Forging a Feminist Future in the COVID-19 Recovery

A feminist response must address four key areas: bodily autonomy, ecological sustainability, the care economy, and just financial flows.

Author: Eleanor Blomstrom, Senior Program Officer, International Women’s Health Coalition

As 2020 dawned, the year ahead was showing immense promise – promise that governments would recommit to achieve global agendas focused on gender equality, peace, human rights, justice, environmental sustainability, health, and well-being.

COVID-19 has disrupted life in a way never imagined, exposing the fractures in global cooperation and ineffective social, healthcare, and economic systems, with devastating consequences for the most marginalized people and communities. It has also made it clear that radical change is not only possible, but also necessary for a complete and sustainable recovery. Some governments have responded with the progressive social policies called for by activists, demonstrating that this type of structural change is possible. 

We need both an immediate response and a long-term recovery that is feminist, just, and sustainable. It must be based on human rights and dignity, and must aim for transformation rather than a return to the prior unsustainable, extractive, and inequitable “normal.” It must be intentionally intersectional —recognizing multiple and intersecting discriminations and oppressions, and giving voice to the people and communities directly impacted. It must be intentionally cross-sectoral — linking gender, economic, social, and climate justice — rather than reinforcing silos. The Principles for a Feminist Response to COVID-19, brilliantly framed through the collective work of multiple feminist coalitions, can help guide these responses, particularly addressing four key areas through multilateral and coordinated action: bodily autonomy; ecological sustainability; the care economy; and just financial flows.

Bodily Autonomy

Bodily autonomy — especially for women, girls, adolescents, and gender non-conforming people — is fundamental to a sustainable recovery. COVID-19 has demonstrated the limitations of our systems to ensure sexual and reproductive health and rights, particularly in the face of government declarations of abortion as “nonessential” and the increased incidence of sexual and gender-based violence and child, early, and forced marriages.

Ensuring bodily autonomy requires the elimination of laws, policies, and practices that punish, stigmatize, or criminalize bodies, sexuality, and pleasure for women, girls, non-binary, gender non-conforming, and trans people, and it must explicitly apply to persons with disabilities, who face additional barriers. 

Recovery must center bodily autonomy in all aspects to fulfil all human rights and ensure opportunities for meaningful participation in decision-making. Government must take proactive measures to prevent and reduce violence before it is perpetrated, including sexual and gender-based violence and violence against women human rights defenders who are standing up to patriarchal culture to address unequal power relations. Ongoing access to justice for survivors of violence and human rights abuses is crucial. Governments must take steps to ensure that online and offline safety and support services are available uninterrupted, including hotlines, counseling, housing, and legal and financial assistance that address multiple and intersecting forms of violence and discrimination.

As our crisis has demonstrated, access to healthcare is crucial for productive and just societies. Implementing gender-responsive universal health coverage (UHC) that includes financial risk protection, universal access to quality services, and universal access to medicines and vaccines as part of public health systems, is fundamental to achieving a just recovery. Governments should ensure that sexual and reproductive health (SRH) care services — including access to modern contraceptives, safe abortion, maternal health care, and fertility management, among others — are a core component of comprehensive essential healthcare services, all of which should be classified as essential services during emergencies and should be available as ongoing self-care where possible. Access to health services should never be limited by age, ability, or documentation; COVID-19 recovery must ensure availability without discrimination, stigma, or coercion in strengthened healthcare systems. 

Care Economy

We must recognize, reduce, and redistribute unpaid domestic and care work,and promote equitable distribution of responsibilities in the household. The gender division of care is stark: worldwide, 75 per cent is provided by women. The economic toll is equally glaring: unpaid labor has an estimated value of $10.8 trillion annually, showing that how we measure and value economies does not reflect the value of people – or care work — in our society, as our current crisis has so clearly demonstrated.

Governments must ensure decent work and safe physical work environments, including for domestic and care workers who are mostly women; support formalization of precarious work and ensure equal pay for work of equal value; ensure labor protections and the right to organize; ensure that health workers – 70 per cent of whom are women – have adequate equipment and medicines, including personal protective equipment, training, and leadership pathways. According to the ITUC, replacing austerity measures with an investment of two per cent of GDP into education, healthcare, and care services could create 21 million jobs in seven countries, over half of which would employ women.

