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A feminist manifesto for confronting the corona crisis in Europe

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Grafik: Ines Meier. Graphic: Ines Meier

The current COVID-19 pandemic affects the whole of society, but it is certainly not a sickness as democratic as many have argued. It does not affect equally women* and men*, the rich and the poor, the old and the young, or People of Colour and white people. Instead, this pandemic magnifies all existing inequalities and severely impacts those who are already vulnerable and disadvantaged. People who live and work at society’s margins are exposed to the highest risk of infection and hardship, and are further stigmatised as a result. 

This Feminist Manifesto was written by the members of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s European Feminist Working Group. We live and work all over Europe, in Belgium, Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Poland, Russia, Serbia, Spain, the United Kingdom and Ukraine.

Among the particularly vulnerable groups are women*—especially those in low-paid professions—lesbian, bisexual, queer and trans persons, migrants and Roma communities. Women* with young children or other domestic and caring responsibilities experience social insecurity, have lower levels of wealth, are more likely to be in part-time, low-paid and precarious work, and are immediately threatened by a loss of income. Women* are also more likely to work in health care and in other services now deemed “essential”, making them more exposed and vulnerable to infection. The current situation is particularly dangerous for women* and children sharing their home with an abuser, as growing numbers of domestic violence incidents during lockdown demonstrate. The restrictions on movement take it for granted that home is a safe place, but due to the quarantine and social isolation, many victims are imprisoned in their violent surroundings and have limited opportunities to seek help.

The pandemic has already had a severe impact on our physical and psychological well-being. Once we start to socialize again, the trauma or re-traumatization that many have experienced—either because of the jobs they are doing or because of the lockdown more generally—will influence people’s behaviour and reshape our relationships with others in the long run. This will be particularly pronounced for workers in the health and care sectors, which are disproportionately feminized.

The pandemic has caused a global crisis and its distorting effects will last for years. While the fall out may appear to threaten feminism’s progress, it also offers an opportunity. It is extremely important that the measures introduced now take into account the gendered impact and this perspective must be used to find appropriate solutions to the current situation. This crisis offers a chance to stop and think about the type of world we want to live in, pushing for one where people and solidarity are prioritized over capital and corporate interests.

This manifesto is a joint intervention into the coronavirus crisis from a pan-European, left, feminist perspective. However, the demands and recommendations listed in this manifesto are the outcomes of feminist theoretical, activist, and political struggles that have existed for decades. Far from complete, we are engaging with the following distinct and yet interconnected issues to initiate further discussion and action: 

  • The change to a feminist economy, climate justice and solidarity
  • The threat authoritarianism poses to democracy and feminism, and what to do about it
  • Feminist class struggles in health, care and other “front-line” sectors
  • Bodily and mental integrity and the right to protection against violence
  • Migration and the inhumane body politics of border control

We are setting out these issues with the idea to inspire radical solidarity during and after the crisis as well as to influence political discussions and decisions that often lack left feminist approaches. Our recommendations can assist leftist and feminist movements, but also various institutions and political organizations, in developing concrete policies and demands. 

Throughout this document we use the term women* to emphasise that we include trans, queer and non-binary genders, as well as those affected by misogyny, or women-related issues, in our understanding of women*.

A Feminist Economy for All (Including the Planet)

During the COVID-19 crisis, we have seen a broad acknowledgement (at least symbolically) that work in care, health, cleaning, or retail is vital for the most basic functioning and actual survival of our societies. This awareness exposes once again the neoliberal myth which associates social policy with costs rather than the production of (common) wealth and which denies that societies pay dearly for privatization and marketization. This understanding must carry into the post-crisis era and guide the redirection of economic policies, putting centre-stage the understanding that without the—often-invisible—work of reproduction, the production side of the economy would be impossible.

Across sectors it is evident that unless gender inequality in employment is eliminated and the work of women* outside of the labour market is valued as much as that of men within it, this work will remain “dispensable” in times of crisis. Almost half of the population of the EU supports the idea that bringing in the money was the foremost task of men (43 percent), while a woman’s main task was to take care of family and children (44 percent). As services are suspended and formal care responsibilities are pushed back to the home, this creates the danger of societies going back decades with regard to the gendered division of labour.

