The Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has had an enormous impact on the way we live our lives. In battling the virus, global restrictions such as social distancing have not only led to significant socio-economic issues, they have also highlighted ongoing inequalities stemming from the injustice of neoliberal systems underpinning many of our societies. For example, numerous national and international news reports have highlighted the increase in domestic violence (DV) perpetrated against women due to lockdowns, and specialist DV services expect a further surge in help-seeking once restrictions are lifted. The Irish government has responded, yet housing support remains a crucial obstacle and the challenges faced unfold against the backdrop of a global recession/depression and persistent inequalities marked by race, class and gender.
Discussions concerning the impact of a recession predominately veer towards national debt and austerity measures. Given the lack of gendered analysis, in conjunction with a governmental focus on reviving our neoliberal-based economy, it is important to examine the relationship between gender, DV and the economy. Placing this analysis within the wider discourse on the need for a new type of economic model yields salient insights.
Economic Costs of Domestic Violence
It is well established that violence against women and girls (VAWG) is a human rights violation and public health issue. More recently, there is a growing recognition of the wider economic and social costs of VAWG for individuals/households, the community, businesses, society and the economy (see Figure 1).
Research estimating the economic costs of DV perpetrated against women is gaining momentum worldwide. Productivity loss has emerged as a significant economic cost across several studies. DV’s profound impact often translates into lost productivity when women 1) miss workdays or can no longer participate in the labour force due to injuries or illnesses associated with the abuse, 2) are prevented from having a career and 3) find it difficult to concentrate at work. These consequences result in foregone income and reduced economic outputs, which undermine the economy. Lost productivity also has negative consequences for women’s wellbeing and capabilities, thus hindering their future employment, earning potential and career progression. Gender inequality, which is at the heart of DV, also directly impedes women’s labour force participation (26.5% lower than men, concentrated in precarious and low-income work) and earnings (15% global gender wage gap).
Covid-19 has exacerbated the structural factors driving DV and women’s unequal labour force participation. Lockdown restrictions facilitate coercive control and intensify psychological and economic stressors that increase DV and impede help-seeking. They also lead to job losses that disproportionately affect women-dominated sectors, such as retail and personal services, characterised by informality, low pay and a higher presence of ethnic minorities and migrants. As previously witnessed in the financial crisis of 2008, a global recession will also likely hinder women’s labour force participation. It is expected that different country responses to addressing both the pandemic and the resulting increase in DV will have a significant impact on the length of lockdown periods and the subsequent consequences for employment. Potentially, structural inequalities in the recovery phase may reinforce a lockdown for women via restricted employment opportunities.
So, how can this knowledge help to shape the path of economic recovery? Political parties such as People Before Profit and Sinn Fein are calling for a socialist mandate that prioritises a more equal and planet-friendly economy. Critics of left-leaning politics caution against idealism. However, all economic models stem from ideology and socialist policies have a strong grounding in feminist and eco-feminist economics. Entrenchment in our current economic model often precludes the imagining of an alternative, yet neoliberalism, which is underpinned by privatisation, was only introduced in the 1980s. Privatisation has led to many social issues in areas such as healthcare and housing. According to Safe Ireland, owing to the lack of available and affordable accommodation, women fleeing DV are forced to stay in refuges for longer periods of time, which negatively impacts the refuges’ ability to take in families seeking safety.
Social and Solidarity Economy
The current pandemic reiterates the need for a thorough exploration of sustainable solutions to such problems that involve a future economy built on equity. So, what could an alternative economic model look like and what role would women play?
Across the world, women are at the heart of the growing Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE), a movement to develop an equal and sustainable economic system by prioritising people and planet. Building upon existing foundations, this ecosystem incorporates current and emergent transformative practices across all sectors: production, distribution and exchange, consumption, finance and governance. Recent data indicate that approximately 761,221 cooperatives and mutual associations have US$18.8 trillion in assets, US$2.4 trillion in annual revenue and 813.5 million members worldwide.
Collective SSE practices, such as local food production for local consumption, and shared consumption (e.g. tool and toy libraries), are increasingly garnering government support in countries such as Canada, France, Mexico, Germany and Spain. Indeed, community public banks, which exist to serve the public good, rather than to maximize shareholder profits, are an important element of the German economy. Numerous food and worker cooperatives, including women’s cooperatives, are also thriving. Another example is The Baan Kredtrakarn shelter for women who are survivors of violence established in Thailand in 1960, which further demonstrates an innovative model to simultaneously address intersecting issues. For example, their waste management programme enables women to produce local market products from waste to earn an income, thus alleviating poverty.
The EU (Charter Principles of the Social Economy), the UN (Inter-agency Taskforce on the Social Solidarity Economy) and the International Labour Organisation recognise the importance of such cooperatives based on participatory democracy. Indeed, Elinor Ostrom won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics for her work documenting numerous examples of forests, irrigation systems, fishing grounds, and pastureland managed as commons more efficiently, sustainably, and equitably than by the state or private owners.
As Peter Utting argues: “If consumption patterns were to change in ways conducive to sustainability, SSE organisations could position themselves as ‘the natural providers of goods and services to respond to these new considerations of the consumer-citizen’”.
Understandably, establishing an SSE model involves complexities, tensions and compromises. Utting recommends interactions between bottom-up contestation and claims-making, technocratic problem-solving, strategising by policymakers, and political will to re-accommodate oppositional forces. Drawing on fourteen case studies across five continents, Marguerite Mendell and Béatrice Alain foreground the importance of co-construction in policy-making. Such a process reduces information asymmetry and transaction costs, as well as enhancing understanding of the sector’s needs, resources and priorities, particularly when a range of SSE actors is involved. Mendell and Alain note that effective and representative intermediary organisations and networks are integral to optimal co-construction.
Historically, crises have led to fundamental shifts in the dominant economic paradigm. The current health, ecological and economic crisis not only highlights the profound failure of the twentieth-century solution to the multiple crises of the first half of the century, such as the Great Depression and two World Wars, it also presents us with an important opportunity to make a change for the better. Add to this the unfolding rejuvenation of the Black Lives Matter movement as a result of the recent murder of George Floyd and the need for radical and structural change could not be clearer. SSE presents a viable option that would address many of the issues stemming from the multiple and intersecting inequalities our societies face – e.g. gender inequality; women’s unequal labour force participation; DV and other forms of gender-based violence; structural racism; poverty; housing crises; healthcare system failures.
Important conversations focused on SSE and its potential elements, such as a Europe-wide minimum income, are emerging. Reports of the benefits of SSE for women’s economic participation and the environment bolster arguments for this new economic model. For example, women workers in the informal economy often choose to create cooperatives to improve their livelihoods, their collective voice and negotiation power. Such gains would place women experiencing DV in a considerably more stable position to seek help and leave the abusive relationship if they so choose. Given the ethos of SSE, sufficient resources would also be allocated to both the prevention of VAWG and the cross-sectoral services addressing this issue. In addition, investing in land-based ecosystem services could save up to US$50 billion, while the associated cost of inaction could be equal to 7% of global GDP by 2050. Our future may be ambiguous, but these facts are not, and we can choose a path to economic recovery that leads to a more equal and sustainable future for our people and our planet.
Caroline Forde, Nata Duvvury & Stacey Scriver, Centre for Global Women’s Studies, NUI Galway