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July 13, 2020
COVID-19 and the Crisis of Social Reproduction in the Middle East and North Africa: Implications for Gender Relations and Women’s Activism
'Fish for Supper' by Laila Elsadda
Nicola Pratt, University of Warwick
Countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have not (yet) been a major hotspot in the global COVID-19 health pandemic. Nonetheless, the region’s economies, already facing a number of challenges, have been negatively impacted by measures taken to contain the spread of the virus, compounded by the wider global economic downturn. Without proper social safety nets, let alone furlough schemes, millions of families in the Middle East and North Africa are facing a loss of livelihoods as a result of lockdown measures. Before the pandemic, 60 per cent of Egypt’s population was either poor or vulnerable. A recent study found that around half of Egyptians have borrowed money and the incomes of 73 percent of Egyptians have reduced since the pandemic. Even before the outbreak of coronavirus, Lebanon was facing an economic crisis. Rising prices, as a result of a collapse in the currency, alongside increasing unemployment, due to COVID-19 lockdown measures, have made even basic food items such as bread unaffordable to many Lebanese. Anti-government protests have continued despite the lockdown as people fear that the economic crisis could be even more lethal than coronavirus. In Jordan, strict lockdown measures have disrupted aid to the 750,000 refugees living there as well as threatened the livelihoods of large sections of the Jordanian population. The UN agency responsible for the Arab region (ESCWA - the Economic and Social Commission for West Asia) estimates that there could be more than 1.7 million job losses as a result of the pandemic, with the services sector, the region’s main employment provider, particularly hard hit. Meanwhile, the risks of the COVID-19 crisis are amplified in Syria, Yemen, Libya and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, where conflict and siege have debilitated the economy and infrastructure.
Whilst the effects of COVID-19 and related measures are most detrimental to the poorest and most vulnerable sections of the population, including refugees and displaced persons, it is also important to understand the different consequences of the crisis for men and women and how this may have longer term impacts on gender relations. As in other parts of the world, COVID-19 is revealing and exacerbating gender inequalities in society. Given that women’s participation in the formal economy in the region is one of the lowest in the world, job losses caused by economic downturn will be experienced mostly by men. However, the contracting labour market will further aggravate female unemployment, which was 19 per cent in 2019, compared to 8 per cent for men. In Iraq, under the sanctions regime (1991-2003), we saw how women’s declining participation in the workforce led to increasingly conservative gender norms (Al-Jawaheri 2008), which, in turn, created longer-term negative social attitudes towards women’s participation in public life. Meanwhile, female headed households, whose number reaches 14 per cent of all families in Egypt, are particularly exposed to economic shocks due to the bias in Arab government policies that assume a male head of household. This not only impacts on the well-being of women but of their families too. In addition, the lockdown has made women, as well as LGBTQ+ individuals, even more vulnerable to violence in the home. One anti-violence NGO, ABAAD, in Lebanon, reports that the number of calls to its helpline in 2020 have more than doubled compared to the first quarter of 2019.
A more hidden impact of the COVID-19 crisis concerns the increased care burdens on women, who are expected, with often no support, to fill in the gaps left by school closures, overwhelmed health systems and lack of state support for combating the virus and its effects. Feminists have termed this unpaid labour conducted within the home and community as “social reproduction” (amongst others, Bakker 2007) and highlighted how women everywhere continue to be disproportionately responsible for it. As in other parts of the world, millions of women find themselves having to home school their children, look after sick relatives, deal with the increased difficulties of shopping for food and other household necessities, even whilst continuing to engage in paid work from home. Already before the pandemic, women in the Arab world were doing 4.7 times more unpaid work than men, the highest rate among all regions globally. Poor women and female refugees shoulder the greatest burdens as they conduct social reproductive work in already difficult conditions (insufficient public services and infrastructure and a lack of adequate housing and sanitation). Whereas middle class women often outsource their reproductive work to low-paid working-class or migrant female workers, the economic effects of the lockdown have made this more difficult, and there are even cases of Ethiopian maids being dumped in front of the Ethiopian embassy in Lebanon because their employers can no longer afford to pay them. Women’s leadership in civil society organizations has also been crucial in responding to the pandemic in an absence of weak state institutions. Alongside this, women, who dominate low paid nursing and auxiliary work in hospitals, are also more likely to be caring for COVID-19 patients and, therefore, are more exposed to potential infection.