The socio-economic response to the COVID-19 crisis must not limit itself to restoring the status quo ante, just with (better) pay for care work—economic growth is not a panacea to the multiple crises humanity is facing. While the world is focusing squarely on the current pandemic, by far the biggest emergency facing us—the climate crisis—has not disappeared. As polities are beginning to discuss how economies can pick up again, focusing on stock markets, GDP growth and saving (certain) jobs, progress towards avoiding climate catastrophe is in danger of being derailed. The potential roll back of measures intended to tackle climate change would be disastrous, especially as climate change is likely to be exacerbated by the post-crisis rebound.

The principles of co-dependence and eco-dependence emphasized within feminist economic thinking have been brought into stark relief by this crisis. We urgently need to rethink the economy from a feminist perspective, seeing it as encompassing all the things human beings need to survive and flourish. This includes unpaid care work as well as labour market activities. In determining what our responses to the crisis should be, it is essential that we: 

  • Reorganize the social and the economic spheres so that both production and reproduction are sustainable, democratically controlled, and guided by human needs, not by the “needs” of production
  • Recognize that care and reproductive work are fundamental to producing social wealth, and value this work accordingly, both in social and monetary terms
  • Provide free childcare for workers in “essential” services and special paid leave for people with caring responsibilities
  • Direct public funds towards fulling the basic needs of all, but with a particular focus on women* and other marginalized groups. The economy must be organized in such a way so as to prioritize the provision of free healthcare, education, accommodation, basic utilities and food
  • Develop comprehensive responses to the fallout of the current pandemic that address the looming climate catastrophe

Solidarity Mechanisms from a Feminist Perspective

As a tool to respond to economic crisis and recession, austerity is not only unfit to provide sustainable, comprehensive and coherent solutions to the problems at hand; it is also responsible for the spread of COVID-19 and for inhibiting polities from guaranteeing their societies’ physical, mental, social and economic well-being long before the outbreak of the pandemic. Women* experienced structural inequality throughout their lives and across a range of measures prior to the financial crisis of 2008/09. Because of things like their lower levels of wealth and their increased dependence on public services and social security, women* bore the brunt of austerity policies. Women* are therefore likely to suffer even more as a result of the current crisis if addressed with the same old measures.

We must learn from the catastrophic responses to the last financial crisis and address the economic effects and predicted recession resulting from the COVID-19 crisis with both new thinking and targeted measures. As economies are expected to decline, with impacts to be felt for years rather than months, any financial bailout measures and stimulus packages must be conditional on them centring gender, racial and economic equality as well as environmental justice. And as most countries across Europe are suffocating with debt, severely limiting their ability to fight both the health and resulting socio-economic crises, these measures and packages must be implemented Europe-wide. We argue it is necessary to:

  • Provide (conditional) financial solidarity with smaller, economically weaker/peripheral or more strained economies immediately
  • Make financial solidarity conditional on funds being used in a way that advances gender, racial, and economic equality while fighting climate crisis
  • Suspend debt both within the EU and globally, to give countries a chance to put resources into saving lives and sustaining societies
  • Suspend for the time of crisis the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact, and seek to reform/abolish/replace this in the future, as trying to keep in line with deficit rules is a major factor pushing austerity
  • Make available emergency support within the European Union. This should include emergency and lost income support, such as a European unemployment reinsurance scheme, to be made available for all workers, irrespective of type of contract or sector, i.e. including workers in the gig-economy (women often work in informal employment), and to cross-border workers
  • Ensure non-EU Member States in Europe have fair conditions and help from the EU to implement measures which will help to solve gender inequality. Conflicts like the one between the EU and Russia or Russia and Ukraine need to be resolved to ensure that social problems coming with the COVID-19 crisis can be tackled effectively

Institutional Changes: Authoritarianism and De-Democratization

Not only have we experienced economic crisis and recession, but we have also seen the rise of right-wing political parties across Europe for some time now—be it in Poland (the PiS being re-elected in 2019 with a majority), Hungary (Fidesz being in power since 2010), or France (with the Front National coming second in the presidential election in 2017). Using the state of emergency imposed by the crisis situation to bolster their own power and advance their own political goals, many governments have adopted authoritarian measures to cut back on the rights of civil society and attack the rights of women* in particular.

