responsibilities since COVID-19.

Of course, it is necessary to think deeper than ‘women’ as a single category. The NWCI recently said that Traveller women are twice as likely to be looking after home and family, for instance. And, of the women who make up care workers, particularly in the most precarious, low-status jobs, many are from migrant or ethnic minority backgrounds, something which care feminist Fiona Robinson has referred to as the ‘care drain’. In the UK, it recently emerged that one in three Britons pays a domestic cleaner,  and in 93% of cases they are female, and disproportionately women of colour or migrant workers. In Ireland, there are many migrant women workers in our home care sector and in the nursing home sector, some of whom are still living in Ireland’s direct provision system.

These women can face layers of discrimination and lack of access to proper services, as well as heightened risks of exposure to the virus due to their overcrowded living circumstances – yet another example of the failure to protect our caregivers!

These issues have deep roots and are embedded in a broader culture of structural discrimination with gender, racial, class and other dimensions. However, the worsening of these issues due to coronavirus has led to the positive view that the crisis makes them more visible, harder to ignore or sweep under the rug. Another positive is that the crisis is redefining the status of care work in our society. For instance, people in many countries have been lighting candles for and clapping care workers, acknowledging the vital work they do. There has been a societal redefinition of who the essential workers are: the food workers, social workers, cleaners, supermarket assistants, transport workers, home help workers, and those providing support for victims of domestic violence. Many are women.

The virus has revealed our interdependency as a society, and that our health depends on each other; and the value of community and relationships. The realisation that we are only as healthy and protected as our most vulnerable populations is contributing to a growing understanding of the structural challenges around care-giving and access to care in our societies. Undoubtedly, this is causing many people to realise they want to live in a more caring society, and that we need caring policies to flourish as human beings.

There has also been a redefinition of the leadership qualities that are desirable in a crisis, and beyond, with a shift towards praising qualities of care, compassion, and love discernible, prompted in part by the extreme divergence in political response by different national leaders, and public criticism to many of the measures being enacted. This has highlighted the severe problems that arise when politicians don’t ‘care’ about their citizens, including worrying roll-backs on human rights and women’s rights. And – likely due to the lack of women’s involvement in decision-making around the response efforts – many other countries, including Ireland, adopted what might be called ‘uncaring’ or unthinking policies towards women and minority groups – the initial lack of access to the COVID-19 Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme for women returning from maternity leave here is one example.

Already there is a strong counter-narrative of austerity politics and a return to the status-quo emerging. But coronavirus has shown us that we need policies that will unambiguously value care and care work, and that will work to redistribute care work more fairly; as well as politics which is modelled upon broader caring values such as care for the environment and a Green New Deal. This cannot be a mere topical ointment. It will be necessary to go deep and address the root causes of the feminisation of care and other forms of structural discrimination.

Many actors, including civil society organisations and women’s organisations, have been calling for gender-equal, even feminist policies, both as part of the pandemic-response and beyond. They are demanding transformation across many areas including care. With society waking up to the value of care work and of ‘caring’ as a desirable value in our politicians and their policies, this appears a pivotal moment to harness the dialogues that are happening around care and push to make these policies and politics a reality.

How could such a paradigm shift be achieved?

 

Coronavirus and Care Part Two will be published tomorrow.

 

 

Featured photo by Dominik Lange

 

 

Why We Need More Women in Power

Why We Need More Women in Power

Women

Why We Need More Women In Power

a picture of the womens march
a picture of the womens march

4th July 2020

 

We’ve read the memes and had discussions with our friends regarding women in power. We know that women have ‘historically’ suffered societal and political discrimination, and have been underrepresented in government positions. For instance, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution only granted American women the right to vote on August 18, 1920, ending nearly a century of protest. A limited cohort of Irish women won the right to vote in 1918, but it wasn’t until 1922 that all Irish women got the right to vote. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the fourth President of Iceland, was the world’s first democratically directly elected female president, serving from August 1 1980 to 1996. Her famous quote “If anything can save the world, women can”, resonates with people, and especially women, today just as it did in the past.

 

We also know that ‘historical’ discrimination continues to this day. Less than 10% of countries have a female leader. The United States, one of the most powerful countries in the world, has yet to elect a female president. However, according to the Los Angeles Times, Americans are not only ready to have a female president but would prefer one! ABC News also recently published a poll which asked Americans whether they would be open to elect their first female president, and the results were positive. Many suggested it is time for a woman to both even out the playing field and act as a saving grace, particularly in light of recent political events with Trump’s presidency and multiple controversies relating to sexual harassment of women and his egocentric views on politics. With the rumours of Michelle Obama running for president in 2020, there is hope that the U.S. will finally make history and elect its first female president.

 

Throughout World War I and II the only political leaders were men, and most of the soldiers were also men. E.M Forster stated that “I am sure that if the mothers of various nations could meet, there could be no more wars”, which is a fascinating theory. Throughout the years mothers, wives and children were the ones suffering from the loss of loved ones at war and more than anyone wanted it to stop. Could war be avoided if women were involved?

