It was only in March that the government imposed health restrictions to tackle the spread of COVID-19. The economy started to crumble and directly impacted business performance and resilience. As a result, many people were left jobless.
The government responded by introducing the preemployment card program. In the midst of the severe criticism and controversy surrounding the program, people have questioned whether the measures provided adequately protect the most vulnerable groups from the long-term effects of COVID-19.
This pandemic should be looked at from a broader context. It’s not merely a public health and economic crisis, the question of the protection of human rights must now be central to the discourse, particularly the right to work and the right to be protected against unemployment.
Women continue to be among the most affected by the crisis, with massive layoffs happening in female dominated sectors. Based on data from the United Nations Global Compact, the hardest hit sectors, such as textiles, tourism, health and the care industries, comprise 90 percent female workers. In these, female migrant workers account for a significant number and many have been forced to leave their jobs and return home without access to support. In many circumstances, too, women carry a double burden, being care providers as well as financial providers.
In the Asia-Pacific area alone, women are responsible for 80 percent of unpaid care and domestic work. The double burden, aggravated during the pandemic, could force female employees to cut back on their working hours or even leave their jobs, which in the end impacts company productivity.
Apart from this, in a pre-COVID-19 world in which women earned less, had less in savings and accessed fewer formal job opportunities than their male counterparts, women are now significantly more prone to salary cuts than men as a result of the pandemic. In developing countries, the situation is even more dire, with 70 percent of women’s income derived from the informal sector, a subset that is significantly less active during lockdown periods.
In the Asia Pacific region, the pandemic has already led to a decline in the participation of women in the labor force, as well as a decrease of women in leadership positions in the business world. At the same time, the digitalization of services as well as work-from-home measures mean that opportunities for women are further limited in a world where a gender digital divide is already prevalent.
Another major issue is the increase in reports of domestic violence. An online survey conducted from April to May by the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) found that some 80 percent of female respondents earning less than Rp 5 million (US$351.34) per month reported experiencing more violence, both psychological and economic, due to the financial pressures of a slowed economy and more time spent in close confinement.
This is not a side issue, it never has been. We learned the hard way that a pandemic merely magnifies existing inequalities. In this case, the crisis further exposes the vulnerability of women against the socioeconomic impacts of the virus.
Yet to address the issues, we can’t look solely to the government or even to past practices of the private sector. We need a new, more inclusive response providing a solid recovery plan that will better equip us not only now but in future times of crisis.
Businesses that have inclusive measures based on respect for human rights in their business practices have shown a more well-grounded resilience and sustainability, especially in unprecedented situations. We can build on these enlightened practices, expanding them to incorporate not only women but other vulnerable groups.
When support measures are not tailored based on an inclusive approach, it can impact productivity and talent retention among certain groups, which can have direct financial implications for businesses. In this case, it may have long-term implications for women, too, as they might find it more difficult to return to paid work.
Bearing all in mind, it is clear that integrating a human rights perspective in the provision of support measures can better protect vulnerable groups. This is particularly true for women in dealing with the double burden issue, as well as in ensuring better protection mechanisms in health, poverty, exploitation and violence. The benefits of implementing this approach are immense for all stakeholders.
So, what are the exact actions that should be taken to minimize the adverse socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19 on women?
First, there should be an attempt to include women in COVID-19 response planning at all levels, simply because women are best able to represent their own need; assembling a gender response task force at corporate, local and national level would be useful in this regard.
Companies should also take measures to encourage a gender inclusive environment at work, increase flexible work schedules, increase opportunities for women and conduct training in sectors such as information and communications technology.
In countries such as India, the government has taken to providing women with cash transfers to enable some sort of financial empowerment. Similar initiatives may be effective when applied to the Indonesian context. Governments may further empower vulnerable women by increasing support services for victims of gender-based violence during this time.
Meanwhile, civil society can work to advocate for gender responsive planning, whereas consumers should seek to support female-owned businesses, not because of their ownership but of their ideals.
Such measures are sure to mitigate some of the gender inequalities that have been exacerbated by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The development and implementation of similar initiatives should be a major part of all socioeconomic agendas moving forward.
While the number of new cases continues to soar, we are currently in the transition stage of the so-called new normal. Businesses are preparing for a comeback to a world after COVID-19. Let’s take this as an opportunity to push the reset button; rebuild better with more resilience, to place gender equality and an inclusive approach at the center of our recovery effort to leave no one behind. The government together with the private sector can work together in achieving this.
Namira Puspandari and Amy Oloo work at the Foundation for International Human Rights Reporting Standards (FIHRRST) as program coordinator and researcher, respectively.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.