Some measures of physical distancing are indeed appropriate in order to avoid infection and relieve the pressure on care workers and hospitals. It is important to note, however, with physical distancing the emphasis to act responsibly is shifted onto the individual, obscuring the fact that austerity and the privatization of the health sector in many European countries has impeded governments’ ability to respond effectively to the crisis. At the same time, other government interventions such as the shutdown of borders, increased (digital) surveillance, manipulation of media coverage, enhanced police powers and the prohibition of demonstrations are repressive, often anti-democratic and anti-feminist.

The closure of women*’s shelters, abortion clinics and information centres, the postponement of elective surgeries (in Germany), or brazen attempts by governments (as recently seen in Poland) to enforce existing laws that forbid the termination of pregnancy, are decisions that will have pointedly gendered impacts, restricting women*’s ability to make autonomous decisions about their own bodies. Of particular concern is the speed with which autocratic measures have been adopted across established democracies, often without putting in place democratic safeguards and limits on government power. Despite measures being described as temporary, many of the Acts introduced could see government powers extended for up to two years, and in some cases—as with Hungary—indefinitely.

Authoritarian leaders are thus becoming more powerful by enforcing what they call “necessary” reforms, which lead to an imbalance of power between the state, political actors and civil society. In many countries, the independence and impartiality of the media has also been compromised. Organizations representing women*, LGBTIQA+ persons, and other minorities in particular have found their activities restricted during this time. Left feminist ideas and movements are attacked because they are perceived as a destructive force within traditional, patriarchal society. That achieving gender equality is not seen as essential to the effective functioning of society is a sign that democracy is failing.

These are authoritarian attempts to de-democratize politics and society with the aim to reduce our rights and to silence our voices. This means it is vital we:

  • Defend the achievements of progressive movements against authoritarianism. We must not allow the rights of women* and LGBTIQA+ communities to be curtailed
  • Recognize and value diversity within society. We need to resist the backlash against feminism and support struggles for dignity and social justice. We must insist on gender equality and equal rights for women*, queer and trans-persons, People of Colour, Roma and other minorities
  • Ensure access to free, legal abortion via a public health service, even during the lockdown
  • Stop the de-democratization process. Women* and other marginalized groups must use the public sphere now more than ever to remain visible and defend their rights

Care, Health, and Other Sectors: A Feminist Class Struggle

The devaluation of care and reproductive work and the exploitation of workers in these disproportionately feminized and racialized sectors forms the core of the capitalist economy, and are everyday experiences for most. Only now is the centrality of these jobs to the effective functioning of society being recognized, but what we need is a lasting appreciation both socially and financially, beyond the period of crisis. If these workers are essential now, why is their labour traditionally so undervalued?

Health and care sectors all over Europe are highly feminized. Women* and those who take care of the elderly, children, and sick people in hospitals via the formal care sector—who also often occupy the lowest-paid roles in these sectors—have not stopped their duties. During the pandemic, their shifts and tasks have redoubled and they are under constant risk of infection. Protecting them requires not only providing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), but also shielding the health sector against further privatizations. A strong public sector is the only resilient way to protect and guarantee people’s future in both the Global North and South. Health and care sectors are not a business; they are key to the well-being of society and all the people in it.

