Gender in the EU’s Corona Response – Transformation Beyond Clapping?
By Felicia Riethmüller and Hanna-Maria Paul
While the Corona pandemic has had an impact on all members of society, the crisis unquestionably aggravates existing gender inequalities within the European Union (EU). Especially in areas such as care work, violence, employment and poverty, women are disproportionately affected by the ramifications of the Covid-19 crisis. Therefore, policy measures tackling the vulnerable position of women need to be at the heart of a European corona response. In light of the widely discussed European political reaction, we analyze whether the corona response can be considered gender-sensitive or gender-blind. First, we will outline the gendered dimensions of the Covid-19 crisis. Hereinafter, we will assess whether the political action of the EU can provide solutions to the gendered consequences of the crisis, and finally, examine whether the EU institutions show differences in gender sensitivity in their approaches to Covid-19 recovery.
The outbreak of the virus has risen awareness on the importance of health care workers which many European citizens expressed by clapping at night all across the EU. However, the lacking recognition of the value of care work is a highly gendered topic and needs to go beyond clapping. In the EU, 76% of all health care workers are female which not only results in precarious economic positions for women but also potentially exposes them and their families to a greater risk of infection (cf. figure 1). In addition to this, migrant women workers and women from ethnic minorities make up an important share in the European health care sector which sheds light on the intersectional variations coining the issue of gender inequality within the health care sector. The economic precarity of women in the EU is additionally fuelled by national lockdowns leading to a short-term loss of jobs in the service sector, which mostly employs women and in particular migrant women. Thus, the loss of jobs deepens pre-existing inequalities between women and men with regard to pensions and equal pay. Moreover, women take on most of the undervalued work in the household, in childcare or the care of elderly people. Temporary close-downs of childcare facilities and schools restrained women from performing paid work and deepened the uneven division of care work between men and women. Additionally, the lockdown has not only threatened women’s access to paid labour but has also lead to increasing cases of domestic violence, namely intimate partner violence, due to the fact that women are constantly being exposed to their abusers. The financial insecurity resulting from the crisis might make it even more difficult for women in violent relationships to leave their partners.
An impact assessment of the current EU response to the pandemic commissioned by MEP Alexandra Geese (Greens/EFA) underlines that the accumulation of a lack of fair payment, the precarious working conditions and the major share of unpaid labour in the crisis period has subjected women to shattering economic and social insecurity.
In contrast to the major share of women working in the care sector, a female perspective is rarely represented on boards and in decision-making processes. Jacqui True and Sara Davies assert that female leadership is vital to finding effective corona responses and being able to implement them, since gender-sensitive voices in powerful positions can prevent an intensification of structural disadvantages of women in the social and economic spheres. Also, due to their frontline role in the health care sector, women have expertise on health trends that needs to be included in public security decision-making.
Accordingly, while women perform essential tasks necessary to cope with the outbreak of the coronavirus, we constate a scandalous economic and social undervaluation as well as precarization of women within the EU. Therefore, a gender-sensitive EU response to the imminent gendered challenges in the context of Covid-19 is indispensable.
The European Union addresses the Covid-19 crisis recovery mainly via budgetary adjustments, more precisely in the form of a revised Commission proposal for the 2021-2027 Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), which was introduced in May 2020 amidst the pandemic. In addition, the “Next Generation EU” (NGEU) recovery fund has added an extra sum of 750 billion dollars, which is situated outside the MFF and will be given out as a mix of grants and loans to the member states in order for them to implement their own national recovery plans. The largest part of the NGEU consists of the “Recovery and Resilience Facility” (RRF), which is why we are focusing on this part of the recovery plan (see figure 2 for an overview of the different parts of the EU response to Covid-19). As of now, the recovery plan is in the state of Commission proposals and a Council agreement and the negotiations with the European parliament have started in July. The Parliament has voiced some concerns and may withhold its agreement, mainly because the Council had cut the recovery plan’s budget in some critical areas.
Analysing in how far the proposals are gender-sensitive or gender-blind, the question of how the EU can actually tackle the abovementioned gendered consequences of the pandemic in its budgetary policies arises. To summarize the potential for a gendered corona response policy, we rely on demands (in the form of policy papers, open letters, petitions) by the main gender equality interest groups in the field. Taken together, demands by the European Women’s Lobby, the S&D and the women’s group of the European Socialist & Democrats Party, the #halfofit petition and an impact assessment of the current recovery plan, three main aspects emerge, which would produce a gender-sensitive response to Covid-19:
- Gender budgeting of all funds in the Recovery and Resilience Plan
- Investment in female-dominated sectors, particularly the care economy
- Linking EU financing to respect for the rule of law and human rights
Strikingly, the initial Commission proposals address these aspects only marginally. The communication of “Europe’s moment”, accompanying the #NextGenerationEU proposals, uses strong language, claiming that “equality is at the heart of the recovery” and that the “EU will do all it can to prevent and combat gender-based violence” through a Victim’s Rights Strategy. The latter has recently been established and contains a number of improvements for victims of violence, referring particularly to the rising numbers of domestic violence during the pandemic, and thus, showing responsiveness for gendered consequences of the crisis.