Whilst society, in general, often commends women for their sacrifices on behalf of their families, communities and nations, the effects of women’s increased workload on their health and well-being is largely unrecognized. Women are expected to be infinitely resilient and elastic in accommodating themselves to the repercussions of the crisis. Yet, as Shirin Rai et al have argued, without adequate support and replenishment, reproductive work can lead to “depletion”, physically, mentally and emotionally (2014). This is not only detrimental to individual women but also to their families and wider communities. Over the past decade, women have played a key role in demanding change, not only concerning women’s rights but also social justice, sectarianism and corruption, most recently in protests in Lebanon and Iraq. There is a danger that social reproductive burdens as well as depletion through social reproduction may undermine women’s continued involvement in these struggles and their public participation more broadly.
Women activists in the MENA have been outspoken in demanding gender equality in most areas of life, insisting on women’s participation in political transitions, ensuring that women’s rights are at the heart of any agenda for change, and pressuring governments to tackle gender-based violence. However, until now, they have been less vocal in challenging disparities in the gendered division of social reproductive labour, which are underpinned by personal status laws, which, in turn, are governed by religious law. This can be understood in light of the ways in which differential gender roles and inequality in the private sphere have been held up as a marker of national identity and culture, and, in the case of Lebanon, as the lynchpin of the sectarian political system. Political and religious leaders have portrayed any efforts to reform the ‘traditional’ family set-up as ‘Western’ interference in domestic affairs and as a threat to the fabric of society and even the stability of the nation (Pratt 2020). However, the pandemic is bringing into question the sustainability of social reproduction based on the current gendered division of labour and creating an impetus for women, based on their lived experiences, to challenge dominant gender relations in their everyday lives, whether overtly or covertly. This creates a vital moment to open a public conversation about gender roles and relations within the family.
It is not merely a question of persuading men to do more housework but also of ensuring that government policies support a redistribution of social reproductive burdens. Support for social reproduction is crucial to the economic and social recovery from the COVID-19 crisis and is essential to address gender inequality within employment and the economy and to combat gender-based violence. As governments in the MENA region consider ways to address the financial consequences of the pandemic and, towards that end, enter into negotiations with the IMF and World Bank to borrow money, governments need to listen to the voices of women and consider the gendered impacts of any proposed economic measures. Moreover, in a departure from the neoliberal prescriptions of the past decades, there needs to be increased public funding for health, education, housing and care provision to support social reproduction. Meanwhile, taking seriously the socio-economic and health costs of depletion through social reproduction is essential for ensuring women’s continued participation in the ongoing struggles for socio-political transformation in the Middle East and North Africa.
Al-Jawaheri, Y. H. (2008) Women in Iraq: The Gender Impact of Economic Sanctions, Boulder: Lynne Rienner.
(2007)Social Reproduction and the Constitution of a Gendered Political Economy, New Political Economy,12 (4):541-556.
Pratt, N. (2020) Embodying Geopolitics: Generations of Women’s Activism in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Rai, S., Hoskins, C., & Thomas, D. (2014) Depletion: The Cost of Social Reproduction, International Feminist Journal of Politics 16 (1): 86-105.
June 29, 2020
Authors: Ann Fitz-Gerald, Juanita Elias, Jenna Hennebry, Sehin Teferra, Liane Wörner, Thespina (Nina) Yamanis
Editors: Briony Jones and Maeve Moynihan
This post is part of a larger collection covering the Global Insights webinar series, hosted jointly by Balsillie School of International Affairs (Canada), the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick (UK), the Institute for Strategic Affairs (Ethiopia), American University’s School of International Service (USA), and Konstanz University (Germany). This series of Global Insights has finished and the next series will resume in September. You can access a recording of this week’s webinar here.
