According to the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, the COVID-19 outbreak is the “most challenging crisis we have faced since the Second World War”. To deal with this unprecedented crisis, we need analytical tools capable of capturing the variety of challenges experienced by different groups, in light of their specific marginalizations, but also their inherent strengths, and the myriad consequences resulting from COVID-19.
Previous studies have shown, for instance, that the COVID-19 pandemic affects women and men differently. However, an analysis focused exclusively on gender would fail to embrace the intricate diversity of experiences of COVID-19. These can be decisively shaped by the country of residence, ethnicity, migration and refugee status, sexual orientation, disability, and class. Additional structural factors, such as environmental degradation, poverty, political instability, corruption, and armed conflict, can determine how the health crisis impacts individuals and communities worldwide.
Kristina Hinz is a lecturer, researcher, and policy advisor specialized in gender-based violence, urban conflict, arms control, and public safety in Latin America. Currently, she is pursuing her PhD at the Free University of Berlin with a scholarship from the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung.
Izadora Zubek is a French, Brazilian, and Peruvian international relations specialist with experience in research, nuclear disarmament activism, and anti-corruption policies.
An intersectional feminist approach reveals how the ongoing pandemic, and the policy responses to it, affect social groups distinctively, and highlights how particular measures which are beneficial for certain groups may reinforce pre-existing situations of injustice, notably in the case of overlapping and mutually reinforcing marginalizations produced by global and local power structures. Furthermore, this approach offers a suitable tool to decentralize and amplify the current discussion, by calling attention to neglected and marginalized perspectives and to the complexity of issues at stake in the context of systemic inequalities.
Intersectional Feminist Perspectives on Health
Across the world, health care professionals are coping with extreme work conditions, exposing their lives to provide care to an impossible number of patients. Nevertheless, health risks and access to proper health care are not the same for everyone. While men still hold most senior or leadership positions in the health sector, women are the ones standing on the front line of the fight against COVID-19, making up an estimated two-thirds of the health workforce worldwide. Despite their key role in combating the pandemic, with great personal risk of infection, female health professionals receive on average 28 percent less than their male counterparts.
Access to health care varies according to one’s nationality, geographic location, class and race. In many countries, proper health care is a privilege of very few. In the United States, COVID-19 related death rates are highest among Black, Latino, and Indigenous American communities, while the white population experiences the lowest mortality in the country. In Brazil, recent studies have shown that COVID-19 related lethality varies significantly in relation to education levels and race: With a lethality of 80.35 percent, deaths rates were highest among persons of colour with low education levels, against 19.65 percent among whites with higher education.
Structural issues certainly also play a part in this dynamic. In Brazil, only 30 percent of the population has private health insurance, as for certain age groups such insurance costs more than the monthly minimum wage. The vast majority of the population is covered by the public health care system, which counts only a limited number of intensive care units, and is lacking health professionals, especially in rural areas. While initially most hospitalizations took place in private clinics, it is the public system that is absorbing the majority of the COVID-19 patients today. Lacking both sufficient health care professionals and hospital beds, several Brazilian cities declared a collapse of their health care system.
In other countries, access to public health care is dependent on citizenship and migration status. Jordan, for instance, is estimated to host around 1.3 million Syrian refugees, of which only half are registered. While around 20 percent of these refugees live in camps where health care is provided by international organizations and NGOs, the vast majority live outside camps and are able to access only a limited number of clinics, as they generally have to pay a significant share of the treatment by themselves.
While access to sexual and reproductive health care was already precarious under normal circumstances in numerous countries, the COVID-19 pandemic has severely worsened this already life-threatening situation in several countries. In November, Poland ruled a nearly complete ban over abortion, further tightening the country’s already extremely restrictive abortion regulations. In Latin America and the Caribbean, it is estimated that 18 million women will lose regular access to contraceptives in the context of the crisis.
Intersectional Feminist Perspectives on Confinement and Policing
During the first months of the pandemic, nationwide lockdowns and curfews were imposed by several governments, and police and military forces were deployed to enforce home confinement. Data from a myriad of countries, however, has revealed an increase in gender-based and intimate partner violence, especially in the domestic context. According to UN Women, a more than 25-percent increase in domestic violence has been reported in the context of COVID-19 containment measures in France, Argentina, Cyprus, and Singapore. In Germany, around 3 percent of women experienced physical violence, and 3.6 percent were raped during the first weeks of the movement restrictions. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, deplores the current “shadow pandemic” of violence against women.
Gender-based violence and intimate partner violence are increasingly problems in confined societies, in general, but can notably be accentuated by economic and social stress, deteriorated housing conditions, and the prevalence of impunity. Displaced or refugee women as well as marginalized ethnic minorities are particularly vulnerable to gender-based violence. In Brazil, women of colour represent the majority of victims of femicide, rape, and firearm-induced death. In Jordan, a more than 30-percent rise in cases of domestic violence was reported in comparison to the last month before the confinement measures. Moreover, the brutal murder of 30-year-old Ahlam by her father in July 2020 provoked nationwide protests against so-called “honour killings” and called the efficiency of national policies for violence prevention into question.
