Imagining the world anew: gender equality and women’s rights – Part 2

On Friday Nikki van der Gaag analysed the disastrous impact of the pandemic on women’s rights. Today she asks what would it mean to build an economy that centres care, not carelessness?

Back in August last year, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that the only way viruses have been vanquished is via “permanent adjustments” to economics and societies, and added:  ‘We will not, we cannot go back to the way things were’. 

‘Building back better’ has become both a cliché and a rallying cry of the pandemic.  But Theo Sowa, outgoing CEO of the African Women’s Development Fund is among others cautioning that: ‘When people say ‘build back better’ I hope we are going to say ‘Build better’, because the ‘back’ wasn’t good for most of us.’

So what would make the ‘better’ possible in terms of women’s rights and gender equality, in ways that would benefit us all?  

One big idea, which builds on the work of feminist thinkers Nancy Fraser, Diane Elson, Nira Yuval Davis, Nancy Folbre and many others, involves radical change, shaping a new global economic system that looks very different from the one we have now. As Lynne Segal, one of the authors of a book called the Care Manifesto notes, ’we need state institutions and communities to themselves become caring, to help to nurture and enable all our capacity to give and receive care.’ The business of care would become everybody’s business.

So what would a caring economy, a caring world, look like? Already many organisations and groups are starting to chart the details. Here are just five, and I have picked out a key element from each.

The Global North can learn from the Global South. When it comes to care and survival, women of the Global South have long led the way. For example, lessons from how communities supported each other during the Ebola and HIV/AIDS crises have been much in evidence during the pandemic.  Jessica Horn, writer and activist and co-founder of the African Feminist Fund, says that: ‘Although it’s rarely acknowledged, one of the most compelling and radical models of activist care was developed by women in Africa amid the AIDS epidemic – one of the most devastating gendered crises facing the continent in the late 20th century.’ A paper by OxfamCare in the time of Coronavirus’ sets out an agenda for change, and notes that for a long time: ‘ecofeminist and indigenous ethicists have argued that care is a determinant aspect of the interdependency between communities, society and the environment.’

‘Care’ is not a ‘soft’ option, it is also an economic approach. Care for ourselves, our communities, our societies and cultures and our planet are all linked. Care is not just about individuals, but the way our societies are structured. This was referred to in a 2007 paper by Shara Razavi, as a ‘care diamond’ (see below). This includes the family/household, markets, the public sector and the not-for profit sector.

In 2020, the UK’s Women’s Budget Group published a detailed report on what a care economy would look like post-pandemic. It encompasses gender equality, wellbeing and sustainability and covers everything from trade to tax and subsidised childcare and paid leave to social and physical infrastructure and the environment.

People come before profit and addressing climate change is key. The prioritisation of care must take us beyond the bottom line. Feminist principles for an international post-COVID-19 settlement, drawn up by five international feminist organisations, puts the problem very clearly: ‘Human-driven environmental degradation, climate change and a capitalist economic system that prioritises economic growth and profit above all else have made the emergence and spread of COVID-19 and other zoonotic viruses not only possible but also highly likely.’ Action to address this, therefore, ‘must be rooted in feminist perspectives of peace, equality, justice and solidarity.’ It sets out six critical areas of concern – ceasefire, gender-based violence, health, environment, economy, and militarism and security.

New Internationalist magazine’s ‘The Care Economy: what would it take?’ features articles from around the world on how the pandemic can spark structural change to our economies:  ‘What we urgently need is an economy that replaces the universal of profit with a universal of care, both for each other and the natural world which keeps us alive.’

We are only as strong as the weakest members of our society, so we need to centre their needs, and listen to their voices, rather than those of the most powerful. The Feminist Alliance for Rights (FAR), has drawn up feminist policy to address the challenges of COVID-19, one that is based on care and which: recognizes and prioritizes the needs of the most vulnerable communities.’ Endorsed by organisations from more than 100 countries and by more than 1600 individuals, it was the idea of women from the Global South and from marginalized communities in the Global North, and outlines nine key areas, including food security, healthcare, education, inequality, violence and abuse of power, with specific actions for each.

Care is not just a women’s issue. Increasing numbers of men are recognising the need for change. For example, MenCare is a campaign promoting gender equality through men’s engagement as fathers. It is active in more than 50 countries. Men Engage is a global Alliance of more than 700 organisations working to engage men and boys in gender equality, has organised a weekly Symposium that continues until June 2021. It is called ‘Ubuntu’ – a Nguni Bantu term from Southern Africa that translates as ‘I am because you are’. It builds on a ‘shared sense of compassion, responsibility, and humanity for all’, and centres a feminist-informed politics of care as one of its key strands.

It is time for change. We have the ideas on how to do this. That change must be structural and personal, intersectional and connected. The year of the pandemic has also been the year when feminists and climate change activists and the Black Lives Matter movement have shown the indivisibility of inequalities, as well as the vital importance of solidarity. The powerful must listen to the powerless, White people listen to People of Colour, and men listen to women. Change will involve a reshaping of the contours of our world so that the Global North no longer dominates the Global South and climate change ceases to devastate the planet.

These are radical shifts. But the crisis has provided an opportunity for change, as well as a huge challenge to the way things have always been done. This will not be easy. But as Simone de Beauvoir, 20th-century French feminist, writer and philosopher said: ‘Never forget that a political, economic or religious crisis will be enough to cast doubt on women’s rights…. You’ll have to stay vigilant your whole life.’

Vigilance seems a small price to pay for a more caring world. And there are millions of people out there who believe we have no option but to try.

Nikki van der Gaag is an independent consultant and writer and former Director of Gender Justice at Oxfam GB.

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