However, the actual budget proposal for 2021-27 does not contain a gender lens. On the contrary, it contains a 20% cut in the budget of the Justice, Rights and Values Fund compared to the 2018 budget proposal, as has been criticized by the European Women’s Lobby, since the fund is crucial in supporting feminist civil society organizations, especially those already facing harsh political climates. Particularly against the backdrop of rising gender-based violence during the pandemic, feminist organizations have been alarmed by these cuts. Similarly, compared to the 2018 budget proposal, the Commission has cut funding for the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), a leading research agency for gender equality in the EU. In general, the budget proposal does not include gender equality objectives or significant investments in public care infrastructure, which is why experts deem the “#NextGenerationEU” program as “jeopardizing gender equality”. Interestingly, in its marketing of the recovery plan, the European Council uses the terms “Climate Mainstreaming” and “Digital Mainstreaming” as key points, thereby transferring gender terminology to two different policy fields. This is not only remarkable in terms of the lack of references to gender in the recovery plan, but also, as Klatzer and Rinaldi point out, directs substantial proportions of the RRF to male-dominated sectors. This would not necessarily be a problem for gender equality if it was bound to provisions on strengthening gender equality in the labor market and to funding female dominated sectors as well. Without such provisions, it ignores the gendered consequences of this budget planning.
Whereas the initial proposal contained efforts to include provisions of the rule of law and democracy into the MFF and the NGEU, the Council conclusion weakened this aspect, which the Parliament has harshly criticized in response. From a gender perspective, this aspect is crucial, since democratic backsliding and breaches to the rule of law almost always go along with significant risks for women and minorities like the LGBTIQ community, as it currently can be seen in Poland and Hungary.
The Council, however, introduced a gender mainstreaming approach to the Recovery Plan, which the Parliament strongly supports and even reinforces by demanding that a “transparent, comprehensive and meaningful tracking methodology should be adopted swiftly” and calling for gender budgeting in particular. The somewhat stronger stance of the Parliament stands in line with research considering the EP as more accessible to feminist interest groups and its community method in decision-making, which makes it more open to gender equality policies than the intergovernmental method. The EP also provides ground for feminist “critical actors”, like MEPs who started the petition #halfofit, calling for gender budgeting of all funds and a “Care Deal” for the EU; and party groups like the PES Women and the S&D, who in a joint letter to Ursula von der Leyen voiced similar and even more far-reaching demands.
Generally, in view of the far-reaching ways in which the pandemic has negatively impacted women and fact that women in the care sector, in unpaid work at home or in education are still at the frontlines of the fight against Covid-19, gender equality would be expected to play a central role in the EU’s response policies. However, EU gender sensitivity at this point does not surpass vague references to gender mainstreaming and lacks concrete, targeted investments and any transformative approach to the health care sector. Nonetheless, our brief analysis has shown that especially in the European Parliament, strong advocates for gender equality and gender-sensitive budget planning are voicing their concerns and it is yet to be decided how these will be implemented in the final budget.
This article is part of the #DossierCorona thread #TransnationalFeminisms, which emerges from the online series “Transnational Feminist Dialogues in Times of Corona Crisis” organized by the Margherita von Brentano Center for Gender Studies at Freie Universität Berlin in cooperation with the MA Program Gender, Intersectionality and Politics at FU Berlin, Academy in Exile and Academics for Peace Germany.
 Due to the binary gender approach of most statistical sources which were used for this article, this analysis primarily uses binary concepts to talk about gender and can therefore not properly mirror the situation of non-binary people during the Covid-19 crisis.
 However, probably due to pressure from civil society organizations, the Commission has recently taken back the 20% cuts in this area, which was supported by the Council later on.
Felicia Riethmüller is an MA student of Political Science at the Freie Universität Berlin.
Further articles in the thread #transnationalfeminisms of the series #DossierCorona on TRAFO:
Sabina García Peter, Nina Lawrenz and Tanja Wälty, Introducing #DossierCorona #TransnationalFeminisms, 1 July 2020.
Eliska Bujokova, Rewriting Histories of Care in the Times of Corona, 9 July 2020.
Vidisha Mishra, COVID-19, Technology, and the Future of Care Work, 15 July 2020.
Éva Fodor, Anikó Gregor, Júlia Koltai and Eszter Kováts, Household Divisions of Labor and Care Work in Times of COVID-19: Empirical Lessons from Hungary, 29 July 2020.
Ailynn Torres Santana, COVID-19 and Security Risks for Women: Indoors and Outdoors, 6 August 2020.
Chia Longman, Covid-19 and Radical Self-Care, 20 August 2020.
Margreth Lünenborg, Wolfgang Reißmann, Miriam Siemon and Moe Kinoshita, “#systemrelevance in one word? women” – The Need for Analyzing Gender(ed) Media Discourse, 26 August 2020.
Patricia Ruiz Bravo and Aranxa Pizarro, Sexualized Violence in Peru amid Covid-19, 2 September 2020.
Joshua Muyiwa, Hello? How Can I Help You Today? : Mental Health concerns for LGBTQIA+ people during Covid-19, 9 September 2020.
Citation: Felicia Riethmüller and Hanna-Maria Paul, Gender in the EU’s Corona Response – Transformation Beyond Clapping?, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 17.09.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/24952.