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Patriarchy and the Pandemic: Disentangling the Web of Oppression

The pandemic is making clearer the historical and social problems of society, how it is deteriorating to the point of triggering its own decline. Fighting for another society that cares for women and life is a necessary task for our future.

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Nurses take part in joint trade unions’ protest in South Africa demanding better working conditions, Mlungisi Mbele/New Frame

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it agonizingly clear that the systems under which we are living were already broken. The pandemic has only exacerbated the crisis of the capitalist system and removed any illusions about this reality. However, the impact of the crisis has not been uniform. The neoliberal capitalist model, which survives and profits by exploiting the vulnerable, again fell back on its same old ways. As a result, it has been the workers, the migrants, the women, and others, whose unpaid and underpaid labor serves as the basis for capitalists to profit, who have suffered the most.

In this conversation with Renata Porto Bugni from the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, we discuss the study done by the organization with researchers from South Africa, India, Argentina, Brazil and the US titled Coronashock and Patriarchy to better understand the impact of the pandemic on women and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. We discuss the conditions of their work, their homes, the surge in violence against members of these communities, among other things.

Peoples Dispatch: The majority of workers on the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19 such as hospital and community care workers are women. Despite their vital importance to the fight against COVID-19 they have had to constantly struggle for their basic rights. What, according to your study, are some of the factors standing in the way of them getting these rights?

Renata Porto Bugni: Our study shows that several factors have contributed to this situation.

The first issue we address is the structural nature of the development of the capitalist model itself. The implementation of the neoliberal model has imposed a more complex reality to deal with collective problems such as a pandemic. As this model promotes tax reductions, privatization, and outsourcing, states become more and more debilitated. They cut their budgets, and reduce social investments. Austerity policies, a minimal state, and the weakening of labor unions and social organizations have compromised the social and public resources dedicated to assist the most vulnerable segments of the society.

As a result of this process of exploitation and privatization in capitalist society, a social and sexual division of labor is consolidated, with a large proportion of workers being thrown into situations of greater fragility and destitution.

Based on this historical and structural process, certain workers in the healthcare and care work fields, ranging from cleaning staff to informal care workers, are even more vulnerable because they are largely invisible to the society at large. This is a reality rooted in historical and social factors intersecting class, gender, and race. As a direct consequence, these workers have less control over their working conditions and do not benefit from the same regulations and state protections, therefore facing greater health and security risks.

As the precarity and fear of loss of income loom large, workers are less likely to organize and unionize, becoming more vulnerable to overexploitation, poor working conditions, and job insecurity. Fighting for their basic rights seems harder and harder with time.

And, as we know, women make up a vast majority of these sectors. The same historical and social factors also explain why women make about 30% less than men in the same job/role. In the same line, this is also how women have become the ones responsible for unpaid domestic work, and all the care work that permeates private and personal relationships.

The process of naturalizing these functions – as if they were women’s natural responsibility – has taken root in society in such a way that these patriarchal ideas are difficult to combat. It will take a great deal of effort to reverse this logic, which ultimately exploits and oppresses women all over the world.

PD: What has been the impact of the pandemic on women workers in general, in terms of their employment and income? Additionally, what did you find about the conditions of domestic workers in your study?

RPB: In our study we show that women workers are suffering greatly due to the pandemic, in terms of job security, precarious informal employment, declining income and social vulnerability.

Women are disproportionately employed in many of the industries most severely affected by the crisis. About 510 million of all women employed globally work in the four most affected industries: hotels, restaurants, retail, and manufacturing. Women are also predominantly employed in domestic work, healthcare, and social services, putting them at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19 and of losing their source of income if they become infected. They are also less likely to have access to social protections.

The formal sector often (and historically) closes its doors to women, and they are left with no alternative and (forced to occupy) the informal sector, in which they are subjected to precarious working conditions and low pay.

Even before the pandemic, more than 1.6 billion people — half of the global workforce — worked in the informal sector, constantly faced with the possibility of losing their livelihoods. A considerable part is made up of women. In our study we present data from the UN which estimates that informal workers around the world lost 60 percent of their income in the first month of the pandemic. In Latin America it figured even worse: 80 percent.

Domestic workers across the world account for a key sector of the informal workforce. 80 percent of this sector of the workforce is made up of women. In addition to suffering from many of the same conditions as other informal workers — such as job insecurity and precarious conditions — domestic workers are often deprived of the scarce protections afforded to other precarious workers.

As the economic crisis deepens, domestic workers are haunted by the uncertainty of whether or not they will still have a job after the quarantine.

PD: What has been the impact of this crisis on members of the LGBTQIA+ community — in terms of their work, income, housing, access to healthcare, and other rights?

RPB: The worst effects of the pandemic have been felt by marginalized communities along the lines of class, race, sexual orientation, gender, and — notably — gender identity.

The first challenge in measuring the impact of COVID-19 on the transgender community is that data is largely unavailable. But the lack of data is already significant in itself. The lack of care for this population ranges from basic issues such as recognition of its existence, qualification and quantification of its conditions, so that the necessary measures can be taken. The vulnerability of this community is linked to pre-existing conditions caused by transphobia, strongly combined with class and race characteristics that preceded the pandemic, which puts them even more in the cross-hairs of COVID-19.

While it is impossible to fully quantify the impact of the pandemic on transgender people, support networks in the transgender community see this reality in their lives and on the streets, pointing to disproportionately high numbers of transgender people among the unemployed and unhoused.

The lack of family support and the social prejudice to which most transgender people are subjected means that many of them are homeless. Even precarious housing complexes ask transgender people to vacate their rented houses, due to prejudice, fear and lack of information.