Panellists: Ann Fitz-Gerald (Moderator – BSIA), Juanita Elias (University of Warwick), Jenna Hennebry (Wilfrid Laurier University, BSIA), Sehin Teferra (Setaweet), Liane Wörner (University of Konstanz), Thespina Yamanis (American University)
COVID-19 has exposed the deeply gendered inequality that defines many aspects of our society. The burdens associated with everyday tasks like caring, maintaining and provisioning for the home have multiplied for women. The panel consisted of five female professors all with specific qualifications in different gender studies, all of whom are working full time. Their reflections are thus both professional and personal.
Broadly speaking, what has the pandemic meant for women’s rights?
COVID-19 has had a dramatic impact on women across the educational, professional, and personal spheres. On the one hand, the pandemic has allowed for widespread recognition of the key roles that women play in the economy, paid and unpaid work, and greater attention to female leadership. However, the pandemic has also exacerbated gender inequalities, as we have seen women’s double day in paid and unpaid work significantly exacerbated, the re-entrenchment of gender roles and heightened gender inequality, and increase gender-based risk with a rise in domestic violence. Studies have already shown that mothers have spent 36% more time with their children during the pandemic, whereas fathers have only spent 9% more time. Given that men generally earn more due to the gender pay gap, many families have to choose economic stability thus requiring the woman to stay at home. The pandemic has also limited female participation in the labor force, particularly for women who have children, many of whom may permanently exit the labor force. In low and middle income countries, girls education is at risk and food-security is a particularly significant concern. In Ethiopia for example, 36% of women work for pay while women and girls are primarily responsible for securing food and water, both of which are in high demand due to the stay at home orders and increased hygiene.
Some commentators have called the economic downturn a “She-cession”? What is the impact in terms of economic equality and participation?
Income inequality rises for five years after a pandemic. In the U.S. female unemployment has exceeded male unemployment, which differs from the Great Recession of 2008 because many women are in jobs that require face to face work. In terms of professional participation, women are under increased pressure to do the triple burden of childcare, work, and societal care. Some evidence suggests that female business owners are not taking advantage of the payment protection program. In the academic sector, for example, women’s journal article submissions have declined significantly, and women are often expected to reduce teaching and project responsibilities in order to care for their families. In the Global South, we will see low-income households seeing worse effects as women are called upon to serve as a caregiver and exit the labor market. Many women participate in the informal sector, meaning that they do not have social protections such as unemployment benefits or social security. With respect to gendered migration and remittances, countries in the Global South are already feeling the effects of this. Ethiopia receives more money in remittances than exports and foreign direct investment. In the UK, the social care sector for the elderly has been catastrophically impacted by UK government austerity policies since the 2008 crisis. Such policies have decreased funding in the sector, further deterioration of work conditions, increased privatization, and reliance on women to take over unpaid care work. The policy response has centered on the response to the National Health Service at the expense of the social care system, for nursing homes, special needs care, and childcare. This has disproportionately placed ethnic minority women and migrant women, who make up the majority of employees in the sector, in a particularly vulnerable position due to low wages and exposure to COVID-19.
How is the pandemic affecting women’s physical and mental security, as well as other health outcomes?
The pandemic has had a significant impact on women’s physical and mental security around the world. In Ethiopia, for example, child marriage is on the rise since the closure of schools in March. Families who do not wish or are unable to spend money on their daughters arrange such marriages as children are no longer in school. According to UNFPI, women represent 70% of health and social sector globally. Their work environments already expose them to increased risk in the workplace and in the home. COVID-19 related deaths are higher among healthcare workers and those caring for people with COVID-19, who tend to be women. We must also consider indirect deaths due to COVID-19, as people not going to the doctor for normal chronic conditions, or providers who have to shift to pandemic response and are not available. As in the case of Ebola in Sierra Leone, there is potential for a decrease in vaccination rates, an increase in facility maternal mortality ratio, and an increase in teenage pregnancy, all of which occurred during the Ebola outbreak. Even further, there is a high likelihood that we will see a decline in ability to control HIV, particularly in countries that are heavily impacted by HIV, in Sub-Saharan Africa, where girls have 2-3 times more cases than men.