Redistributing care work requires governments to inclusively design social protection systems and ensure universal access for the unemployed and the underemployed, including women of all ages, migrants, and persons with disabilities; upgrade labor policies, including parental leave, sick leave, child care, and old age pensions; provide public services such as child and elder care; and implement a universal basic income. 


Ecological Sustainability

Recovery plans must facilitate transition to a new normal, where planet is valued over profit. The expense of the recent drop in emissions and pollution from decreased production, while positive for the environment, has been shouldered by working people whose jobs, livelihoods, and well-being are threatened.

The recovery has to include a shift from a fossil-fuel economy and an extractive mentality to a sustainable, collaborative economy that rebuilds and reinvests in people, care, and communities. This is not only the right path, but also a necessary approach to ensuring that carbon-intensive recovery does not obliterate the short-term emissions decrease and continue on an unsustainable track toward climate catastrophe.

Governments must work with civil society, Indigenous women, and marginalized groups to develop and implement progressive policy proposals, like a Feminist Green New Deal. Women, girls, and gender non-conforming people must have space to meaningfully participate in developing, implementing, and monitoring land, water, energy, and climate policies.

Just Financial Flows

In a feminist and just recovery, we must redistribute financial resources and make structural changes to implement the changes required for the care economy, ecological sustainability, and bodily autonomy.

Response and recovery funds at the global level must be separate from existing obligations for overseas development assistance and must not compete with commitments on climate change or public services.

In the immediate term, governments and international financial institutions (IFIs) must support debt reform and debt cancellation to resolve the debt crisis in which debt-service payments undermine the fulfillment of human rights and the provision of public services. Government action must directly support people, not corporations, with financial support through response and recovery, as called for in the People’s Bailout in the United States.

In the longer term, they must take action to shift money within global and national economies. They should reallocate money from the $1.8 trillion in annual global military expenditures to the care economy, social protection and climate justice, supporting peace rather than perpetuating cycles of conflict.

We must also address illicit tax flows and tax havens through a global tax body and global tax reporting; enact tax justice measures to reduce sales and consumption taxes on the poorest, and end tax incentives for corporations; redistribute wealth and financial capital toward public social services, reducing the disproportionate influence of a handful of powerful individuals and multinational corporations; and urge  banks and insurance companies to divest out of fossil fuels, and international finance institutions to withdraw from fossil fuel projects, while reinvesting in rights-based, gender-transformative, sustainable projects.

A Global Challenge Requires Multilateral Solutions

The world needs a feminist, just, and sustainable recovery, but, to achieve our goals, we need a coordinated global response and the political will to drive the necessary transformative change.

The world already faced a crisis in multilateralism pre-COVID-19, with nationalist and authoritarian governments from the United States to Brazil and the Philippines to Hungary forgoing international cooperation and favoring xenophobic, isolationist actions that shun the multilateral systems rules-based international cooperation, which is meant to facilitate problem-solving with regard to global challenges like those outlined above. 

Likewise, the world already faced daunting global issues like wealth inequality, ongoing conflict, climate change, food insecurity, debt crises, and human rights violations, which have visceral on-ground and localized impacts, especially on marginalized people and communities. The inequalities and inequities that arise from multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination are compounded and magnified by both the COVID-19 disease itself and the responses to it.

Feminists worldwide know what must be done and have the expertise and skills to implement the bold agenda necessary for a just and sustainable recovery. But we can only be successful if governments and international institutions like the United Nations muster the political will for real change: 

- In the 75th anniversary year of the UN, positioning itself as a vital institution for international cooperation, the UN offers Member States the opportunity to showcase their political will to be transformative and integrative.

- States come together on an equal footing at the UN to make commitments, set norms, and resolve conflicts, and this is a pivotal moment for all States to take a leadership role in main policy areas of the global recovery.

- The UN can support political will by ensuring inclusive, accessible, secure spaces where governments and civil society can work together to identify goals, action steps, and accountability measures.

- Financial and technological support to developing countries will enable these countries to deal with the crisis and demonstrate that industrialized countries back up their political will by actions.

- IFIs in particular can demonstrate commitment to a just recovery through debt cancellation, grants for actions that meet the principles and actions set out here, and ensuring that projects advance equality.

- Many UN agencies have funds tied to the directives of donor countries. Those donor countries should commit additional funds to just, sustainable COVID recovery.

- The Secretary-General has a bigger platform than he has had at almost any time in his tenure. This is a moment to share the components of a feminist, just, sustainable recovery and galvanize people to push their leaders to act.

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