Other services—both formal and informal—that make up our social and economic infrastructure are emerging as indispensable in enabling and preserving life during the pandemic. These include (but are not limited to) gas, electricity and water supply services, the provision of food and essential goods, the postal service, basic sanitation including sewage and garbage removal, the cleaning of offices, hospitals, schools and supermarkets and other communal spaces. Workers delivering these services are on the front line and under enormous pressure. Those with no papers or labour rights; those who live under plastic roofs in the agricultural sector or crowded substandard housing in large cities; women* of colour with a migrant background who use public transport to travel to work, all face additional dangers. We must also not forget those who have been taking care of children, the elderly and whole families in their homes for years without a proper work contract. Unpaid domestic work, usually done by women*, becomes more demanding under such difficult conditions. Guaranteeing the rights, safety and decent working conditions of these workers must be the top priority.

We have to push for a class struggle that centres women* who are most impacted by the devaluing of certain types of labour, and by the invisibilization of domestic and care work. A class struggle that is rooted in the valorization of those women* without whose work we would not now be surviving. A feminist class struggle shows that care needs to come first. It is hypocritical to appreciate only now during the crisis how these services and this labour form the pillars of our society, after structurally neglecting them for so long. All those women* on the front line should not be left behind anymore. Their contribution to society is proving to be far more essential to sustaining life than financial markets, rooted instead in people’s everyday needs. We should not turn our heads away again, but bestow upon women* the importance and recognition they truly deserve. Our urgent recommendations include:

  • Care and reproductive work should be recognised and valued by national and global economies
  • The social transformation and deep reorganisation of the society to communitise care and reproductive work
  • Health and care services should be publicly financed. The privatisation of key sectors and vital services must be stopped and forbidden in the future
  • Labour rights, dignified working conditions and living wages must be guaranteed and increased across healthcare, reproductive and domestic work
  • Care for workers should be integral to labour rights (paid sick days and additional free days, paid mental health days, free counselling for workers, a four-day working week)
  • Violence, harassment and other forms of abuse which diminish the political agency of women* and marginalised persons or communities should be eliminated in the work place and within trade unions
  • Work places, trade unions and political organisations must develop strategies, protocols and mechanisms to prevent additional oppression and marginalisation

Women*’s Rights to Bodily and Mental Integrity

Since the restrictions on mobility were imposed all over Europe, intimate, sexual and reproductive violence has been increasing, affecting women* and children in their homes as well as LGBTIQA+ persons living in homophobic households. Simultaneously, the restrictions have made it harder for those at risk of abuse to escape unsafe households. This creates a paradoxical situation in which the official guidance is to stay home, even though home, for many, is the most unsafe place to be. Any action taken by women*, their children and LGBTIQA+ persons to escape puts them at danger not only of infection, but also legal prosecution.

The possibility of seeking help from institutions in the form of social protection is severely limited because of the crisis and, as already discussed, the authoritarian measures introduced by many governments. The lack of investment in women*’s refuges before the pandemic and the strict procedures which refuges now have to follow mean that many women*, children and LGBTIQA+ persons currently seeking refuge are turned away. It is crucial that we address the problem of sexist and homophobic violence, but especially now, at a time when people’s whole lives are confined to the “private” sphere, and yet political priorities focus on more “urgent” matters in the “public” domain.

We will not desist from pointing out that violence against women*, children and LGBTIQA+ persons is not a private, individual or domestic problem but a structural one. Violence, oppression and marginalization are intrinsic to patriarchal societies, used to discipline, exclude and control women*, men* and other non-normative bodies and lives. The repercussions of this violence affects the whole of society, not only those who are already vulnerable, disadvantaged and first to be targeted during a crisis. The fight for bodily and mental integrity for these groups and against patriarchal and heteronormative violence requires structural solutions to educate and raise awareness, to prevent aggression, and to provide specialist social and healthcare institutions. We thus demand that the state:

  • Acknowledge and raise awareness that violence and oppression are structural, not individual problems
  • Acknowledge that patriarchal societies ensure the marginalization of people who have suffered gender-based violence and oppression
  • Guarantee and increase public funds for women*’s refuges, particularly during the pandemic. Where possible, remove the violent perpetrator from the home instead of those who are suffering abuse
  • Provide accessible mental health care; not only during the lockdown but during the predicted period of recession following the crisis as well
  • Introduce measures to ensure women* and LGBTIQA+ persons are able to report violence against them, such as specialist hotlines, WhatsApp channels and via contact with pharmacies or other open retail stores, to make sure that they can access help and be connected with social services and the police

