This series of blog posts builds upon a Special Issue on International Financial Institutions and Gendered Circuits of Labour and Violence in Review of International Political Economy (RIPE). The issue was first published online in April 2020, at the peak of the initial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic beyond China. Our focus in the special issue was on gendered effects of economic recovery in post-conflict spaces. The connections between our research and the catastrophic global health crisis were not immediately obvious. Like other feminists, we did not think the metaphor of war should frame our response to COVID-19. However, as the pandemic – and political and economic fallout from it – continued, with particularly crushing effects on women, we have come to realise that feminist approaches to economic crisis and to continuums of war and peace are a much needed conceptual lens in the current pandemic. They offer not only analysis of gendered dynamics of COVID-19, wherein masks and vaccines are seen as unmanly constraints on individual freedom, but also policy solutions for post-COVID recovery. Such solutions need to focus on the importance of social infrastructure, especially the care sector, and on prioritising the most marginalised groups, including migrant and racialised women workers, in order to ‘build back better’.
In our essay, “Don’t mention the war,” framing the Special Issue, we specifically highlighted both temporal and spatial continuities of violence across traditional dichotomies of politics and economics, domestic versus international, war or peace, upon which much knowledge and practice in the study of International Relations (IR) and International Political Economy (IPE) has been based. In place of global production and value chains linking geographically dispersed sites of extraction and distribution of resources, we traced the diffusion of gendered circuits of violence in which International Financial Institutions (IFIs) play the role of judges, adjudicating and apportioning harm and/or redress to different populations. We demonstrated that although these IFI frameworks increasingly include measures that are sensitive to gender inequalities and differences, such as gender budgeting, they nonetheless exacerbate gendered insecurities. Such insecurities are often borne by women, whose unpaid labour predominantly attends to human trauma and recovery and whose paid labour is relegated in financing for post-conflict reconstruction. Economic reconstruction typically privileges marketisation and privatisation of natural resources, physical infrastructure rebuilding, and other foreign investment opportunities that overall benefit men’s jobs, incomes and assets more than women’s, even when corrected by age, race or ethnicity.
Taking stock of this experience across post-conflict settings, we argued that IPE analyses should “follow the bodies”, not just the money or the states. It is bodies – gendered, racialised, perpetually exposed to violence – that represent the real “currency” of contemporary capitalism. The pandemic has only amplified capitalism’s simultaneous dependence on and indifference to bodies and life, their mobility, and their ordering and stratification. The need for feminist IPE analyses has never been more vital.
Along with other feminist economists, we thought that given the centrality of healthcare and women workers on the ‘frontlines’ of pandemic responses, COVID-19 could and should have been a feminist moment to rethink the foundations of contemporary global political economy. Instead, worldwide McKinsey Global Institute found that women’s jobs were at 1.8 times more vulnerable to the crisis compared with men’s jobs, making women even more economically dependent. The negative economic impacts of the pandemic on women’s employment and income across varying global contexts, constrain their ability to leave abusive situations demonstrating a gendered circuit of labour and violence. In the richest countries of the world, women – particularly women of color – have been the major economic losers and subject to substantial care burdens and intensified violence in homes during COVID restrictions, coined ‘the shadow pandemic’ by the UN. Nurses, alone, have gone from “heroes to zeros” in successive waves of the pandemic, and are now striking or leaving the profession in droves from the United States to New Zealand. In India and China, the so-called engines of global growth, the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic was also most damaging to the service sectors that employ women, particularly migrant workers. Throughout the developing world, changes in consumption patterns in the Global North and disruptions in global supply chains have deepened the already existing gender inequalities.
Despite wide variation in country and local responses to the pandemic (from complete government-mandated lockdowns to voluntary restraints from social activities) and to the economic fallout (from guaranteed income to tax rebates, one-time cash transfer payments, Quantitative Easing and broad-based economic and job stimulus packages), one theme is constant: the combined effects of the public health and economic crises have had a disproportionately negative effect on women and racialised minorities. To date, according to the UNDP and UN Women COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker, approximately one third of all COVID-19 measures have been gender sensitive with 149 countries introducing new policies responding to the unequal gender impacts of the pandemic. However, more than half of those measures were short-lived stop-gap measures directed at services for women survivors of violence. Few responses addressed women’s economic insecurity. Only ten per cent of the 3,112 social protection and job measures taken so far explicitly aim to strengthen women’s economic security’. For example, in Southeast Asia just 4 out of 182 post-COVID measures address women’s economic security, while 43 measures address violence against women in temporary ways. Meanwhile, IFI measures, for example, the policy advice to Asia remain the same in their details as before with the focus on export markets, productivity, tighter state expenditures, with a “gentler” touch and gender-sensitive lip service to the ‘she-cession’.
Public discussion and demand for the “reopening” of the economy, pits life/community health and economic activity against each other, under the guise of ‘the economy’ abstraction. At the same time, economists debate inflationary and/or deflationary prospects of the global economy as it trudges along through the pandemic on monetary life-support measures. Both narratives, assume that economic activity only occurs in the market or public realm and not in the household where food provision, and much childcare, care for the sick and now education, aka homeschooling, are taking place, even in developed nations. They foreground the locations and sites of the global economy that ostensibly matter most. They privilege certain lives, but not all, for protection. By contrast, feminists perceive the chasm between life and economy as a false dichotomy caused by inadequate responses to the pandemics in the first place. The perversely politicized “freedom days” reopening the economy in the United Kingdom and parts of the US, for instance, has weaponized bodies of people who could not afford to work from home while simultaneously erasing essential workers, many of them women, minorities and/or immigrants, who have continued to work throughout the outbreak often at great personal sacrifice. Similarly, debates about inflation/deflation obscure the fact that, at least in the richest countries of the world, the primary object of states’ interventions in the economy have not been all people’s lives but some people’s — disproportionately men – assets. Central Banks have been pouring liquidity into the markets, shielding financial flows from supply and demand side interruptions. These interventions have stimulated speculation in stock and housing markets which are booming, while unemployment skyrockets.
The premise of contemporary engagement in war and conflict has been that violence waged by the richest countries of the world elsewhere, would stay elsewhere. Various wars have been explained away by the weaknesses of their locations as opposed to the responsibility and intentionality of great powers, defence contractors and structural features of contemporary capitalism that incentivize states to embrace the arms trade. The corollary of this self-interested assumption with regard to war, is reflected in the premise of current COVID responses – is that the virus can be contained at home whether or not it continues to spread abroad. Feminist political economy, focusing on gendered circuits of violence, calls attention to the failures of any form of containment in the global political economy. Given that countries in the global North depend on migrant workers for care and life support, and global production networks on unfettered circulation of bodies that labour and not just supply parts, such containment is pure fantasy. Breaking down the gendered circuits of violence does not mean stopping the flow of bodies but, rather, ensuring their safety and dignity everywhere. Peaceful and sustainable communities must balance economic and social justice, while reducing debt, limiting extractivism, and demilitarizing economies.
The pandemic has been an opportunity to rethink how local and global economies work but so far, we have seen little rethinking outside of Hawaii’s feminist COVID recovery plan or New Zealand’s wellbeing budget. When all invisible labour and care economies were revealed as essential, existing markers of value, profitability and growth should have been revised. But coming out of the pandemic, much like in the aftermaths of war, we are again likely to find such labour and the education, health and broader care sectors with their resources depleted, and the lack of appreciation for their contribution, bolstered by populist, nationalist calls for a return to normality.