Women’s work and COVID-19: Caring for care workers
COVID-19 has brought the world to a halt. Nations, businesses, and schools have closed, and billions are confined to their homes. Yet millions of care workers step out daily to keep the lights on and support those in need. The majority of them are women – nurses, community health workers, sanitation workers, and others. They earn little and are grossly undervalued despite keeping our society and economy running.
Other forms of care - looking after families, cooking, cleaning, and fetching water aren’t paid at all. This ‘invisible’ work contributes over US$10.8 trillion a year to the global economy, and before COVID-19, women and girls provided 12.5 billion hours of free care work every day. On average, women spend over 4 hours for every hour men spend on care work in Asia and the Pacific – over 4 times as much. Women spend nearly 11 times in Cambodia and Pakistan, 10 times in India, and 3 times in Bangladesh, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Yet, when Asia launched Covid-19 responses and stimulus packages, women and care work’s amiss. This callous neglect is a result of prioritizing the economy above everything else, compounded by social norms that undervalue care work and leave the burden to women and girls. Care work, with no pay, has deprived women and girls of education, skill development, and gainful employment. It has left women with precarious jobs, insecure incomes, and no social safety. The pandemic has multiplied the load on care systems, already depleted and unfair, falling mostly on women.
Lockdowns have increased child and elderly care for women. With schools shut in 188 countries,1.5 billion students and over 63 million primary teachers are confined to their homes. Social gender norms have left women and girls spending more time caring and providing educational support to children. Older people are at greater risk to COVID-19, and in Asia, where elderly often live with their children, women will shoulder the responsibility for looking after them.
Times of uncertainty and disease worsens inequalities for women. By default, women are more likely to be in poorly paid jobs at the lowest ends of value chains without a chance at education or building skills. With a looming global depression, they are likely to be the first fired and last re-hired. There’s a high risk of losing fragile yet meaningful gains made in formal workforces – limiting women’s ability to support themselves and families, especially for female-headed households.
80 percent of world’s domestic workers are women. Uncertainty looms for many domestic workers who travel internationally from the Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and elsewhere. Women send US$300 billion home yearly, half of total global remittances. Migrant women losing jobs due to restrictions will hit their families back home.
As caregivers, women face higher risks from Covid-19. Globally, 70% of poorly paid health care workers are women – in frontlines – often without training or proper safety equipment. In China’s Hubei province, 90% of health workers are women. Each ASHA community health worker from India’s Panjab visits at least 25 homes a day to screen suspected patients; majority without safety equipment, training, and testing, and COVID-19 cases are rising among them. Within homes too, women hold the main responsibility of care for patients discharged from hospitals or placed in quarantine at home.
Women and girls, locked-down in their homes, are facing escalating domestic violence – likely stuck with their abusers. Life-saving support to survivors from front-line services, such as heath, police, and social welfare may be slow or at a halt altogether as they are overburdened.
We need to act now to protect women and girls and recognize care work that is sustaining us through this crisis:
- Asia must come together to save lives of all including caregivers from COVID -19. The governments must invest in information, training, and safety equipment. All caregivers – whether at homes or hospitals – need access to testing, treatment, and health care. When a vaccine or treatment is available, it must be accessible and affordable to all including women and girls living in poverty.
- Care workers including unpaid carers must have social protection. Employers -government or business – must support childcare for all who need it. Cash aid to those with livelihoods hit must be enough for a decent living – especially for those kept away from jobs due to care burdens. International lenders and governments must make social protection a priority in stimulus packages.
- Businesses must respect human rights and be responsible for workers. While at work, all workers must have safety equipment to protect themselves. Flexible working hours, paid leave, and work from home will ease the extra burdens pandemic has created – especially for the care workers.
Looking beyond, as we build anew our broken economies and societies, we must reduce, redistribute, and represent care work once and for all:
- ASEAN, SAARC, and governments need inclusive Regional Action Groups to develop regional and national policies to recognize, reduce, and redistribute unpaid and underpaid care work. These policies must be backed up by resource and infrastructure investment to create secure and decent care work opportunities.
- We must professionalize care work and create women’s social enterprises to help care workers transition to decent work through training, education, and certification.
Finally, we must promote healthier social norms on care work, share care work equally, mobilize public support, and call for flexible work arrangements to balance work and family commitments.
Lan Mercado is the Regional Director for Oxfam in Asia.
Mohammad Naciri is the Regional Director for UN Women Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.
Yamini Mishra is the Director, Global Issues Programme for Amnesty International - International Secretariat.