Migrations and Border Regimes: Why Women* Are Particularly Affected

Thousands of women*, girls and LGBTIQA+ refugees, asylum seekers and migrants run away from persecution and conflict, risking their lives on extremely difficult and dangerous journeys. Some of them escape discrimination and sexual and physical violence in their countries of origin, only to meet with further violence, human trafficking and abuse at the hands of traffickers, border guards and even their relatives on the road. The very least a society should provide for people fleeing danger or hardship is a place where they can feel safe, where they can express their fears and where their demands will be heard. Instead, the conditions in refugee camps and temporary housing are unsanitary, overcrowded and often dangerous. This puts the whole of Europe to shame. We refer to the situation in Greece in particular, but we must be aware that conditions are catastrophic also in Germany, in France, and in Bosnia, to mention but a few.

During the pandemic, the Greek government has postponed asylum applications (1 March 2020 to 15 May 2020)—just after the closing of the borders and with the outbreak of the pandemic further worsening the already life-threatening living conditions of the residents in the camps. A highly dysfunctional reception system sees thousands of people trapped in over-crowded camps on the Greek mainland and islands, which have never been properly equipped to provide long-term hospitality. With the looming Europe-wide recession, the public attention paid to these conditions will continue to decrease, leading to a further invisibilization of this horrendous situation.

With a severe lack of basic personal hygiene facilities and medical care, no personal protective equipment and no possibility for physical distancing, there is no protection from the virus. The poor living conditions in the camps are particularly burdensome for women*, girls and LGBTIQA+ refugees who are exposed to a variety of dangers, including harassment, sexual violence and once again, marginalization. Whether they live in urban areas or in refugee camps, the lack of adequate information and women* interpreters is a significant obstacle preventing women* from obtaining details about the virus and protection measures, and from accessing vital services, such as sexual and reproductive health clinics or legal aid.

 

Even in the time “before Corona”, when the world was looking aghast to the Greek-Turkish border, the EU Member States demonstrated their reluctance to respond adequately. Now, the European governments still refuse to take responsibility or the action required to relocate people to adequate accommodation and provide them with free access to health care. Instead, they are proceeding with racist blockades of entire structures and a ban on travel, without any prior care provided to give health and social support to the residents of the camps. Once again, while we are all facing this pandemic crisis, the basic narrative of many governments—not just in Greece—is a racist one. They restrict gatherings and advise civilians to protect themselves from infection by staying at home, while at the same time treating refugees, asylum seekers and migrants like second-class citizens, forcing them to live in overcrowded camps with no basic hygiene facilities or health care.

This has to stop immediately. We call for:

  • Safe and legal routes to Europe. The European asylum system must be reformed to make it fair and humane according to the EU’s founding human rights principles
  • Free access to health care and sufficient medical supplies to protect from the virus (such as ventilators, masks, gloves, sanitizer and testing kids)
  • An increase in the number of women interpreters, as well as medical, psychological and social assistance staff in refuges, temporary reception centres, urban areas and during the asylum process
  • Cooperation with community and solidarity initiatives in order to strengthen them and help them to integrate in societies and legal systems
  • Increased employment options as part of an integration strategy for refugees and migrants in the country
  • Faster and more extended family reunification options in order to have a fairer system for accepting refugees arriving on European shores. No one seeking security should be sent back to countries where they are at risk of human rights abuses, and gender-based violence
  • The safety of women*, girls, and LGBTIQA+ refugees by supporting their effective participation in consultations, plans and measures concerning their future
  • A non-discriminatory, anti-racist, anti-sexist body politics and solidarity across the whole of Europe

The COVID-19 crisis need not signal the end of international feminist solidarity and a growing feminist movement which has been building for many years. We must seize this opportunity and make the case for a better world for all. Feminism now!