The Covid-19 coronavirus is a unique adversary – it spreads easily and fast. The World Health Organization declared it a pandemic and called for a global health emergency in January 2020.
The South African government responded to this threat by calling for a state of disaster and putting the country under a strict lockdown which came into effect on March 26.
Covid-19 has worsened the effectively unstable economic environment and laid bare the inequalities that exist between men and women – their roles in society and in the household.
What follows is an overview of gender patterns under “normal circumstance” and what these patterns look like under the regulations of the lockdown.
Economics of gender and unpaid care work
Unpaid care work is all the work, non-compensated, that is carried out in the household – including care of children and people, cooking, cleaning, and fetching water.
Women usually devote disproportionately more time on unpaid care work than men. Due to the gendered social norms that repute unpaid care work as “females’ duty”, women across different regions, socioeconomic classes and cultures devote a significant share of their days meeting the expectations of domestic and reproductive roles. This adds on to their paid work activities and thus exerts a “double burden” of work for women.
On average, women all around the world spend between three and six hours on unpaid care work and men spend between 30 minutes and two hours.
Women play the caretaker role at home, take care of the children, their in-laws and husband. In the most extreme of cases this changes their labour force participation outcome. Unpaid care work impedes women’s participation in the labour market, and when they do participate they usually get a pay that is lower than that of their male counterparts – sometimes because they have to split their work hours between paid and unpaid care work.
A survey exploring gender issues in relation to the workplace showed that more than a third of South African working women revealed that their gender and parental responsibilities impeded them from advancing their careers.
The lockdown called for the temporary closure of many facilities and activities – including the closure of schools and universities – and many employees had to work remotely to limit the spread of the virus.
This increases the unpaid care work for women as they have to take care of children that temporarily do not attend school, of the increased old people care needs – as the elderly are at high risk of contracting the virus.
In cases where a family member is infected, the role of taking care of them falls into the hands of a woman who is already responsible of taking care of everyone in the household.
Women who have formal sector employment often have to cut down on hours worked because being at home with the children and the rest of their families means more time for tending to household needs.
The economic outcomes for women – who are already crowded in the informal sector with jobs that offer less security – took a turn for the worst.
Women in the informal sector, such as street vending, suffered a disproportionate burden because in many cases [in the beginning stages of the lockdown] they had to completely abandon their work and not receive any income.
The virus also gave rise to gender-based violence incidences under lockdown regulations – lockdown meant that women were at home with the perpetrators and had little to no access to assistance – being locked with your abuser at home makes it even harder for women to report because they [abusers] almost watch their every move.
What to do in the ‘new normal’ – policies directed at driving the economy to full capacity
Women and men inherently have unequal positions in society and thus unequal economic outcomes, epidemics such as the Covid-19 serve as highlighters of these inequalities and different outcomes faced with these genders.
It therefore would be implausible to disregard the gendered impact of Covid-19 when devising policy and strategies as a way for the economy to recoup and hopefully be driven to full capacity.
Policy makers ought to be mindful of the way that policy affects women and include women in economic planning and emergency responses, policies that do not take women into consideration are less effective and to some cases even harm women.
Women and organisations at the front line of community responses should be engaged with and supported in policy making. There needs to be gendered impact considerations of any proposed policy to see if it would give rise to or close the inequality gap between women and men.
Shedi is a master’s candidate in economics at the University of the Witwatersrand. She holds a BCom economics degree with honours from the same university. Olwethu is an executive member of the Wits chapter’s Rethinking Economics for Africa. Olwethu writes in her personal capacity.