Being a woman during the pandemic

Being a woman during the pandemic

Versión en español de este artículo aquí.

Last year some people said that, because the pandemic is a global experience, “we are all in the same boat.” To that, many other people responded that “we are all in the same raging storm, but some people are in yachts, some people are in lifeboats and some people are swimming.”

It is challenging for me to be sensitive enough to the wide intersectionality that goes through this somber landscape. I speak from a very diverse Latin America: its heterogeneity is overwhelming. I will address here how the pandemic impacts us as women. I will mention some elements, in the hopes that, as a community, we can follow up on this conversation and support one another to build a better understanding of the pandemic’s harm in our midst.

First, my own confession

I will begin with my personal experience: in March 2020 I began working fully from home. My two sons were also sent home to continue their education from there. At first, we thought this would be our situation for about three weeks. We had no idea how mistaken we were. During the first three months, we had to cancel their visits to my ex-husband’s house, due to risks from his work and that he lives with his elderly mom that has associated risk factors. Virtualization of job-related tasks increased the number of responsibilities. Bosses were forced to learn very quickly how to monitor accountability at a distance, and we experienced a significant increase in the demand for reports, briefs and meetings. Domestic chores were also intensified. Before the quarantine, my children and I only had breakfast and dinner together. Now we also had lunch and snack times to prepare and share.

My children experienced anxiety, anger, boredom and sadness as time went by. They needed a sensitive caregiver, aware and capable to hold them through their fears. I did my best, but truth be told, what they got instead was a mom that was also anxious, angry and exhausted, on top of which she was (and still is) many hours a day plugged into her computer. Coexistence was difficult with high stress levels and the ongoing lock down. We knew we weren’t alone. This same scenario or very similar ones hit many families with school and preschool children. And we were very much aware that we had a fortunate scenario: there was a job to be done safely from home, we had internet and access to education, we had our basic needs met. Even so, as parents, men and women experienced this as a crisis. However, in the case of most women, our experience was particularly challenging.

The Problem that has No Name

Ever since the 1950s, Betty Friedan began referring to “the problem that has no name” (this would become the title of her 1963 book), meaning the exhaustion and drain that we experience as women for the chores that have been socialized as feminine: domestic work, caregiving for minors and elderly family members, everything related with food preparation, and school support for children. According to Sharo Rosales in her article Covid19 y la situación de las mujeres durante la pandemia (Covid-19 and the situation of women during the pandemic), in Costa Rica alone (I am Costa Rican) the unpaid labor that women do regarding domestic chores and caregiving of family memberswould easily reach 25% of the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP)However, the GDP measurements of my country don’t even consider this part of human life as a component of our economic reality. It is taken for granted. It is true that sometimes this work is done by men, but statistically the distribution is unequal. The survey by Costa Rica’s National Institute for Census and Statistics (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Censos, INEC) established that, even prior to the pandemic, women devoted an average of 35.49 weekly hours to domestic work, whereas men devoted an average of 13.42 hours to these tasks.

And we found ourselves overwhelmed with chores that “should be done anyways” and that are taken for granted. To make things more complicated, if we had the option of virtual work, we had to open a cyber window straight to our most private environment: our homes. We have apologized for our children “interrupting” our work meetings, we experienced anxiety when our boss called and we were helping a kid with schoolwork or a school’s virtual meeting (that took place on the same schedule as our work hours), or if we were called on and while preparing food or attending to a family member. If there was a male partner in the house, research showed that women used the less ideal working spaces in the house, as described in this note. Cleaning activities increased dramatically to sustain prevention protocols: washing our grocery shopping and supervising family routines when entering and exiting the house to prevent contagion.

We stayed up until the wee hours of the night, “making up” for how unable we were to work during the day. And we feared to lose our jobs, to be perceived as distracted or incompetent. We became ever so more aware that many work cultures are oriented towards people that don’t have to care for anybody (and that’s the way that we are to subsist as humankind?).

