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Coronavirus brings the simmering issue of gender inequity to a violent boil. 

A barrage of data can leave you with less information than the data dictates. For some, it has become a hobby to get instant updates on Coronavirus infection rates, death rates, and trends. 

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them”, Maya Angelou advises. Yet, the reductive nature of statistics are difficult to escape. One data point can blind us to the barriers of entry, the treacherous path, the years of turmoil, the fallen and left behind, and the unseen. 

Numbers indicate that men are being affected by COVID-19 at higher rates. But where does that leave our women?

In the US, prior to the pandemic, the workforce was 51% women, revealed Dr. C. Nicole Mason, President and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, at the May 22, 2020 EMS Briefing. A staggeringly high statistic, one that has taken many years to reach. From an inaccessible job market to wage gaps, having a workforce that was representative of women was an achievement.

However, from the time the pandemic began, that number has dropped to 47%. The last time such a distribution existed was in 2000 –  a complete loss of the gains made in the last 20 years, in a short 3 months. 

Global trends indicate that women are – on and off the frontlines – being affected by what is now being called the Shadow Pandemic. Dr. Estela Rivero,  Research Associate within the Pulte Institute for Global Development’s Evidence and Learning Division, shares that women are being burdened with the unpaid work that accompanies shelter in place orders. 

Unpaid work is defined by labor that has no direct remuneration; taking care of the house, your children, your children’s education, caregiving for the disabled and elderly all fall under this category. Imagine, if you were to hire someone to do said work, you would be paying them 24 hours a day. Women take on these extra tasks in conjunction with a part-time or full-time job. 

“Who is bearing the brunt of taking care of the children? Who is bearing the brunt of the online schooling?”, asks Dr. Beatrice Duncan, Rule of Law Advisor for UN Women, when she speaks about the increase in unpaid work by women. 99.9% of women, globally, are experiencing a spike in unpaid work and Duncan implores the collective to rationalize the impact of this gender disparity.  

Women are disproportionately impacted by unpaid work and caregiving during the pandemic, Dr. Estela Rivera informs. A quick look at the two tables above indicates that the burden of unpaid work has fallen on women prior to the pandemic. 

Coronavirus brings the simmering issue of gender inequity to a violent boil. Women, all around the world, with or without the pandemic, have been doing more unpaid work AND on average, work more hours (unpaid and paid) than men.

(Dr. C Nicole Mason, left; Dr. Estela Rivera, top-right; Dr. Beatrice Duncan, bottom-right)

“COVID-19 has, really, exposed some of the fragility of our economic, social and political systems”, Dr. Mason articulates. “We knew that there was something underneath the numbers. Even though women were in the workforce in record numbers, many women and families were still struggling to make ends meet. Measuring the economy by low levels of unemployment… didn’t capture the day to day realities of women and their families.”

Women are overrepresented in the health, education, and hospitality sectors, all of which have taken a hit during the pandemic and historically have lower pay. With unemployment for women jumping from 3% to 15% in the US, during the shelter in place, they are facing the loss of jobs, inadequate savings to survive the pandemic and potentially, having to make the difficult choice to choose work over their children. 

If women are to re-enter the workforce with equal footing, creation of new jobs, equal wages, increased basic pay, childcare provided by employers, flexibility with schedules, and social support systems for women, need to become part of the government’s structural dialogue. 

The economy and its jobs have changed and recovery requires adaptation. Otherwise, the violent boil will overflow, destroying everything in its wake. 

The path forward begs the question: What policies do we need long term for women and their families to succeed? 

Srishti Prabha is the Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.

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