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Column: Ease heavy burden of women affected by COVID-19 pandemic

Khara Jabola- Carolus is executive director of the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women.
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Khara Jabola- Carolus is executive director of the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women.

The Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women is concerned about the acute and long-term gendered consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on women, in light of school closures and increased infection among older persons. A negative economic, social and political impact on women as a result of the coronavirus outbreak is already being observed around the world.

Caregiving is dumped on women. Even in Hawaii’s most egalitarian families, current cultural norms are tenacious and result in women shouldering the burden of child care and family caregiving. Women are also held responsible for most household preparedness and management, performing the majority of the work to maintain a home that is sanitized and supplied with basic food provisions and medication. As a result, women already are expected to function as the primary frontline for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Women as a group also earn less than men in general and less than men in their own ethnic group. As a result, women in heterosexual relationships may be expected to leave the workforce instead of male partners in the event of prolonged school closures beyond March 30. Even the short-term suspension of classes will likely have a profound impact on single moms, who care for 1 in 5 minor children in Hawaii.

Although men have a higher risk of COVID-19 infection, women have less ability to cope with the potential economic impact of caregiving for the sick. This will have cascading effects that could increase their vulnerability to exploitation, homelessness and abuse. We cannot allow the coronavirus crisis to evolve into a sex trafficking crisis.

Recessions also hit harder than the pain of poverty. Upticks in unemployment and financial stress spike domestic violence against women and children. The anticipated economic downturn is likely to increase relationship conflicts and men’s abusive behavior. This was observed during the Great Recession of 2007.

Positively, Hawaii is still in the preliminary stages of the COVID-19 pandemic response and thus has a unique opportunity to prepare. Hawaii can and should lead the nation in developing a response that centers women.

Emergency funding should be allocated specifically to domestic violence services. There should be no benefit cut-offs. Vital subsistence programs should be infused with funding, not used as coffers for corporate bailouts. There should be no rent or evictions. Unpaid family leave won’t help Hawaii’s cash-strapped families. An interim paid family leave program should be extended to all primary caregivers now that DOE has begun mass school closures. Paid sick leave, a longstanding campaign of women activists, should also be guaranteed during this crisis and normalized after it ends.

The most marginalized women are equally important to us. There should be no pretrial detention for non-violent offenses and no parole and probation revocations for technical violations. Two-thirds of women who are in jail because of unaffordable bail are mothers of children under 18. Incarcerated women also have higher rates of health conditions that make them more vulnerable to becoming seriously ill from coronavirus. We can relieve our overburdened court system, protect public health, and ensure care for children during the crisis through these overdue criminal justice reforms.

The commission urges a gender- responsive approach to offset the potential impact on the status of women as a result of the pandemic. Crisis or no crisis, planned and unplanned caregiving needs plague workers. A gender-responsive plan is not about subsidizing women to do “women’s work.” It’s about a transition away from the male-centered workaholic culture that is contributing to this crisis. We should support all employees especially men to take on care-related work interruptions and factor in women’s unique needs on the job. This crisis is a chance to advance gender equality rather than backslide on our delicate progress.

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