The state does not care about women during Covid-19. It simply has no reason to. For one, there is no unified, massive public demand that compels it to.
Nobody wants to listen to a feminist highlighting discrimination on the basis of sex during a global pandemic – after all, doesn’t Pakistan have enough problems? Is this the ‘right’ time to talk about how the coronavirus pandemic may magnify and deepen pre-existing gender inequalities?
It is. Natural disasters and epidemics change the course of history. The Antonine plague in AD 165-180 heightened instability in the Roman empire, contributing to its ultimate decline. Apart from crippling kingdoms, pandemics can also deepen pre-existing societal inequalities. During the yellow fever in 1793, the African American community were enlisted to take care of the sick, by one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence because he believed they were immune to the disease. Hundreds died under this belief.
Governmental priorities in such instances are determined through privilege and women rarely feature as a top priority. In the aftermath of Ebola in 2014, a rise in maternal mortality was witnessed in West Africa and an additional 3600 stillborn babies were born in Sierra Leone because resources were diverted to deal with the outbreak. Maternal health was simply not a priority.
Yet not all pandemics or disasters have led to an immediate evisceration of rights. The Black Death, from 1346-1353, killed so many that labor became hard to find, emboldening workers to bargain for better pay, which ended serfdom in Europe. When the government failed to protect its citizens during the Russian plague in 1770s, it led to riots and an uprising against the government, forcing the rulers to reduce taxes. In both instances, lives changed for the better because the populace demanded it, and it demanded so violently, leaving the state with no choice but to listen.
Enhancement of women’s rights in such scenarios is rare, unless giving them more rights is necessary or incidental to state interests. When the Spanish Flu killed more men than women, because the disease spread among overcrowded barracks during World War I in 1918, necessity dictated that the US not only ease but encourage the participation of women in the workforce. The social and financial independence that came with it was not a goal; it was an incidental achievement, one that became too normalized to be taken back.
But can anything other than capitalism or state interest incentivize the Pakistani government to make women a priority during Covid-19? We know that more girls will drop out of school completely and the number of unplanned pregnancies will increase. Poverty will too, which then drives child and forced marriages. Resources available to curtail such practices will get derailed, as institutions of the justice system and centers for rehabilitation are forced to work at a lesser capacity.
We know that domestic violence and abuse increases, as it did during both Zika and Ebola epidemics, and that healthcare services, focused on the outbreak, are simply unable to provide protection. Cases of domestic violence in Lahore have already increased by 25 percent, and they have increased in Sindh too. Women, who account for 70.7 percent of informal sector workers in Pakistan will be hit the hardest. Women’s unpaid labour in households will also increase, as the state is counting on them to take on additional responsibilities of entertaining and teaching children, and caring for those who are sick because of the pandemic.
Is this enough suffering though to merit action? Probably not, if one looks at history. Even before the partition of the Subcontinent, women were encouraged to form a separate section in the Muslim League only when the anti-colonial movements needed support in numbers and across spectrums. In 1947, the Civil Disobedience Movement in the Subcontinent let women become politically active not as a right in its own stead but for the grander purpose of obtaining independence. Whether it is Zia obliterating women’s rights under the garb of Islamism or Musharraf’s vow to empower women under the guise of liberalism, both are done to further legitimacy of rule, with any actual change in a Pakistani woman’s status being merely incidental.
When the polio outbreak happened, opportunities were made available to women to become lady health workers, not to increase female mobility, financial independence or the social narrative around gender, but because the state deemed lady health workers key in persuading mothers to let their children get the vaccine. When the health workers were threatened or killed by the Taliban, state priority shifted to actively dealing with terrorism as a whole, rather than protecting the women it had hired.
I have hope in us though. Pandemics can unleash heroism, such as the Doctors without Borders during the Ebola outbreak. We too can be better organized. Women are front and center as health workers and care takers during the pandemic. Technology and different modes of communication can change feminist activism, ensuring far better mobilization and innovative digital advocacy tools. By constantly holding the Pakistani government accountable, we can at least make sure we don’t regress to a worse reality for women’s rights than it was before Covid, and are better equipped to deal with future disasters.
The writer holds a Masters in Law from Harvard Law School, is a practising lawyer and currently teaches law at LUMS.
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