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Gender norms, intersectionality and a COVID-19 ‘global reset’

By Caroline Harper

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare not only inequalities between and within countries, but the fragility of rights which many assume cannot be reversed. Gender norms, which reflect and mirror progress in gendered human rights, have regressed in many settings. Women without adequate childcare are juggling domestic work with full time jobs, they have faced greater job losses – in part because they make up a large chunk of the informal sector – and they have taken the brunt of COVID-19 as frontline workers in the health sector.

We know from previous crises that large scale shocks can have significant impacts on gendered inequalities, while they also, sometimes, present opportunities to ‘build back better’. The challenge will be bringing this learning to the response.

Social and gender norms and COVID-19

Social and gender norms are affected by political and economic contexts and by where people are situated in a complex array of power relations mediated by gender, race, age, ethnicity and other factors. It’s essential that we engage with this and appreciate how external challenges affect people differently. For example people with disabilities have met particular, sometimes gendered, challenges in the COVID-19 crisis. In some settings, disabled and elderly people, who are especially vulnerable to severe symptoms of COVID-19, have been neglected or left to their fate when they have become infected. The rights of people with disabilities and underlying chronic health conditions have not been protected by many states.  In some settings the rationing of medical care has actively discriminated against the disabled and the elderly.

COVID-19 has particularly harmful effects on those in poverty. Poorer people in high-income settings are more exposed, as they are much more likely to be involved in public facing work, such as delivery drivers, factory workers, cleaners and carers. These professions have been disproportionally exposed (and exhibit gendered risks), and in many contexts, low-income work often intersects with ethnicity, exposing racial fault lines.  Poverty also increases risks of a number of non-communicable diseases, which in turn increase the risk of dying or getting seriously ill from COVID-19. Because racialized groups in high-income countries are disproportionately likely to be undertaking these low-paid public-facing jobs, live in housing with limited space and opportunities for isolating from others with the disease, and have higher incidence of various non-communicable diseases, they are at greater risk of getting ill or dying from COVID-19. 

With some similar affects in some low-income settings, there are also many poor people, especially in urban areas, who tend to be day labourers, who are hardest hit by lockdowns and curfews and in many settings face starvation as a result of measures to react to COVID-19

Gendered norms cut across all these contexts and differences.

Building back better

When leaders talk about a ‘global reset’ or ‘building back better’ they need to consider how advances in human rights can be embedded into the fabric of society. We should not be aiming for superficial or cosmetic changes that can be easily overturned once the acute phase of the pandemic is over. To make advances, we need to acknowledge the norms and biases that inform our everyday interactions and decisions. Discriminatory gender and other norms persist because they operate under the radar.  They are embedded in individual and collective attitudes and behaviours and are systemically embedded in the institutions of society.

The good news is that growing evidence, research and learning is available to understand these norms and can support those committed to working for a fairer, more equal world in a COVID-19 response and recovery. We increasingly know how to challenge this form of individual and structural discrimination across gender and intersectional issues and contexts.  A number of research collaboratives and networks, including our  Advancing Learning and Innovation on Gender Norms (ALIGN) platform, host examples of projects, policies and social movements, bringing together global actors to identify, challenge and change these norms in our daily lives. 

Ensuring real change within COVID-19 recovery and response

We are working to ensure that learning about norms has a prime place in policy development and is not relegated to academic corners or stuck within sectoral silos. In our global reset we must push leaders to put money into policies, practices, and international agreements which look deeply at how to ensure real change through addressing norms and intersectional marginalisation, and to confront, redress and reform the systemic discrimination embedded in our institutions.  Gendered discrimination has long been both enforced and replicated through institutional interests and complicity.  Progress to address gendered inequalities can be seen on multiple fronts, in action on equal pay, political voice, physical integrity or equal inheritance rights.  However, the ease with which crisis has enabled backsliding for women’s rights and gender equality, exposes the fragility of this progress and the importance of entrenched invisible norms in both family and institutional settings.  This reaffirms the need for more far reaching and radical reform to our institutions and our  policies and practices.

Caroline Harper is Director of Programme, Gender Equality and Social Inclusion at the Overseas Development Institute and Project Director in ALIGN