Compounding this is the fact that many transgender people do not have basic identification documentation, and this lack of documentation also excludes them from basic aid programs.

It is also known that transgender people are systematically excluded from the formal labor market and are most often left with the option of sex work or begging. The loss of income precipitated by the pandemic only aggravated already worsening conditions such as the inability to access food, medication, and other basic necessities.

Studies in Argentina and the US show that around 40% of transgender people attempted suicide at some point in their lives – eight times more than the rate for the population as a whole. In Brazil, the average life expectancy for transgender people is less than half for that of the general population.

Until we have quantifiable data and information to deal with the situation of this population, the transgender community will continue to suffer more intensely from the health, social and economic crises in their countries.

PD: Across the world, there has been one advisory common in all countries — stay at home. At such a time, how have governments responded to the demands of movements fighting for housing and land rights, such as MST in Brazil, Abahlali baseMjandolo in South Africa, etc? What significance do these movements have for women in particular?

RPB: During the pandemic, there were several examples of governments not only ignoring the struggle for housing and land (land reform), but also – especially in the three cases mentioned – criminalizing and promoting evictions and greater conflict and social vulnerability.

This is the result of policies adopted by capitalist states in this period, driven by a concern for profits rather than a concern for humanity. Among the heartless policies implemented during this period are the evictions of individuals, families, and entire communities in the midst of the pandemic. Women and children have lost their homes, and, as a result, their livelihood, as was the case with families brutally evicted from an MST encampment in Brazil in August of this year. The evictions that are underway in South Africa, as well as the forced migration in India after the lockdown was announced with little notice or state support, are two examples of the reality faced by the majority of the world’s people in capitalist states in the midst of the pandemic.

We are talking about entire families being evicted or left on the street without any support in the middle of a pandemic. Women and children who, instead of being able to respect the advice of WHO and experts to stay at home and avoid agglomerations, were exposed by the Bolsonaro, Modi and Ramaphosa governments to a greater risk of contamination and to greater vulnerability and social violence. Many people were injured and many others died.

It is also important to mention that evictions place women at a very high risk of sexual assault when they have to sleep out in the open after evictions. They also cause tremendous stress and anxiety for children, the impact of which is largely managed by women. Some women have even lost male partners in these incidents of state violence.

For many women who are part of these movements (MST, Abahlali baseMjandolo) this has been a way of life to conquer a house or a piece of land where they can grow food to sell and to survive. Public policies that are not part of the government’s agendas if there is no struggle to achieve them.

PD: During the lockdowns that have been imposed in the last year in different parts of the world, violence against women and members of other marginalized genders surged. Can you tell us what you found about this trend and the reasons behind it?

RPB: It is important to say that before the pandemic, we already faced a global reality in which women were exposed to patriarchal violence. It is not something that comes with the pandemic. However, lockdown situations, historically, aggravate this violence – especially domestic violence. Using available data, this is what we show in our study.

Unemployment, overcrowding, remote work, an overburden of reproductive work, increasing impoverishment, a crisis of one’s ability to maintain one’s economic livelihood, and drug and alcohol abuse are some of the elements that exacerbate gender-based violence — even more so during the pandemic. Women’s groups warn that lockdown conditions may be used by abusers to control the behavior of their partners, blocking their access to security and support.

A key aspect, therefore, that impacts women who face domestic violence is that they often become deprived of all social and professional bonds, growing apart from family, friends, and colleagues, which in turn increases their dependence on their abusers.

Additionally, women’s and feminist organizations have been denouncing not only the increase in cases of patriarchal violence during quarantine, but also the increasing brutality of instances of abuse. And I think this is very key to understand and analyze this from a political point of view as well.

Inspired by a neofascist ideology, the rhetoric adopted by heads of government who vocally promote hatred and encourage misogynistic attitudes inevitably legitimizes perpetrators of violence against women.

This happens as neofascist conceptions about female subordination overshadow more enlightened ideas about women. These views have been spreading on a large scale under Brazil’s Bolsonaro, India’s Modi, and so many other countries with conservative right-wing administrations.

Violence is then seen as an ordinary or normal act that authorities will not prevent or fight; quite the opposite — it is actually encouraged. This contributes significantly to increasing incidences of violence: fighting and eliminating people is the rule of barbarism, which is supported by hate speech, the failure to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions, and the failure to take legal action and punish these attitudes.

It shows how the pandemic is making clearer the historical and social problems of this society, and even more than that, how it is deteriorating to the point of triggering its own inefficiency and decline. Fighting for another society that cares for women and life is a necessary task for our future.

Renata Porto Bugni, Tricontinental Deputy Director, is a public policy analyst, an activist and a teacher. She has a bachelor’s degree in international relations at UNESP. Her master’s degree from the University of São Paulo (USP) was on public policies for Brazilian women, notably in the fight against violence. Renata's political career began in Brazil's student movement. She is now a member of the political organisation Consulta Popular.  She is based in São Paulo.

Check out the CoronaShock and Patriarchy study produced by the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research here. As part of the study and through conversations with women’s organizations and feminist activities, they compiled a list of demands called “The People’s Feminist Demands,” they lay out necessary and urgent measures needed to ensure that no one is left behind as we move through this crisis.

[Peoples Dispatch brings you a series of articles and videos on 2020, a momentous year that saw humanity face unprecedented challenges. The beacon of hope remained the historic resistance mounted by people’s movements, and the care and solidarity they epitomized, proving yet again that our collective struggles alone can dismantle and end oppression. You can read the full series here]