Women’s shelters have been closed during lockdown measures, help lines were unavailable, and many female police officers, who play an important role in cases of gendered violence, are home taking care of their own children. Initial studies show that women have been less likely to call the helpline or shelter due to a fear that they will not be answered. Additionally, gender inequality is part of a wider tapestry of injustice, as such we can’t just look through the gendered lens. In the UK and the USA, Black and minority ethnic groups are more likely to die from COVID-19, exemplifying COVID’s deeply entrenched impacts reflecting societal inequalities. How do you stay at home if you don’t have a home? How do you stay at home if you are a migrant worker far from home? Marginalized groups have not gone away simply because of the virus, and in many cases are particularly impacted due to misguided responses to the pandemic.
What might the pandemic mean for feminism going forward?
COVID-19 is both a challenge and a chance for feminism. As we have seen, countries with female leaders have been extraordinarily successful in pandemic response like Angela Merkel in Germany and Jacinda Arden in New Zealand. Rethinking gender roles on behalf of men and women is important and indicates the value of, and care for, everyone. However, the pandemic does not bode well for women in political positions of leadership, as women can’t take on new responsibilities while caring in the home. Governments must ensure that women’s voices are heard and women’s ability to engage in participatory decision making in all areas of government is not further constrained. When we look to gender and sexual orientation, transgender people face a panoply of difficulties. As we’ve seen across sectors, vulnerable communities are made more vulnerable by the pandemic. People who identify as transgender may be reluctant to seek healthcare if it is not their normal healthcare provider, gender reassignment surgeries may have been halted, hormones which need to be taken on a regular basis may have been altered (physical and mental health). Transgendered people face more homelessness, and many may not have a safe place to stay. May experience more discrimination within employment and are over-represented in sex work. Gender, of course, is not just about women. It’s about a whole range of intersecting identities and precarities. Some of which are about social norms, others about the treatment of populations.
1. Reinvest back into public infrastructure for social provision, which includes childcare, parental benefits, among other things. These provisions must be available not only for citizens but those without documentation status and in informal work sectors.
2. Sustain social protection beyond the pandemic (stimulus payments, business protection, etc.) because income inequality will continue beyond the pandemic.
3. Invest in childcare and elder-care to create a sustainable social infrastructure in which gender inequalities can be properly address.
4. Do not turn away from global human rights agreements and instruments that are trying to move forward (SDGs, Global Compact for Migration, Gender Responsiveness, Beijing Platform etc.)
5. Engender the response in real time, not afterwards.
6. Strengthen the gender-based violence response mechanism
May 15, 2020
By Shirin M Rai (WICID) and Jacqui True (GPS, Monash)
A key aspect of social relations that has been brought into sharp relief during the international COVID-19 crisis, is the labour of women in care work – paid and unpaid. Unpaid care work in households has increased during the pandemic shutdown, with home schooling of children, greater care needs of older persons, and overwhelmed health services. Those on the frontlines of the pandemic are women working in the formal care economy: nurses, nurse aides, teachers, child care workers, aged-care workers, and cleaners. Women make up 67% of the global health workforce and over 80% in some regions. Their situation as "essential workers" involves a gender-specific struggle for recognition of the value of paid and unpaid care labour, and for social redistribution of resources to reflect that equality. A key challenge for governments and international organisations is whether and how they will respond to reliance on this labour to develop policies that recognise, support and regenerate care economies?
