Choose to challenge: Let’s not turn back the clock on women’s equality

On International Women’s Day, Medway Fawcett co-ordinator and Gillingham councillor Naushabah Khan looks at how the coronavirus pandemic has exposed structural gender inequalities.

This International Women’s day provides a moment for reflection on the year that has passed. And well, I guess it’s been a hell of a ride. No one could have predicted that 2020 would see a global pandemic which would impact our lives so profoundly. The Covid-19 pandemic has certainly tested people to their limits, presenting not only health challenges but financial struggles too, changing the way we fundamentally interact with each other and how we value the world around us. It has also sadly exposed the inequalities that still plague our society, with the socio-economic impacts of the virus hitting women the hardest.

Unsurprisingly, Covid-19 is more likely to destroy women’s livelihoods. With the over-representation of women in certain types of work and industries, women are at greater risk of job loss or being placed on furlough. There are also more likely to be employed in less secure working arrangements, such as zero-hour contracts, or temporary employment.

Furthermore, a recent report by the Commons Women and Equalities Committee found that government economic support policies, implemented during the pandemic, were ‘skewed towards men’ with gender disparities often ignored. The same report also raised concerns about the impact on pregnant women and those on maternity leave, some who had been forced by employers to take either unpaid leave, sick leave or start maternity leave early – a direct contravention of the law.

While it is widely reported that women overwhelming take the burden of childcare and care duties in the family. Fawcett Society research has found that this has been further exacerbated by the pandemic with mothers in couples more than one-and-a-half times more likely than fathers to say that they were doing the majority of childcare during school and nurseries closures. Fawcett data also showed that the mental health strain on mothers was greater, with 44% compared with 33% of fathers reporting high anxiety.

Domestic abuse reporting also went up during the pandemic. Although domestic abuse does affect men, statistics show that it is overwhelmingly carried out by men and experienced by women. Medway alone saw an increase of 13% with 1,953 cases reported in a three-month period, between March and May last year. And this does not account for those cases that went unreported.

This rather bleak landscape of women’s equality, their economic standing and place in society is not one created by the Covid-19 pandemic, and neither will it disappear if lockdown is lifted. Instead the virus has laid bare traditional power imbalances, created by patriarchal structures that still underpin our society. And where progress has been made, it has been exposed as being ‘flimsy’ at best, with the risk of turning back the clock on women’s rights by a generation, a real one.

So what is the answer? Well I am afraid it is a case of beating the same drum, the problem has not changed and therefore neither have the solutions. It is about real structural change that can only be led by government reform, ending workplace inequalities and closing the gender pay gap. It is about our politics, which needs more women in key decision-making roles – ensuring women’s voices are heard at the top of government. And it’s about recognising there is a problem, to take it seriously and not shut down the debate.

The theme of this year’s international women’s day is choose to challenge, because without challenge change just is not possible. That’s why this international women’s day I am challenging the government to take action and not let this pandemic define the future for women and girls. 

Fawcett Medway

Here in Medway we have set-up up Fawcett Medway, a local branch of the Fawcett society, campaigning on gender equality, equal pay and ensuring women have a voice in local decision making.

If you are interested in getting involved please email, fawcettmedway@gmail.com

Our virtual launch event will be held on Saturday 13th March at 2pm, further information and details on how to register can be found here:

Naushabah Khan is a Medway councillor for Gillingham South and co-ordinator of Medway Fawcett.

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