While many states have mobilized great efforts to set up emergency quarantine centres, sometimes requisitioning hotels or conference centres, they did not show the same level of commitment to protect victims of gender-based violence. Numerous countries lack appropriate shelters for victims and survivors of domestic violence—not only for (cis)women, but also the LGBTQI population.
In too many cases, the state is not the protector, but the perpetrator of violence. This is especially true in racialized communities and low-income neighbourhoods. In Brazil and the Philippines, the number of police killings are alarming, surpassing those of many armed conflicts in the world. Despite a ban on police operations during the pandemic ordered by the Brazilian Supreme Court, four-year-old Emilly Victoria and seven-year-old Rebeca Beatriz were shot dead during a firefight on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro in early December, bringing the count to 22 children in Rio de Janeiro since the beginning of the year.
In the Philippines, already alarming figures of law enforcement violence have been exacerbated by the strict lockdown measures. Police forces carried out arbitrary house-to-house searches for COVID-19 patients and arrested more than 100,000 “curfew violators” since the beginning of the pandemic. Moreover, the pandemic added fuel to President Duterte’s bloody “war on drugs”. During the first months of the pandemic, police killings in the context of anti-drug operations increased by 50 percent in comparison to the foregoing period.
LGBTQI individuals, especially those of colour, suffer disproportionately from police harassment and violence. Reports from Indonesia reveal that transgender women have been arbitrarily detained, stripped naked, and beaten by police. In the context of COVID-19, confinement measures and policing have already potentialized the occurrence of racial profiling and police misconduct in some countries.
Intersectional Feminist Perspectives on Work and Economic Well-Being
The health crisis is causing a major global economic downturn with substantial implications for gender equality. It has been observed that job and business loss related to social distancing measures has a large impact on sectors with high female employment shares, such as tourism, food and beverage services, and retail. With lower incomes and less wealth than men, women seem to be especially at risk of crisis-driven poverty.
Women usually have greater caring responsibilities at home, looking after children and disabled or elderly relatives, and carry out most domestic chores. This unpaid work burden has increased with the closure of schools in 192 countries. School closures also disproportionately affect girls. UNESCO underlines that progress made in the education of girls may be jeopardized by the COVID-19 shutdown measures because they might significantly increase dropout rates which, in the long run, could reduce women’s chances of getting qualified, better-paid jobs.
Furthermore, in many countries, particularly in the Global South, women are employed in informal and poorly remunerated activities, such as agriculture or day trading, which might experience severe disruption as a result of this health crisis. In Zimbabwe, the closure of borders has put women entrepreneurs and female day traders in a precarious situation, as their livelihoods depend immediately on the possibility to acquire goods for production and resale in the neighbouring countries.
Female migrant workers have especially suffered from the economic consequences of the pandemic, since many of them are employed in the service sector or exercise unregulated care professions, such as domestic work or caregiving, which were suspended during lockdown. Left unemployed in their countries of work, COVID-19-related travel restrictions made it impossible for these women to return to their countries of origin, while thousands more were prevented from resuming their economic activity abroad—often the main source of income in the family. Often completely excluded from the protection guaranteed by the hosting country’s labour laws, the economic hardships of the pandemic have moved many of these women into a state of total desperation, in which some see suicide as the only way out.
Feminist Insights, Resilience, and Resistance in Times of COVID-19: Perspectives from the Global South
As the COVID-19 crisis has yet again revealed how different forms of discrimination intertwine and must be addressed collectively, the present moment is also an opportunity to radically rethink taken-for-granted policy approaches and introduce new, decentralized forms of organization. Women, and particularly women of colour, migrants, refugees, and those employed in informal settings have been and continue to be the most heavily affected groups of the COVID-19 pandemic. But they are also leading the way in finding sustainable solutions, resisting injustice, enhancing solidarity, and thus making their communities more resilient to this crisis and others to come. Feminist activists, grassroot movements, and unions all over the world are working tirelessly to bring about change despite movement restrictions, scarcity of funds, and uncertainties about the future.
In an attempt to shed light on the myriad of experiences of women across the world, and their work to mobilize, resist, and foster solidarity in times of COVID-19, we are launching a special dossier on the gendered impacts of the pandemic. This collection will bring together a series of articles written by female activists, syndicalists, human rights defenders, and journalists based and active in countries of the “Global South”. Through these perspectives, this project aims to decentralize the debate on the crisis, and to highlight voices that are often underrepresented or marginalized, as current discussions are dominated by the viewpoints of a few countries, generally those with more economic and political power.
With this new dossier, we hope to share diverse feminist insights, and learn from them, in order to imagine and start building the world after COVID-19—a world in which, as exiled Brazilian reproductive rights research Debora Diniz says, “feminist values will become part of the common vocabulary”.
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and Andrea J. Ritchie et al., Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality against Black Women, New York: African American Policy Forum, Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies, 2015.