The concentration of political power by men and the cultural patterns of machismo deepen the grave problem of violence against women and girls. Failure to transform the constructs of male dominance in boys, men, and institutions limit the possibility of an inclusive and gender-just post-COVID-19 recovery. Furthermore, government inaction and negligence in risk management could undermine women’s and girls’ social and economic gains over the past decades. Health, justice, and social service sectors are critical to the delivery of support for survivors. Reframing the efforts to address violence against women and girls as an essential service prioritizes women’s and girls’ wellbeing during the pandemic and integrates these concerns into national planning for the short, medium, and long term.
UNDP recently developed the “COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker” that monitors gender-sensitive policy measures implemented by governments in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The report shows that, in Latin American and the Caribbean (LAC), 68% of all gender-sensitive measures in LAC focus on preventing or responding to violence against women and girls, an indication that governments prioritized implementing measures to address violence against women in favor of social protections and guarantees for women’s economic security (UNDP-UN Women 2020, 3). This is a positive first step to provide immediate relief for survivors, however, equal attention needs to be given to women’s economic livelihoods in the worsening economic conditions of COVID-19. Notable efforts to address women’s economic livelihoods include public campaigns and regulatory adjustments promoting the rights of domestic workers in Barbados, Ecuador and Peru.
Engendering the response
Engendering the response of the governments for recovery efforts is crucial to supporting survivors. It is also essential to promote equal participation in decision-making bodies and the equitable distribution of resources. Women’s meaningful and equal participation in decision-making help create more effective policy to fit the diverse needs of women and men in society. Therefore, the low participation of women in leadership positions in government and national COVID-19 response committees narrow the prospects of gender-just responses. CARE (2020, 3) observes,
“Most national-level committees established to respond to COVID-19 do not have equal female-male representation. Of the countries surveyed who had established such committees, 74% had fewer than one-third female membership, and only one committee was fully equal. On average, women made up 24% of the committees.”
Notably, this study’s data comes from 30 countries, of which two are in Latin America (Brazil and Ecuador). Still, it helps contextualize some trends that have emerged in the Caribbean.
In general, COVID-19 has elicited two development planning responses from governments to date. The first is the establishment of coordination and inter-ministerial response committees. The second is the national economic recovery committees. In the latter, committees identify and recommend financial spending priorities and objectives for short-term interventions and long-term development planning. On the national-level committee for economic recovery in Trinidad and Tobago, 3 of the 22 members were women; in Jamaica, 4 of the 22; and The Bahamas, 6 of 17.
The committee members were recruited from professional associations, from the trade, manufacturing, and banking sectors of which the leadership is predominantly male. This illustrates the extent to which male power is entrenched across multiple sectors throughout society. It also amplifies the need to transform all sectors for the equal representation of women and men in decision-making bodies.
Establishing quotas is an effective way to ensure women’s representation and meaningful participation in national decision-making. Moreover, decision makers, should engage, women’s rights and youth-led gender justice organizations to identify and efficiently address barriers on issues such as the that limited reporting of violence to state authorities, the increased burden on girls in households, teenage pregnancy and maternal mortality.
A shadow pandemic
The intensified violence against women and girls, particularly in the form of domestic violence, since the outbreak of COVID-19, has been referred to as the “shadow pandemic.” Is it that when men experience joblessness or occupy more time within households with intimate partners and children, violence against women and girls is inevitable and, worse, prevalent?
Limited mobility that confines men to the household during the lockdown, economic stress, and collective anxiety impacts psychological well-being, and triggers violent reactions by men invested in dominance and male power models. Beneath the tough exterior of machismo is la masculinidad frágil. Men and boys’ drive to maintain personal strength models, and public displays of power and dominance over others are detrimental to their individual and collective well-being. Male perpetrators of violence and patriarchal cultural patterns put women and girls at risk in and out of a pandemic.
COVID-19 has challenged governments to confront social and economic planning to be resilient not only based on serving the immediate needs of survivors but also to be resilient through active efforts to transform institutions and cultural ideals that prohibit and inclusive and gender-just recovery. This historical moment is an opportunity to engage with more boys and men about playing a positive role on multiple levels to end violence against women and girls.
A return to masculinist structures?
The possibility for change may very well lie in our knowledge that notions of masculinity are constructed in “specific historical circumstances”, and they are “liable to be contested, reconstructed or displaced.” (Connell 2000, 25). Governments should promote targeted campaigns that pose a challenge to gender constructs of dominance and show that upholding the ideal of a “male head” which institutionalizes male power at home, does not bring more peace and safety. Correspondingly, the assertion of dominance by men in the household is produced by the same logic that justifies male power in the state for which governments have established economic recovery committees. Male-dominated decision-making mechanisms institutionalize male power by disproportionately having men determine development planning during and beyond COVID-19.
More resources should be invested in behavior change programs for perpetrators of violence against women and girls. Governments in LAC are responding to urgent public health, economic and social needs with a finite pool of material resources. However, inclusiveness and the will to tackle inequality comprehensively are political choices. Recovery cannot be a “return” to institutions that uphold gender ideals of dominance and machismo that were always incapable of guaranteeing an inclusive and gender just-reality for all.