Has The Pandemic Jeopardised Women’s Hard-Earned Progress?

For a vast majority of women, an abiding pandemic means having to make some taxing choices. It also means having to endure several inescapable consequences of choices forced upon their personal and professional lives.

Ayeza* was a marketing assistant at a health and wellness centre in Lahore. She was laid off from her work in April last year after a lockdown was imposed in the city as a Covid-19 control measure. While she grappled with the impact of unpaid leave, her employer promised to pay her due salary for all the previous months, once the lockdown was lifted and it was business as usual.

As a mother of three, Ayeza had to juggle looking after her children who were home round-the-clock, readying them for online school sessions, attending to their multiple gastronomical and other demands, while solely taking care of the increased housework resulting from the laying-off of her part-time domestic help. With everyone at home all the time, there was more housework for her to do all the time: more cooking, more cleaning, more dishwashing, more grocery shopping, more demand for tea by the work-from-home husband and for snacks by the children, so that the list of additional chores went on and on. An over-worked and disgruntled Ayeza, hence, resigned from her wellness centre job that had not paid her a penny since last April.

Asserting that women are perhaps the worst victims of the various fallouts of the Covid-19 pandemic would not be an overstatement. This is especially true in our part of the world, where women have no safeguards in the form of compensating policies, effective legislation or, where legislation does exist, its earnest implementation. Whether it is in terms of the economic or emotional fallout, or the increased workload, seeing as women are expected to be the default caregivers of both home and children, women’s lives have been gravely affected by the pandemic. Their freedom, choices and security against domestic abuse, have all taken a toll in one go. With an end to the pandemic nowhere in sight in the near future, the need to recognise, reduce and redistribute women’s unpaid work, while creating legitimate space for their professional fulfilment, has never been more dire.

The underlying assumption that care is a woman’s domain, even if she is the primary earner, is most unfair and disturbing. “The onus of home and child care always, somehow, automatically lies on women,” says 35-year-old Kamila* whose life has been badly toppled since the pandemic hit. “I used to work at a beauty salon. I was laid-off in August last year due to a lack of clients and frequent business closures following the coronavirus. I am a divorced single parent looking single-handedly after my two children, so I am struggling to make ends meet. My ex-husband who used to support the children before Covid-19 has now refused to send any money, citing financial restraints as the reason.”

Job lay-offs for women also mean being stripped of economic independence, resulting in a poorer sense of achievement, worsening self-esteem, rising anxiety and depression, and increased chances of developing mental health issues. With employment and education opportunities prone to be lost, women may suffer from poorer mental and physical health.

In the absence of a formal furlough or lay-off policy, as introduced in many developed countries in the face of the pandemic, employers have mostly only safeguarded their own interests by laying-off employees, as and when suitable, usually without paying their unpaid dues. For most women, redundancies followed the lockdowns immediately; for others, being forced to resign from their jobs due to the overwhelmingly demanding circumstances was the only plausible option.

Has the coronavirus pandemic pushed women an enormous leap backwards? This is the question that researchers at the University of Sussex, England, have been asking. They warn of a “regression to a 1950s way of living for women, with 70 percent of mothers reporting being completely or mostly responsible for homeschooling and 67 percent of working women feeling like the “default” parent most or all of the time.”

According to another November 2020 report by UN Women citing global data, the virus could wipe out 25 years of increasing gender equality. “Everything we worked for, that has taken 25 years, could be lost in a year," stated the UN Women Deputy Executive Director Anita Bhatia. “The care burden poses a real risk of reverting to 1950s gender stereotypes". Though the findings are based on data collected from different regions across the globe, most women in Pakistan can easily relate to the results. Gender inequality and role stereotyping have certainly worsened during the pandemic-necessitated lockdowns. Though many fathers of young children and male family members stepped up and undertook more childcare over the period of lockdowns, women were still overwhelmingly taking on the role of primary care providers and primary educators for children, whether as mothers, sisters or grandmothers. Additionally, the elderly, the sick and those who fell victim to the pandemic mostly lay within women’s ambit of responsibilities, whatever the economic stratum of a household.

Moreover, since men usually tend to earn more, their jobs, more often than not, take priority over women’s careers, with the latter more likely to be left grappling with childcare and related tasks. 54 percent of respondents to a Gallup Pakistan survey last year thought that men earn more than women, 12 percent felt that women earn more while only 33 percent of respondents felt that both men and women earn equally for the same job and, hence, their jobs might be equally important and indispensable.

In terms of the economic fallout of the pandemic and subsequent austerity measures, the results of a May 2020 Gallup Pakistan survey, Economic Impact of COVID-19 Lockdown on Pakistani Households, also show that nearly 6.9 million households claimed to have reduced the number or size of meals for “some” family members to cover their household’s basic needs. "Greater proportion of urban (27 percent) than rural respondents (20 percent) mention reducing the number or size of meals to cover their household’s basic needs.” It would be anybody’s guess who the “some family members” mentioned in the Gallup report refer to, whose size or number of meals has been reduced. In a country where the biggest portion of a meal going to a mother or daughter is not usually seen even in normal times, one can surmise that the family members with a reduced portion of food must predominantly be women.

The post-pandemic job market is not going to be any easier either, with a chance of underemployment becoming more rampant than unemployment. In the absence of substantial minimum wage policies in the country, employers will use exploitative tactics citing slow market as an excuse to pay lower salaries. Desperate to find work, most will be left with few choices, women obviously becoming easier prey again to gender-based pay discrimination.

The International Labour Organisation, in a June 2020 report cautioned that any progress made in workplace gender equality can easily be reversed by the asymmetrical impact of the global jobs crisis caused by the current pandemic. The report says that women are being “especially hard hit by the crisis because they are over-represented in some of the economic sectors worst affected by the crisis, such as accommodation, food, sales and manufacturing. Globally, almost 510 million or 40 percent of all employed women work in the four most affected sectors, compared with 36.6 percent of men. Women are more likely to be employed in the domestic work and health and social care work sectors, where there is a greater risk of job losses and infection. The pre-pandemic unequal distribution of unpaid care work has also worsened during the crisis, exacerbated by the closure of schools and care services.”

Women working as the labour force in factories, brick kilns or in the construction industry face other predicaments still. Between 75 and 80 percent of the labour force in the country work as unregistered or informal labour, working without any social security or legal protection, which is a condition that holds true particularly for women. As per the Constitution of Pakistan, any person, who works for an organisation for 90 consecutive days, is automatically considered to be a permanent employee and deserves social security and other benefits, a regulation that is hardly ever implemented. This also includes women employed as domestic workers, home-based workers and piece-rate workers employed in the manufacturing firms. Though Punjab and Sindh have policies for domestic and home-based workers, no enforcing legislation has been enacted so far, while the pandemic has worsened an already slipshod situation.

Post Covid-19, working from home might become the new norm for many, even in the formal job sector, but it remains to be seen if those female workers already working from home are accepted into the formal workforce sector due to this new trend or not.

The government might consider giving tax exemption schemes to enhance female participation in the labour market. Tax benefits for low-wage earners can be used to stimulate labour force participation of women. A few years ago, the exemption limit under the Income Tax Ordinance in Pakistan was higher for women taxpayers than men, which was as an incentive for women to earn more. However, this exemption is no longer valid.

More widespread redundancies and challenges for women are expected if and when we witness another wave of coronavirus pandemic in the country. We are definitely unprepared to counter the economic, social and mental health consequences that will follow, especially for women.

*Names have been changed for reasons of privacy.

Faryal Shahzad is an entrepreneur and a freelance journalist based in Lahore.