Each year, when the 8th March approaches and International Women’s Day celebrations begin, the same tired arguments ripple across certain corners of social media. It has almost become a modern tradition to see the familiar cry of: “What about International Men’s Day?” or “Why is International Women’s Day still a thing? Women have already achieved equality.”
This year, perhaps more so than ever, we are reminded of just why we still have a long way to go when it comes to fighting for women’s rights. This year’s International Women’s Day falls almost twelve months into the global health crisis – one that has served to exacerbate long-standing social inequalities, including gender-based oppressions.
Covid-19 and gender inequality
In the UK, a recent survey revealed that more than half of women believe women’s equality is in danger of returning to the 1970s at work, at home and in society. The pandemic has seen women once again disproportionately burdened with domestic duties, such as bearing the additional pressures of home schooling, all while being more likely than men to have lost their jobs or to have been furloughed.
However, to look at the extent of these inequalities, it is imperative that we look at the bigger picture. Feminism which fails to take into account crucial intersecting factors – such as race, ethnicity, class, age, disability and migration status – is one dimensional and tells us only half of the story.
Not all women are weathering the same storm. Disabled women, poor women, lone parents, young, and Black and minority ethnic women have been particularly negatively affected. Gender inequality cannot be divorced from the context of socioeconomic disadvantages, systemic racism and ableism under capitalism; these systems play a significant role in both deepening and exposing gender-based oppressions.
Feminism which fails to take into account crucial intersecting factors – such as race, ethnicity, class, age, disability and migration status – is one dimensional and tells us only half of the story
Research carried out in 2020 for the BMJ reinforced that risks and impacts are shaped by a web of intersecting factors and that these must be examined when considering the impacts of the pandemic on different groups.
When it comes to the gendered care burden faced by women for example, data shows that single mothers, those with precarious employment, and women in frontline caring, domestic and health work have faced unique difficulties. Those on the lowest incomes are also nine times more at risk of losing their jobs due to school closures.
BMJ’s analysis also emphasised that ‘stay home’ guidelines throughout the pandemic have increased the risk of gender-based violence for women and LGBTQI+ populations, and that, among these, poorer women, people from ethnic minorities and disabled women are less likely to have access to resources or support to exit abusive relationships.
Gender inequality cannot be divorced from the context of socioeconomic disadvantages, systemic racism and ableism under capitalism
This further demonstrates the importance of interrogating how intersecting identities interact. Rather than viewing this as a hierarchy of who has it worst, it can help with organising efforts, as this establishes which groups require greater support.
Ethnic minorities disproportionately impacted
When it became clear that those of a Black, Asian and minority ethnic background were suffering disproportionately throughout the pandemic, it proved impossible for the government to deny the role of pre-existing structural inequalities. Marginalised groups who face social exclusion, such as vulnerable migrants, tend to have the poorest health outcomes. This has had critical repercussions throughout the pandemic.
With regards to women specifically, ethnic minority and migrant women have long faced unique barriers to accessing healthcare. From health illiteracy to financial barriers, these issues were only amplified throughout the pandemic. Many migrants, for example, are charged upfront fees when attempting to access treatment – a remnant of the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy. This has disproportionately affected women as many are in low-paid jobs – especially single mothers supporting children.
And on the subject of employment, data shows that care roles are disproportionately carried out by migrants, with 37% of registered nurses and 16% of the social care workforce having migrant status. As a whole, BAME women are twice as likely to be in low-paid work and occupations which place them at high risk of acquiring Covid-19 when compared with white women.
What does International Women’s Day mean in 2021?
International Women’s Day must remain dedicated to its radical roots, championing the advancement of women’s rights and gender equality. In recent decades – as with other celebrations such as Pride – the day has become corporatised and largely detached from its initial purpose.
It has become a way for brands to capitalise, marketing themselves through snappy, substanceless slogans. It has also become heavily whitewashed, with its origins in socialist and labour movements barely touched upon in mainstream discourse. Instead, a form of corporate-esque, ‘girl boss feminism’ has erupted – something intersectional feminists are strongly opposed to.
As Reni Eddo-Lodge notes within her best-selling debut Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, the fight for gender equality should not be focused on women demanding a ‘sliver of disproportional power’.
Instead, she argues, it should remain committed to liberating ‘all people who have been economically, socially and culturally marginalised by an ideological system that has been designed for them to fail.’ A movement which only aims to join those at the top, hoarding disproportionate resources and power in the name of equality, is one which drastically fails to bring about substantive change for all those who are oppressed.