It is true that in some families the overload was equally distributed among adult men and women. This note from Canada describes an interesting study about men and women’s perception of this distribution. Still, it is valid to say that enough families hold tasks such as cleaning, feeding and caregiving as deeply feminized, enough for it to be a social problem.

Women, pandemic and unemployment

Of course, all of the above refers to women that kept a job and that this job could be done from the safety of their home. General unemployment, at least in Costa Rica, reached a 23.25% last October of 2020, but this number reached an alarming 64% in women that had at least one child.

Women are exiting the workforce in alarming numbers, decreasing their representation in organizational cultures and decision-making circles. This representation took decades to achieve. Informal and part time jobs -most of which are occupied by women in order to respond to their other caregiving and domestic responsibilities- were profoundly affected by the pandemic.

There are jobs that are proven to be especially vulnerable in the face of the COVID pandemic, such as cooks, line workers in warehouses, agricultural workers, bakers and construction laborers. There’s higher exposure to contagion and greater vulnerability regarding women’s safety. This intersects with other profound problems that we face, such as class, racial and ethnic discrimination.

Gender violence behind closed doors

Gender violence found refuge in the pandemic to grow in silence and behind closed doors: in situations of unemployment and poverty, patrimonial dependency increases significantly. To that we add the reality of violence and abuse. Just in El Salvador, pregnancy in girls between 10 and 14 years of age increased 79%, and 70% in girls between 15 and 19 years of age, in 2020.

Through the “on-and-off-and-on-again” quarantines, how do we face intimate gender terrorism? Or violence in their different forms towards elderly family members, minors or people with disabilities? And what about the physical punishment, shouting and/or negligence towards children in lock down environments? How do we respond, as women, either as witnesses or as protagonists of violence? In acute stress situations and lack of supports, these pre-existing issues take a brutal force.

Regarding mental health, the implications of COVID are alarming: although worldwide the trend on suicide has been consistent with men taking their lives in statistically greater numbers, that trend is beginning to reverse in countries like Japan, as this note describes, with 70% more women taking their lives in October 2020 in comparison to October 2019.

Peace Culture and Community Approaches during the Pandemic

In order to subsist, we need to cooperate from an awareness that we belong to a larger community, even if we are dispersed by lock downs, quarantine and employment crisis: we need each other, and we are interdependent.

Looking at this landscape, what tools can restorative practices offer us? Let me share another confession: last year I was asked in several interviews to talk about how restorative practices and nonviolent communication could help us for family conflict management during the pandemic. I was asked several times how to apply these tools with stressed family members, a romantic partner or children.

Yes, these tools can help us for conflict resolution, but there are more challenging questions that these conversations are raising. Do we want to use these resources so that, as women, we become more effective in controlling our kids and pacifying the people that we live with? Perhaps, what we need most is a shared awareness of how to re-think the ways that we collaborate at home, and to acknowledge that problem that has no name?

How to do this? A restorative approach can help us to look for restorative answers to a reality that continues to exploit women. Left unattended, this evolving reality will represent an unbearable cost to our social fabric. Perhaps we should use restorative practices a bit differently, not just in a reactive fashion, but to create spaces proactively, for us as women to build support networks with other women, or to strengthen the already existing ones, even if this has to be done at a physical distance.

There are several feminist support groups and other community initiatives that can offer spaces for these conversations to continue. At the IIRP, we are also offering training in facilitating listening circles to continue this conversation, so that it can be brought back and multiplied in each participant’s family, workplace and community. If you are interested in registering for this experience, you can find more information here.

As women, we need to give and receive affection among ourselves, to acknowledge our human dignity and to validate our seemingly invisible problems. We can recognize each other with compassion, support and empowerment. We have done it countless times throughout history. A community network among ourselves will support us to face the overwhelming challenges ahead of us, to engage men, children and youth so that, all together, we can build a reality that offers us hope.