THE MAVERICK: Women as the Face of Poverty and Desperation during Crisis Period: Why Gender Sensitive Interventions Matter

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Towards the end of April,  the media aired a story of a woman who was boiling stones disguised as food, in order to buy time and entice her kids to sleep. That was just one of the horrible experiences brought by the current pandemic, but it is no exception. 

Every moment of desperation exhibited in the media during this crisis has the faces of hungry, malnourished women and children. It is an illustration of who are hard hit in this crisis period, and possibly a reminder that neutral interventions cannot have the optimal desired effect.

Women and children face it rough, almost in every crisis. They comprise the majority of sexually assaulted persons, risk all forms of violence, and when catastrophes like hunger knocks, it meets women and children first. Women also have an extra burden, either voluntary or involuntary. They are the primary carers of kids, and in most cases, do not leave their kids to engage in economic activities. That means in periods when they have no food, they have to desperately stare at their kids as they go to bed hungry. It is emotionally and mentally draining. The case is even worse for single mothers, people with disabilities, and many others who have responsibilities beyond themselves. 

Women globally occupy over three-quarters of jobs in the informal sectors. These jobs have no social security, paid leave, and most employers cannot withstand economic crises like the current one.

There is no denying that crises like the Covid-19 hit almost every person in the worst way possible, but we cannot run away from the fact that women seem to be shouldering the heaviest burden. This crisis has exposed the gendered fault lines of structural inequalities, hitting hard those already most vulnerable, the majority of them being women and children. With evidence illustrating that women and children are most hit, it remains unfair to employ gender-neutral interventions. Whether it is sending food stamps, or even addressing rising cases of gender-based violence, more vulnerable groups should get priority. A proactive approach is necessary to address the needs of more vulnerable groups, even just to bring them at the same level of vulnerability to everyone.

As media stories about a woman who had boiled stones for the kids moved around the web, dozens of well-wishers thronged to her home to provide some relief. A perfect show of compassion and a statement that assistance is always available when called upon. But for a group facing structural inequalities, more is needed beyond the immediate assistance. As noted in my previous work, structural inequalities are a disguised form of discrimination that makes it hard for a minority group to move from one level to the next. Gender-neutral policy interventions appear, arguable to me, as the biggest sponsor of structural inequalities.

It is not by accident that women are the biggest causalities during pandemics or any crisis. That system that exposes their vulnerabilities often has a long history in policy interventions. Women globally occupy over three-quarters of jobs in the informal sectors. These jobs have no social security, paid leave, and most employers cannot withstand economic crises like the current one. That means all those women are now living with no income. They do not enjoy any bargaining power in economies where they live, and this exacerbates their problems, especially when they have young ones to care for. A gendered policy intervention for a crisis like the current Covid-19 can delete the poverty that exhibits itself on women and children.

Short term measures are good, but the entire society needs to adopt more gender-sensitive measures to address gendered poverty. Despite producing half the food consumed globally, women have control of just 15 percent of land globally. That means much of the land they produce food is under male control. Lack of land control exposes them to vulnerability, particularly when their marriages run into trouble. Most women could not move into upcountry as the crisis escalated, majorly because they do not have land rights and benefits that come with that. Limited access to education, employment, credit, and many essential resources further exposes women and their children.

Other than what has emerged as a gender war, empowering women, and more importantly, those at the bottom has paid off almost everywhere it has been initiated. Increasing education and employment opportunities to women, improving land rights, safety from gender violence, and many other rights, improves not just their wellbeing, but also that of their children.  Leaving women exposed, on the other hand, affects not only them but also their children. So this is not a call against my gender, but an admission that women are greatly disadvantaged during crises, and there is a lot everyone can do to upgrade their state. 

A robust approach to women empowerment, however, must look beyond the current rigged system of offering, for instance, women parliamentarians more nominations. Such a form of elitist empowerment does not serve the larger society and is responsible for continued structural inequality. If the money that had been used to pay the 47 useless women representatives was set aside as a Women Only Fund for Education and used to offer women from poor backgrounds an opportunity to advance their education, we could have achieved massive success in women empowerment. The current system empowers women who are already too empowered to face off with men, ignoring those who genuinely need empowerment. Worse off, these elite women who secure nomination do little to enhance women rights. A more genuine paradigm shift in gendered policy intervention is necessary.

Closing this, it is worth questioning whether we are all at the same level of vulnerability, and if not, then the group that is more vulnerable should be given more attention in this crisis period, and even after the crisis period.

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