The pandemic, women, and Building Back Better

16 Sep 2021 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 16 Sep 2021

Photo by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash
Photo by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash

The Women’s Policy Group NI has relaunched its Covid-19 Feminist Recovery Plan. Scope looks at why this is important.

 

Covid-19 has placed a disproportionately large burden on women and a “feminist recovery” is needed to address that inequality, according to a report from the Women’s Policy Group NI.

Efforts to rebuild society and the economy after the events of the past 18 months – events which are still ongoing, with infection rates and deaths rising once more – should not simply seek to restore what was lost, for good and ill.

The pandemic is an enormous challenge and has made life tougher for individuals, families and communities. Nevertheless, as far as possible it should be treated as an opportunity to fix longer-term problems (to Build Back Better, as the slogan goes).

A recovery that prioritises people and groups most adversely affected by the pandemic is not one that is just looking to turn back the clock.

Covid-19 exposed pre-existing fault lines in the economy and in society. The best kind of recovery will not just, as far as is possible, repair the damage of the past year and a half – it will address the underlying reasons as to why some groups of people felt more damage in the first place.

Carers, people who work in people-facing industries like retail, people who rely on childcare, and more and more – many of the social groups that have taken big hits during the pandemic are mostly populated by women.

Initially launched in July 2020, the Women’s Policy Group NI decided to relaunch its Feminist Recovery Plan (FRP) this summer.

The group did this because the FRP remains relevant for several reasons – including the pandemic’s persistence, and the lack of action towards the group’s recommendations (which, to be fair to policymakers and other in power, is tied to the fact that Covid-19 is still an ongoing, major worry).

Findings

The relaunched report builds on broad research – from organisations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), International Labour Organisation (ILO) and Unicef – that has found time and again that women face disproportionately large challenges due to Covid-19.

It also cites its own primary research from local people (the vast majority of whom, over 95%, are women) to get a snapshot of some of the specific challenges in NI. This local research found that:

Over 75% of all respondents were in some form of employment and, of those, over half said Covid-19 impacted their employment. Of that group, over 25% saw their hours decrease (although 28% said their hours went up), 16% were furloughed, 14.7% said their pay went down, 13% said they were now working from home, and 2.7% were made redundant.

A total of 56.7% of respondents said the pandemic has had a financial impact on their household – with almost half saying their savings had taken a hit (although just over a third saw theirs increase, which isn’t a surprising result given other research), over a third struggling to pay bills, almost a quarter had seen debts increase – and 12.4% said they had used food banks.

A total of 61.4% of respondents had children (almost half of whom were single parents) and findings amongst this group include:

  • 29.2% struggled to access childcare during the pandemic
  • 13.5% relied on family for childcare support before the pandemic
  • 14.6% relied on family for childcare support during the pandemic
  • 31.5% saw their work affected by childcare responsibilities
  • 6.7% struggled to pay childcare bill 

Almost 40% of respondents had a caring role and, for this group, findings include:

  • Just 15.1% have been able to access Carers’ Allowance
  • 81.1% said their caring responsibilities increased during the pandemic (11.3% of carers said their responsibilities stayed the same during the pandemic, while just 7.5% of carers said their responsibilities decreased)

As well as all the impacts listed above, 82.1% of respondents said their mental health had declined during the pandemic, and 57.9% of respondents said their physical health suffered.

Per the report: “In the past year, since the Feminist Recovery Plan (FRP) was initially launched, further evidence has highlighted what we have been stating from the beginning of COVID-19 - that women have been worst impacted by the pandemic…

“It is essential that all levels of government representing Northern Ireland are fully aware of the unique challenges in Northern Ireland; particularly as the UK government is the duty bearer for human rights in NI. Women in Northern Ireland have suffered immensely due to a decade of Austerity, and over a year of the ongoing pandemic, and any COVID-19 recovery cannot come to the detriment of women’s equality and economic wellbeing.

“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented challenge across the UK. It has put in sharp focus the value and importance of care work, paid and unpaid, and highlighted the essential nature of often precarious and almost always low paid retail work.

“Women undertake the majority of this work, and women will bear a particular brunt of this crisis; economically, socially and in terms of health. The WPG is calling on decision-makers across the UK to take action to ensure a gender-sensitive crisis response as we transition from crisis response to recovery.”

Recommendations

The FRP report identified four pillars (Economic Justice, Health, Social Justice and Cultural) under which issues have arisen during the pandemic, or where pre-existing problems have been exacerbated.

These issues range from the economic challenges outlined above to health waiting lists, and from shortcomings in the justice system to online abuse. The Women’s Policy Group’s research was designed to be comprehensive, and the report covers just about all areas of policy.

Its recommendations are just as sweeping - cutting across both very Covid-specific areas and also the underlying problems that pre-date the pandemic.

They include the development of a women’s employment strategy; collection of better data on economic gender imbalances (such as proper reporting on the number of women who are furlough); gender-pay-gap legislation to address wage inequalities and greater rights to work flexibly.

The Women’s Policy Group wants to see greater support for carers (both direct support, and through better-designed health and care systems); more financial support for people in debt; a stronger social security system; and the creation of proper structures to support NI’s vastly under-resourced childcare system.

Some of the recommendations are directly related to women – such as better understanding of sexual violence, or provision of abortion services – but many are not.

Instead, they are calls for better support for carers, those on low pay, or with childcare. And, as these concern women at a disproportionately high rate, improvements therein will help women – as well as anyone else facing these challenges.

At the widest point, the recommendations include improving mental health provision in NI, and introducing multi-year budgeting at Stormont to allow for better long-term planning.

Again, this is very much in the spirit of crafting something better than what came before, rather than filling in the holes caused by Covid-19.

Covid-19 has been terrible. To make the best of the cards we have been dealt it is necessary to address the long-running socioeconomic failures it has exposed. A feminist recovery makes a lot of sense.

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