Creating and Claiming Spaces in Pursuit of Gender-Just COVID-19 Recovery

“I have always had to invent the power my freedom needed.” -June Jordan.

We continue to brave and survive the Covid-19 pandemic, a health crisis with varying strains killing millions of people and the economic crisis disproportionately impacting the marginalised and poorest people. With the rolling out of the vaccine and the pandemic recovery here, we see growing disparities between the powerful and the “have-nots’, with countries reliant on COVAX, at the greatest risk of being left behind. COVAX is a global pooled procurement mechanism for COVID-19 vaccines that is donor-dependent. 

We see the continued exclusion of women in decision-making processes in both the Covid-19 response and the pandemic recovery. Creating and claiming spaces as women, trans, gender non-conforming people will be critical and a much-needed step towards creating an equal future and achieving a gender-just covid-19 recovery.

On 11th March, the world commemorated one year since the novel Covid-19 was pronounced a global pandemic. This week, women’s rights organisations and feminist movements are coming together in the promotion of women’s rights and realities to shape global standards on gender equality at the 65th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). When we engage and commemorate these days, the important thing is to reflect and understand why creating and claiming spaces for support, justice, and change is critical to gender-just recovery.

Claiming Spaces

“I stood at the border. I stood at the edge. And claimed it as central. I let the rest of the world move over to where I was.” -Toni Morrison. 

We saw an alarming increase in gender-based violence during the pandemic due to the government response measures, such as lockdowns and curfews and the reduced access to essential sexual, reproductive and health care and referral systems. The World Health Organisation recently reported that over 736 million women have been subjected to intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence or both at least once in their life.

During the pandemic, we also witnessed the reinforcement of harmful social and patriarchal norms. This was in particular prevalent around women’s traditional roles and the expectation that they should be putting others first by looking after their families, their children who are no longer in schools, the elderly and other dependents. And if the juggling and shouldering of all care responsibilities become overwhelming, it can be used as an excuse for their partners to “punish” them verbally or physically for not living up to their traditional roles.

Living and experiencing the impacts of the pandemic, the inequalities, violence, and the gender blind and insensitive measures to contain it are old systemic problems.

Let’s remember that feminists have fought back to stay alive and demand gender justice through care, joy and claiming their spaces. 

As a construct, claiming spaces brings together tactics of collective action and meanings of public spaces, looking at the consequences of their interactions. Feminists claimed spaces for support in Nigeria during the #EndSARS peaceful protests. We saw the Feminist Coalition providing food, shelter, medical services, legal services, security, cleaning, and other supplies to keep the protests organized, unified and as safe as possible.

Across Latin America, the Ni Una Menos (Not One Less) collective continues to claim spaces for justice; through disobedience to the patriarchy, targeting women’s systemic violence and cruelty and their bodily autonomy. In Argentina, the collective pushed the government to pass laws and policies that end gender-based violence and support survivors. The movement also made strides in Chile, ensuring inclusion and gender parity in the construction of Chile’s new constitution.

Other feminist movements in Namibia, with the #ShutItAllDown, and South Africa, #TotalShutDown, claimed their spaces for positive change as students led the call to end the increased gender-based violence. In Poland, the feminist movements came together to call out the role back on women’s rights and the criminalisation of abortion. Their sustained advocacy and persistent campaigning to legalise abortion has lost both the ruling power and the Catholic Church popularity

Creating Spaces

“Build a solidarity that allows for productive communication and respect across differences.”- bell hooks.

In ensuring a just recovery, systemic inequalities must be addressed. This requires full and equal participation and inclusion of women. Women must be at the heart of a Covid-19 response and a vaccine rollout. Feminists have not only claimed spaces but also created brave and inclusive spaces to discuss challenges and responses to the pandemic and provide care and security to more marginalised groups, including LGBTQI+  and gender non-conforming people. 

Women continue to organise themselves and fight as they realise no one will hand them their rights, and they have to take them. In Thailand, for example, LGBTQI+ and feminist youth curved their space within the democracy movements to include feminist demands of legalising sex work, abortion and marriage equality of people of any gender. 

Women have chosen to resist and claim their spaces without waiting for an invitation. Understanding the systematic marginalization and inequalities, they come together as movements, communities, and organisations to flip their subjugation and oppression into resistance. This has been seen in the crowd-funding and financial mobilization for those dealing with violence prevention, trauma counselling and at the forefront, responding to the pandemic. They are also shaping their narratives, challenging language and messages that reinforce harmful norms, misogyny and patriarchy. 

The Future is Equal

We are standing at a momentous crossroad in history where our actions present both a unique risk and a unique opportunity. The risk is that we may revert to the flawed systems that benefit only the wealthy few at the cost of human and social sustainability. The opportunity is that we acknowledge the systemic inequalities and begin to address them and ensure a people-centred approach that factors both a sustainable and just economy and environment. 

Governments must begin by applying gender and feminist lens across their response. One that recognises the different impacts on women and other marginalised groups.  Consider the multi-faceted and holistic needs of women, girls, LGBTQI+ and gender non-conforming people, including access to reproductive health and rights, investments against gender-based violence, gender-responsive public service delivery, infrastructure and social protection, safe access to water and sanitation, food security and livelihoods, income and rights for women and precarious workers, and the reduction and redistribution of unpaid care work.

For women, LGBTQI+ and gender non-conforming people, it is imperative to continue to persist in the face of bias, create and claim spaces to speak up. Speak out against discrimination and violence despite all odds, and fight for the full and equal participation of all women in the decision-making spaces at all levels until we achieve gender equality. 

Amina Hersi is the Head of Gender Rights and Justice for Oxfam International. She is a gender and human rights practitioner, and feminist campaigner specializing in changing narratives and redefining security.

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