Perspective

Covid-19 and new struggles over gender and social justice

Backlash against gender and social justice was well underway prior to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, as Naomi Klein has demonstrated, such crises provide fertile ground for the ‘exceptional politics’ required to dust off and push through illiberal ideas, allowing particular actors to concentrate power and profit from disaster.

The chaos brought about by any global shock can produce a perfect storm allowing for the suspension of democratic norms, deepening of inequalities and heightened fear and polarisation ripe for exploitation. These opportunities have already been recognised and seized by neoconservative projects and populist leaders in the Covid-19 moment. In turn, the crisis triggered by the pandemic appears to be producing — at a whole new level — a heady mix of fear, distraction, restrictions and volatility which seems set to further entrench backlash against struggles for gender and social justice.

Reproductive Rights

Women’s autonomy over their lives and bodies has been consistently denied or threatened through a myriad of attacks on reproductive rights in the ongoing backlash. These rights are further eroded in the context of Covid-19 through the closure of abortion clinics and the designation of abortion as ‘non-essential’, along with supply chain disruptions and diversion of staff and equipment from other Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) services. This is expected to have dire consequences with regard to maternal and newborn deaths, unsafe abortions, unplanned and unsafe pregnancies, particularly among marginalised communities.

Domestic Violence

While the ‘necropolitics’ of Covid-19 visibly determine which socioeconomic and ethnic groups are disproportionately killed by the virus, the fallout of lockdowns has also precipitated increases in domestic violence and femicide worldwide. Reports of domestic violence have increased upwards of 25 per cent (pdf) in countries with reporting systems in place, even doubling in some cases. In Bogota, the city mayor stated that reports of violence against women surged 225 per cent in the first week of lockdown, while other crime statistics dropped.

The UN Population Fund asserts that the pandemic is likely to undermine efforts to end gender-based violence, increasing the incidence of violence, while placing already under-resourced prevention and protection efforts under greater strain (pdf). Women’s right to live free from violence, indeed the right to live at all, is seemingly even more viscerally under threat while governmentally enforced to “stay safe, stay home”.

Unpaid Care

Along with enforced restrictions to the home, increased demand for unpaid care — of children and elderly relatives — is deepening pre-existing inequalities in the gendered division of labour. Women were already performing three times as much unpaid care work than men prior to the Covid-19 outbreak (pdf), yet current containment measures — such as school closures — have heightened this burden for women and girls, in particular, both inside and outside of the home (pdf).

The consequences of the pandemic threaten to further impede girls education (pdf) and women’s participation in the paid economy worldwide, jeopardising efforts toward gender and economic equality in the long-term, while reinforcing the traditional structure of the household (in the ‘male breadwinner; female caregiver’ mould).

‘Emergency Powers’ and Authoritarian Rule

The global shock of Covid-19 has exacerbated other key features of backlash, including rising ethnonationalism and authoritarianism, and the hypermasculine performances of the populist figureheads leading the growing number of ‘illiberal democracies’ worldwide. State-led enforcement of lockdowns have been pursued through emergency powers, providing opportunities for stricter authoritarian rule, arbitrary arrests and/or brutal crackdowns, predominantly waged against marginalised minorities, including in IndiaKenyaHungary, the PhilippinesUganda and Paraguay.

(Mis-)information, (fake) news and ‘science’ have also been weaponised, from descriptions of coronavirus as a ‘little flu’ and left-wing conspiracy to undermine President Bolsanaro’s legitimacy in Brazil to clampdowns on alleged “disinformation” and “fake news” in Russia and the Philippines. India’s health ministry spoke of “corona Jihad” and blamed an Islamic seminary for spreading the virus, sparking yet more violence against Muslims from Hindu-nationalist quarters. This came just weeks after state-sanctioned deadly attacks in a Muslim neighbourhood of Delhi, and in a context of broader legislative religious discrimination — peaceful protest of which has recently led to the arrest of two IDS alumni.

In the Philippines, human rights advocates have highlighted President Duterte’s “chilling disregard for the poor and the persecuted” in the response to the crisis, and fear that emergency powers will facilitate arbitrary arrests of activists, journalists and environmental defenders charged with spreading “false information regarding the Covid-19 crisis.”

In India, migrant workers were beaten and humiliated by police on their mass exodus out of cities back to their villages, while migrants were allegedly robbed, beaten and spray-painted with red crosses on their heads by Croatian police officers claiming that the treatment was the “cure against coronavirus” – a story denied by the Croatian authorities. President Trump banned all immigration to the US, with no details of timing, scope or legal basis, while migrant and refugee camps have been turned into ‘virtual prisons’ in a number of other settings, including Qatar, Serbia, Bosnia and Greece.

On May 19th, the Hungarian government passed a law which makes it impossible for transgender or intersex people to legally change their gender, placing them at greater risk of harassment, discrimination, and violence when daily using their identity documents. In a context of acute discrimination against LGBTQI+ individuals and communities, Human Rights Watch writes that this new legislation “comes at a time when the government has used the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to grab unlimited power and is using parliament to rubber-stamp problematic non-public health related bills, like this one.”

Fuel to the Fire

These dynamics – of populism and militant ethnonationalism, rollbacks in reproductive rights, along with reinforced gendered violence, discrimination against LGBTQI+ people and divisions of labour – have long functioned to undermine, erode and inhibit progress on gender and social justice. However, they have gathered increasing force and legitimacy in recent years.

The global shock precipitated by the Covid-19 pandemic appears to have added fuel to the fire enveloping and diminishing human rights, civic space and gender justice, while also providing a smokescreen for the further erosion of democratic norms, entrenchment of inequalities and scapegoating of the ethnic and gendered other.

Countering Backlash

Yet, all of this is happening in plain sight, and new opportunities, forms of mobilisation and strategies in struggles for gender justice and human rights are likely to also evolve; opportunities, strategies and struggles which need support. IDS has recently embarked on a multi-country research and capacity-strengthening programme entitled ‘Countering Backlash: Reclaiming Gender Justice’, with partners in Uganda, Kenya, India, Bangladesh, Brazil and Lebanon. While a global pandemic did not feature in the initial conceptualisation of the programme, the implications of Covid-19 on dynamics of backlash are undeniable.

It is only through the collaborative understanding of patriarchal backlash that we can tackle it, and identify opportunities for gender and social justice worldwide. In order to support those countering backlash in this moment of rupture, we must and will maintain a critical eye on dynamics of backlash as they unfold through the pandemic.