As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, women’s participation in all spheres of life is essential to sustainable development, durable peace and to the realization of human rights. And yet, we seem to be stuck between the competitive individualism of the market and the failure of state socialism and the social democratic welfare state. Women’s labour continues to be overlooked, and unaccounted for, even as the pandemic increases their burdens of social reproduction.
Violence against women has risen sharply, and while there has been a celebration of nurses and care workers, there is little evidence that care work is being better paid and supported. To the contrary, more than one in five healthcare workers in the UK are likely to leave their role as a result of COVID-19. Violence and discrimination against healthcare workers has also been cited in many countries from Mexico to Philippines and Australia. Unpaid care economies continue to be relied on to cushion ‘crisis shocks’, without much thinking about whether additional burdens of care can lead to increased levels of human depletion in such situations. This is an important gap to recognise, as well as a significant challenge, because those who are invisible as producers and workers will be invisible in distribution, both in terms of the allocation of resources and the redistributive policies and services needed to address the crisis, by both the state and non-state actors.
The household is a key unit in mobilising material, ideological and human resources in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the one constant: from providing food for families, supplying older people and friends with food and medicines, engaging in paid and unpaid care work including health care and contributing to community services, neighbourhood groups, charities. It is then unsurprising that it is under pressure during this pandemic and its consequent lockdown. Gendered expectations of altruism and self-sacrifice are also prominent in times of crisis. Indeed, pro-natalism in the aftermath of crises – building back better with babies – has been a historical pattern.
Crises are often mobilised by the state to shut down democratic critique in the name of (‘the tyranny of’) urgency. The ICNL COVID-19 Civic Freedom Tracker monitors government responses to the pandemic that affect civic freedoms and human rights, focused on emergency laws. For example, there is evidence that the COVID-19 crisis has negatively affected sexual and reproductive rights: Marie Stopes International has predicted that as many as 9.5 million women are at risk of losing access to family planning services as a direct result of the pandemic. In India, to attract investment, many states are giving businesses regulatory holidays, including over layoffs, compensation and decent conditions of work (Sustainable Development Goal 8) including provision of créches and are dismantling further trade union rights of collective bargaining. This needs to be guarded against.
While assumptions are being made about the increasing role of the state in the wake of the crisis, missing from the current discussion of global and economic recovery is the concept of a “regenerative state” that would address gender disparities as it develops policies to recover economies and social life. We would suggest that such an approach is particularly important as we come out of the strict lockdowns in many countries, and as policy options are considered to get the economies going. This is a critical juncture where we could either see an intensification of extremist, xenophobic and populist politics locally and globally or a move towards a more solidaristic, political approach, where states, civil society organisations, and multilateralism win out. We cannot take either as inevitable.
Regeneration is possible in the moment of openness we now encounter as a result of COVID-19’s rupture in business as usual. There is the potential for policy and governance to be re-visioned but this moment of openness will be short-lived and we need to mobilise if we are to see a change in direction in any jurisdiction. We note that such regeneration must include three core elements:
1) rebuilding of social infrastructure – health, education and social care - by recognising the value of the paid and unpaid care economy;
2) a democratic politics of dialogic, deliberative, and participative conversation that attends to issues such as the division of care labour and shadow pandemic of domestic violence and;
3) accountability mechanisms for economic and social rebuilding focused on a bottom-up approach to regeneration with civil society groups, social movement actors, and epistemic communities.
Above all, right now as urgent and new policy responses to COVID-19 are rolling out we need a care audit of every policy and investment to ensure an inclusive and sustainable social and economic recovery and global stability for future generations. The window of opportunity and time to act to build back better is now.
 We use this term to include the following: 1) biological reproduction (including reproducing labour) and with it the provision of the sexual, emotional and affective services that are required to maintain family and intimate relationships; (2) unpaid production in the home of both goods and services, incorporating different forms of care, as well as social provisioning and voluntary work directed at meeting needs in and of the community; (3) reproduction of culture and ideology which stabilizes (and sometimes challenges) dominant social relations (Hoskyns and Rai 2007: 300).