The current economic crisis of capitalism, which followed years of neo-liberal austerity and gathered momentum from mid-2019 onwards, was already taking an enormous toll when COVID-19 struck with devastating effect. Pre-pandemic, millions of people, most of them women, in many parts of the world, were being lined up, as always, to pay the heaviest price for an economic depression they bore no responsibility for creating – through massive job losses and, for those still in work, huge pay cuts, a sharp deterioration in conditions and an explosion of insecure contracts. The pandemic broadened and deepened the crisis, especially for the peoples of countries still suffering from the legacy of colonial exploitation and impacted by the continuing economic, political and military interventions of foreign powers and the ravages of reactionary regimes at home – all in pursuit of mega profits, without regard for the needs of the majority of citizens. Both the economic crisis and pandemic have had a disproportionate and crushing impact on the world’s women and particularly on the poorest and those who are dispossessed. But their struggle continues.
Here, Liz Payne of Liberation (LP) talks with three world-leading politicians and campaigners from different continents about female poverty and misogyny in the context of the current crisis. Annie Raja (AR) is general secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women and a vice-president of the Women’s international Democratic Federation. Marie Nassif-Debs (MND) is a politician and president of ‘Equality: The Wardah Boutros Association for Women’s Rights’ in Lebanon. Socorro Gomes (SG) is president of both the World Peace Council and Cebrapaz, the Brazilian peace and solidarity movement. Liberation wishes to thank them all for their contributions and, at the same time, pledges its support for the ongoing struggle for justice and equality for women everywhere.
LP: It is well known that women across the world are dis-proportionally affected by poverty. Can you comment on this in respect of women in your country and say something about the way in which the current economic crisis has impacted on them?
MND: Women are the poorest of the world’s poor and women in Lebanon are no exception. They are held back by illiteracy and unemployment. The majority of women who do work are low paid, receiving less than 70% of male earnings. Most are not registered for social security. In the current economic crisis, which exploded in October 2019, more than half of all Lebanese people live without work, below the poverty line. According to the Ministry of Labour, there are more than a million unemployed people, 65% of the adult population. Most are women and young people. A UN study reports that the number of out-of-work women has increased by 106,750 in a year.
SG: Women in Brazil are the greatest victims of the economic crisis and disastrous neoliberal policies, such as cuts in social provision, for example to child education and health. This is made worse by the pandemic, with the piling up of responsibilities onto women, such as childcare and looking after the elderly. This takes its toll on women’s participation in the labour market, as evidenced by a drop in the employment rate in 2020 to the lowest in 30 years. These policies have also led to greater exposure to the COVID pandemic.
AR: In India, exclusion of the poor and marginalized and unprecedented inequality are the hallmarks of neo-liberalism. Instead of safeguarding lives and livelihoods, government policies are aimed at perpetuating corporate profits. As a result, 96% of women have been pushed into the unorganized sector, without rights and solely for exploitation. Women’s participation in the workforce has fallen drastically to 20% in 2018-19. The government has stepped away from basic sectors such as health, education, and employment. New legislation has been passed, for example the Aadhaar Act, making personal digital identity registration mandatory for accessing basic constitutional rights. It excludes millions and the biggest victims are women and children.
LP: To what extent does misogyny, both institutional and individual, play a role in limiting the possibility for achieving justice and women’s equality in your society?
SG: Brazil has one of the worst murder rates for women, with a femicide once every nine hours. Corrosive prejudice against women is deeply rooted in the country and a backward misogynistic culture prevails. This permeates the current government, which is revoking public policies achieved through decades of struggle on the part of Brazilian women in areas such as female health, inclusive education, and other important affirmative policies. This systematic attack is resulting in a huge reversal of hard-won gains. Attempts to make violence against women socially acceptable have been given weight by a government known for opposing women’s emancipation and equal rights.
AR: Even in the 21st century India maintains its patriarchal, feudal attitude towards women. It creates every type of barrier against women’s achievement of their full potential. The Indian Constitution assures equality and justice to all citizens, but governments have not translated this into affirmative policies and actions impacting the lives of women. Today women are challenged with fundamentalist ‘manuwadi’ ideology, which resembles Hitler’s vision of women. Women’s struggles had succeeded in pressurizing the State to pass numerous ‘women friendly’ laws, including equal pay, which serve to ensure dignity and a better position. But the present government is dismantling all such legislation. Misogyny has become the norm, and this reinforces women’s secondary position in society.
MND: Misogyny is one of the main causes of widening inequality. In Lebanon, it arises from the sectarian political system and the various Christian and Islamic personal status laws which differentiate between women and men and ascribe secondary status to women. Their position is reflected in both public and private life – starting with parliament and ending with domestic violence – as well as in the role of women in the production process. It is also reflected in a number of civil laws, including denial of the right of women to pass their nationality to their children.
LP: In what ways has the COVID-19 pandemic been particularly detrimental to the lives of women and their families and how will this affect the women’s struggle going forward?
AR: COVID has accelerated discrimination and devastation, destroying the livelihood and income of all sections of women, who have become the shock absorbers of the family. As hospitals turn away patients, other than those with COVID, the additional responsibility of looking after the elderly and sick has fallen to women. Women have become unpaid care-workers. The situation debars them from participating in collective bargaining for their rights as citizens/workers. During the pandemic, violence against women has increased. While schools remain closed, online education will see an increased drop out of girls, millions of whom live in huts without smart phones, electricity, or internet. Their future will become a major challenge.
MND: In Lebanon too, the impact of the Corona pandemic on working women has compounded that of the economic crisis in terms of job loss and hence loss of income, high rates of dismissal, and increased family and childcare duties, which already placed a much greater burden on women than on men. Hence, our priority in the future will be a return to the slogan “Regulate the labour market and provide social protection for working women!”
SG: The pandemic does not discriminate, but it does disproportionally affect the poor, those living on the margins and in the slums of Brazil, completely unprotected and without access to any publicly funded assistance. COVID has placed a huge extra burden on the shoulders of women, who are caring for children and other family members and supporting their families, often on severely reduced incomes. Many are family bread winners, at the frontline of the pandemic, providing the essential services – nursing, caring, cleaning – exposing themselves to contagion to earn enough to survive. In response, support networks are being formed by women, especially in the poorest neighbourhoods. Our COVID experience has made us determined that there will be no return to “normality” since a society of social apartheid is not normal.