Women have been excluded from politics and government for as long as history can remember. They were told to stay at home and care for the children and the home, and this was seen as the ‘traditional role’ of any woman. This was heavily influenced not only by religion and other patriarchal institutions but also by male bias including theories based on the fact that women have a smaller brain, a form of ‘neurosexism’ that persists to this day. According to President Daniel arap Moi, former president of Kenya, “You [women] can achieve more, can get more but because of your little minds, you cannot get what you are expected to get!” while leading a regional women’s seminar in Nairobi! When women in Saudi Arabia were fighting for their right to drive, Saad al-Hijri, head of fatwas in Saudi Arabia’s Assir governorate, stated that women shouldn’t drive because their brains shrink to a quarter the size of a man’s when they go shopping. Questioning what the traffic department would do it if it discovered a man with half a brain, he asked: “Would it give him a licence or not? It would not. So how can it give it to a woman when she has only half?”… “If she goes to the market she loses another half. What is left? A quarter … We demand the traffic department check because she is not suitable to drive and she has only a quarter.” After such comments, he was banned from preaching.

 

“Fine sees issues with how ‘facts’ about sex differences in the brain are sometimes produced, reported, cited and interpreted, saying that these can “become part of cultural lore, and reinforce social attitudes about men and women in ways that hinder progress towards greater sex equality.“”

Neurosexism is a universal problem, as explored by Cordelia Fine in her book Delusions of Gender, affecting all societies and cultures to some degree. Fine perceives neurosexism as damaging for men too, although women obviously suffer the most from these myths and the social attitudes that result from them. Of course, it is essential to point out that Fine is not dismissing the fact that there are specific sex differences in the brain which can be scientifically evidenced. (For instance, in a study of sex differences in reactions to pleasant and unpleasant slides (Gomez, Gunten, & Danuser, 2013), researchers found women reacted more negatively to unpleasant slides (e.g., mutilated bodies, physical violence, and suffering or dead animals), a sex difference that persisted in size from ages 20 to 81.)  Rather, Fine sees issues with how ‘facts’ about sex differences in the brain are sometimes produced, reported, cited and interpreted, saying that these can “become part of cultural lore, and reinforce social attitudes about men and women in ways that hinder progress towards greater sex equality.” 

 

While Fine perceives the concept of the gendered brain as inherently dangerous, there is another school of thought which suggests that the female brain is precisely what we need right now. Scientifically, women may be more emotional and sensitive, but maybe that’s exactly what is required in today’s world? Perhaps the type of leadership qualities typically associated with women are the same qualities which are most needed to transform our world, and bring it into greater balance? We need to feel compassion for the poor and homeless. We need to help those who are fleeing desperate situations with the hope for a refuge. We need to take care of the elderly and the sick. We need to spread values of love and equality throughout the world. 

 

Despite the setbacks, roadblocks and defeats they face, many women make significant changes in their own countries once in power. The following are some examples (although there are many more): Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel who, despite strong opposition from other ministers, opened Germany’s borders to immigrants from Syria during the Syrian refugee crisis. The president of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was the first female president in Africa, received a nobel peace prize for her “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” The former Prime Minister of Denmark Helle Thorning-Schmidt was the first female prince minister and leader of the social democrats in Denmark. She was responsible for loosening strict anti-immigration laws. She served as the Chief Executive for a non-governmental organization, Save the Children, which promoted the rights of children in developing countries. And last but not least the Chairperson of the State Bank of India, Arundhati Bhattacharya, who was the first woman to head the Bank. She changed the male-dominant culture of the bank to a female-friendly environment by allowing women to take two-year sabbaticals for going on maternity leave and caring for family members. These changes alleviated the fear for working women of India that they would lose their jobs if they needed or chose to care for their family.

 

This article is not saying that women are better than men; it’s trying to raise awareness of the fact that women have been largely neglected in government and political decision making and to open eyes to the negative implications of shutting women out of politics. Most countries worldwide have yet to elect a female representative, but are willing to chance their arm on countless mediocre male politicians. At the same time, women are held to a much higher standard even to be deemed electable. Politics should represent our society and reflect its diverse make-up. Given that the world’s population has a 50:50 male/female split, why can’t political parties be equal sex-wise? Why not have a male and female political head for each country? Even better, why not have a representative from each societal group to create a voice for each minority? Whether we are black, white, green, or purple, male or female or in-between, we are all people. Some might cry tokenism in response to this suggestion; however, the rationality of one leader as being sufficient to represent all is outdated and not working, so why not explore other models?  Giving one person such a massive responsibility for others is unfair and dangerous. Having two leaders would reduce that risk. Even better, having multiple people responsible for a country would create diversity and would minimise irrational government decisions.

 

 

 

 

Featured photo by Giacomo Ferroni