The Centre for Women’s Studies (CWS), in the School of Social Science, University of Hyderabad, organised an International Webinar on topic ‘Transnational Widening Gender Inequalities amid Covid-19 Pandemic Lockdown’ on 17th June 2020. Covid-19 lockdown has deepened pre-existing gender inequalities evident in several sectors; economic, health, gender-based violence and home front. Each of these sectors have several facets of gender discrimination. This webinar explored a few such case studies from different parts of the world (India, Austria and Australia). The aim of this webinar was to explore how women and girls’ lives changed in times of COVID-19 lockdown.
Prof. Rekha Pande, the Head, Centre for Women’s Studies, University of Hyderabad, gave an introduction to the CWS, Hyderabad. She spoke about the Social Reform Movement and the role of women in the freedom struggle. Many women participated in these struggles but they also stated that their fight was twofold. They were fighting the British government but also patriarchy at home. It was believed that women’s status would change automatically for we were the masters of our destiny. After independence, the constitution gives us equality before law (art.14). It prohibited of discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth (art. 15). It also gave equality of opportunity in matters of public employment (art 16). However, there was a big gap between theory and reality. Towards Equality Report of 1974 focuses attention on the fact that despite many progressive social legislations and constitutional guarantees, women’s status had indeed not improved much. The publication of the Status of Women in India Report saw the beginning of a whole lot of activities, both by public minded organizations as well as government agencies to understand and analyze the suppressed status of women, to trace its origins and manifestations and to grapple with measures for remedying it. This saw the birth of the Indian Association of Women’s Studies and the setting up of the various Centres for women’s studies across different Universities and colleges.
Rekha Pande, then went on to explain the three phases that CWS; Hyderabad University went through from 1984 to present day. In the first Phase, from 1984 to 2007, The University of Hyderabad had a Women’s Studies Cell. This was alternatively located in the School of Social Sciences and the School of Humanities. The Cell offered a course titled Social Construction of Gender as an optional course for M.A. It successfully organized various seminars and workshops and carried out many Projects. In the second phase, this Cell was upgraded to a Centre from June 2007 onwards. It was a standalone Centre collaborating with different faculty and schools. It has an Advisory Board comprising of members from different Schools, and members from different Organisations and Universities, to run its day to day affairs. During this phase the Centre had an M.Phil and a Ph. D. programme and taught courses on Gender in different departments. The CWS, successfully, hosted the 12th International Interdisciplinary Congress on Women from 17th August to 22nd August, 2014. This was attended by 1000 participants from 37 countries and different parts of India. Seven publications have come out of the Congress papers.
In the third phase from 2014 onwards, the Centre became a part of the School of Social Sciences and at present the Centre offers a Ph.D programme and teaches courses on Gender in foundation Courses, in M.A and IMA and it has introduced a M.A. (Gender Studies) Programme from the Academic year 2020-21
Dr. Sheela Suryanarayanan, Faculty at Centre for Women’s Studies (CWS), University of Hyderabad, gave an overview of Covid-19 Pandemic lockdown and its impact of women and the widening inequalities. Covid-19 lockdown has especially impacted women in several sectors; health, economic, unpaid work and gender based violence among others. The health impact has been observed in reduced access to sexual and reproductive services such as; antenatal postnatal and delivery care. Lack of access to contraceptive products meant likely unwanted pregnancies and an increased need for abortion services which was not a priority in this situation. Women and girls who earn less and hold insecure jobs or living close to poverty are the worst affected. Broadly locked down with children out-of-school, heightened care and household needs, elderly person’s care has impacted women’s lives. In India, domestic violence complaints to the National Council for Women (NCW) doubled in a period of 25 days after the lockdown began. It increased from 123 complaints 25 days before the lockdown (27th February – March 22nd 2020) to 239 complaints after the Lockdown began (23rd March -April 16th 2020). Complaints to the NCW under; violation of rights to live with dignity, cybercrime and rape/ attempt to rape also increased.
Monika Banerjee, Research Fellow at the Institute of Social Studies Trust, New Delhi, spoke on the ‘Situation of Women Waste Workers in Delhi’ based on their study during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown. She spoke on the nature and status of work in which waste workers are employed in. She spoke about the loss of work and income. The majority of the waste workers didn’t return to their village because they didn’t have any skills and didn’t have the savings to diversify into other activities such a as vegetable vendor. The other impact was the additional burden that women faced in unpaid care work at home, the reduced food supply and the practical problems faced with the PDS supply. They also faced a reduced access to other basic essential such as health care and mobile recharge
Melinda T. Reist, Author and Advocate for young people, Collective Shout, Australia, presented a paper on ‘COVID-19 and the Sex Industry Virus’. She spoke about how the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown have been a boon to the global sex/pornography industry, harnessing the virus to grow its consumer base, preying on and enticing more jobless women and girls to offer themselves to paying consumers in brothels and through subscription-based platforms like ‘Only Fans’. The Covid-19 period saw new ways in which women were being recruited into the virtual version of the sex industry. ‘Porn Hub’ began providing free premium service to their clients increasing the use of online pornography. Instagram, a popular social media platform helped fuel a culture that normalises the sexualisation and harassment of women especially young girls. She concluded with saying that offenders, traffickers and criminal groups, use internet tools such as Social Media platforms to identify child victims more easily and establish relationships, subsequently intimidating them into exploitative situations.
Kristina Hametner, the Head of Vienna Program for Women’s Health & Public Health, Austria spoke on ‘Corona as Crisis for Women’s Health in Austria’. She gave an overview of the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown on women in Austria. The broad impact it had were; women were pushed into gender stereotypical roles, reduced access to sexual and reproductive rights, mental health, increased paid and unpaid care work and economic crisis. Antenatal care now became available in Voluntary organisations rather than in Public Hospitals and this left pregnant women in Austria confused and planning of birth also became difficult. Women with unwanted pregnancies had no possibilities to have access to an abortion in a legal way. Women had to shoulder the burden of home schooling, e-learning, taking care of children and household work. In Austria almost 600,000 people lost their jobs. Women are a huge proportion in the service sector that had a higher risk of job loss, such as; hair cutters, massage, pedicure. She concluded that the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown increased the already existing the inequalities between women and men and also among women.
The concluding session of the Webinar in which Sheela S. and Rekha Pande spoke about the transnational similarities of gender inequalities such as; reduced access to health care resource, loss of work and income, increased unpaid and care work, although the extent of crisis was much more in low resource countries like India.
- The increase in cybercrime mentioned by Melinda was also experienced in an increase in such crimes reported by the National Commission for Women as mentioned by Sheela in her introduction to the theme.
- The racism on Asian women being considered as the carrier of the disease was also observed in India, where the migrants were considered as the carriers of the disease.
- The phrase by women in the sex trade “poverty would kill us before the virus”, was also something that was observed also as a common phrase used migrants to express their condition.
- The migrants from Romania migrating into Austria to work in elite households, was similar to migrant workers in India, but no one ferried them into the urban areas paying money, while this was done for Romanian women workers in Austria.
- Loss of work was a phenomenon that was experienced by women throughout the globe, but the impact was more severe among the poor people than the affluent.
Report by Sheela S, Faculty, Centre for Women’s Studies
Available online at: https://www.facebook.com/sheela.saravanan.9/videos/10219347138366726/