COVID-19 and Women

COVID-19 pandemic has posed severe challenges to everyone. The latest research and data, however, conclusively indicates that the challenges faced by women and girls are disproportionately statistically higher  – and continue to grow exponentially!  

Who says so, you ask? Here’s who.

The COVID-19 outbreak has intensified domestic and gender-based violence (GBV) globally, says the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) brief on ‘Gender Based Violence and COVID-19’. The report states that pre-existing toxic social norms and gender inequalities, economic and social stress caused by the pandemic, coupled with restricted movement and social isolation measures, have led to an exponential increase in GBV.  United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Sri Lanka and Women In Need (WIN) confirm that the situation in Sri Lanka follows this global pattern. The Computer Emergency and Readiness Team (CERT) in Sri Lanka also reports a steady and alarming growth of ‘social media related incidents’ which include instances of cyber bullying, fake profiles, hacking and other online violations during the pandemic. While both men and women can certainly be victims of such cyber violence, UNDP Sri Lanka states that the studies put forward by UNICEF and the Centre for Women’s Research (CENWOR) has identified adolescent girls and unmarried young women as the main victims of online violence in Sri Lanka.

It is also not just about violence and abuse. With “working from home” becoming the new normal during the pandemic, the double burden of women has become increasingly apparent, too. In recognition of these challenges faced by women at home, when it comes to housework, cleaning and caring for children, the sick and the elderly, UN Women launched the #HeForSheAtHome campaign in 2020 to highlight and create awareness on this unfair burden on women and to encourage more men to do their fair share.

Now with these factual bases in mind, let us pause and try to contextualize them, and re-think WHY is this happening!!

And we go back to good-old gender roles!

Let’s go back to basics. Move your attention to the Stone Age – where men, who were physically, biologically, “anatomically” stronger than the women, went hunting for food and they had to work really hard with minimum resources, lot of survival instincts. Women predominantly stayed home and managed the household, because it was necessary – mainly because they had the biological capacity for child-bearing and breastfeeding, and of course because the offspring needed protection from potential predator animals. So, when the man came home after hunting or gathering food, the women rationed food, prepared meals, fed the man and the children.

And then we slowly started to become more and more “civilized”. People started cultivating crops, which became another activity that men engaged in alongside hunting. So men, went to the paddy field and spent their entire day outside home, engaging in heavy labour intensive activities while women, who were predominantly full-time housewives, took care of all household chores including cooking, cleaning, washing etc., attended to the children’s increasing needs, their studies, and when the man came late at night, she attended to his needs too. With time, these became the so-called “women’s-duties”. Eventually, women also started to go to the paddy field, and engaged in labour intensive activities, while still fulfilling these women’s-duties. And soon, excess produce      transpired exchange of items and eventually led to different forms of trade. The woman who depended on the man all this time for their financial needs, slowly started trying out small entrepreneurial ventures in the pursuit of becoming more financially independent. Some stitched clothes, some baked, some grew vegetables, all of this while still fulfilling these women’s-duties

In the information era, most households have men and women who are employed full-time. Whether they are self-employed or employed somewhere else, as per the conventional routine,  they would either go to an office space or work from home, schedule work, deliver outputs, have meetings, and earn a living. For many men around the world, this is what “work” has and continues to look like. With rising costs of living and market expansion, most women too, go to the office or work from home, schedule work, deliver outputs, have meetings and earn a living – all the while still fulfilling the women’s-duties. And these women’s-duties often go unnoticed or disregarded as the “obvious”, because that is what is “expected” of a woman.  The reason why we hear conversations like “oh my wife? She just stays home” is because most men wouldn’t consider work done to maintain a home as “work”.

With groundbreaking innovations and new information and communication technologies, the world has come a long way from where we were at the Stone Age. The way people operate, how we live our lives, has drastically changed over the years. It’s a fact that in the centuries past, a “woman’s role” has split itself into multiple facets. We have countless examples of how women today juggle between these roles. The art of “having it all” is widely touted as an aspiration that all other women should and can have. Yet, the role of the man, strangely, has remained more or less the same over the years. And the concerning fact is that, most men AND women, believe that is how it is supposed to be.  

Here’s the thing: If you believe in equality, and if any norm is putting a disproportionate amount of pressure on one group of people as opposed to the other, that is fundamentally far from ideal. Things that were relevant – and maybe even necessary – in the Stone Age, shouldn’t ideally be relevant and applicable to the context you and I are living in. For instance, we don’t ask our men to fight a predator with a stick and survive, everyday, for a week, right? Just because it was the best thing to do then, it isn’t necessarily the best thing to do now.

A home shouldn’t be yet another workplace, where people have assigned duties and roles that they must fulfill, whether you like it or not. A home should be about partnerships, mutual support, communication, understanding and sharing; where you “choose” to do something out of love,  or because you like it, or because you are better at it – NOT because you are obliged to do it. This is not just true for women; it is true for everybody. Because with choice comes freedom, and home should be where you find your freedom the most. 

Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes isn’t easy. It takes practice, self-control, confronting your own entitlement, and more willingness to accept and adapt. When you are privileged, it gets harder to do this. It’s called empathy. Give it a try. You will be amazed to see where the other person is coming from. 

Oh did I mention entitlement? Interesting, because in the next part of this article, we are going to discuss in detail how it can, in a very subtle way, lead to abuse and victim mentality that continues to suck our younger generations back into this vicious cycle.

Toxic social norms: blue is for boys; pink is for girls

We still very much live in a time where we put our children into boxes from the time of their birth. From the colors of their clothes and accessories to the toys, everything available in the market as well as at home depends on the gender of the newborn.

I have heard little boys say, “eww pink is a girls’ colour!” – where did they get this idea from? And forget about the color, why is it “eww”? As parents and as a society at large, we are guilty of infusing these toxic ideologies of masculinity and femininity into the minds of our children at very early stages of their lives, that they grow up to believe that this is how things should be.  These toxic social norms and expectations start with pink vs blue and create a separation between men and women based on what is deemed “appropriate” and “expected” from each. They put a tremendous amount of pressure on both little girls and little boys, where boys are expected to constantly “man-up!”. At a very young age, they are told not to cry “like a girl” because “boys don’t cry!”, which registers in their brains as ‘crying is for the weak’ – which is then seen as something “expected” or normal for girls and “inappropriate” for boys. When their brain identifies a pattern during these young, developing, it tries to make sense of these patterns and accepts them, which later solidifies into a belief that is very difficult to reverse. 

When a little boy learns that crying is bad, that such emotions are not valid, that you need to ‘toughen up’ because being emotional means you are weak “like a girl”, he grows up to be an emotionally unavailable, egoistic, entitled man. This man is also quite disempowered in his own way, because he is unable to relieve stress, find an outlet for his emotions, seek help, empathize with others and express his feelings in a healthy way for the fear of being judged; for the fear of not being “manly enough”. You and I, as a society, are also responsible for that.

Why are we to be blamed?

We have been telling our boys that they are superior in some way, and that they should fit themselves into this box of masculinity in order to maintain this superiority,  to not lose their place in the family and society. And yet, why are we surprised to hear about a man who was so entitled, that he thought it’s okay to beat up his wife because he thought the food was not tasty enough? Or a man who thought he could rape a woman just to teach her a lesson? Or a man who justifies women being catcalled in the streets? Or a senior DIG of police, who thinks a “slight assault, abuse and threat” to a wife by a husband is not very serious because that’s a part of our “culture, values and ethics”? Should we be surprised?

This sense of entitlement was given to our boys from a very young age, mostly from their parents when they said “boys will be boys”; “oh you don’t need to wash your clothes when you have a mother and a sister at home!”; “why do you always play inside the house like a girl, go play outside”. These things that boys constantly see and hear in their household instills in them that this is how things should be. When they never see their father or primary male role model in the kitchen, washing clothes, or attending to younger siblings, it becomes far more difficult for the little boy to later engage himself in those activities because it is further confirmed to him that these actions are not “manly enough”; they are the “women’s duties”.     

These young boys grow up to believe that these women’s duties” must be fulfilled by all women. Anything else that women want to do will be secondary to these “basic” expectations. It does not matter if the woman wants to do it; if she can’t do it – or simply doesn’t do it – she is not a virtuous woman.  According to some religious representatives, these women may even “burn in hell” for their lack of virtue. These young boys also grow up to be entitled young men, who think they can punish their ex-girlfriends or the ones who turned their proposals down through cyber or even physical violence because it has hurt their masculine ego, and the women need to be taught their place.  These young boys grow up to believe that a man is entitled to beat up his wives and children if they disobeyed him, if he wants to teach them a lesson. This sometimes becomes the only way he knows to relieve his stress – because boys have to deal with emotions in a more “masculine way”. These little boys grow up to have a fragile ego, to think that an anatomical difference determines who is best suited to make a dhal curry. 

As they grow older, men also tend to suffer more from heart problems, stress and mental health related issues because they don’t know how to cope with emotions or to ask for help without feeling inferior. Globally, men die on average 6-7 years earlier than women, mostly for reasons that are largely preventable. Not only men are 50% more likely to die of a heart disease, how they cope with stress physiologically, behaviorally, and emotionally have been identified to contribute to this increased risk. Alarming new research has suggested that more men choose to take their own life, rather than appear weak by asking for help. 

Similarly, when we tell our daughters “boys will be boys – just don’t make a fuss”, “why are you running around like a boy?”, “come inside and play – here are some cooking pots and a baby doll”, “wash your brother’s clothes”, “help your mom in the kitchen”, we clearly segregate the two genders as completely different species. While we make our young boys feel that the power and the entitlement is a birthright,  we teach our young girls that it is important to be obedient, pretty, to know their place, and to tolerate and settle.

These young girls grow up to be women with low self-esteem, even trying to justify their plight while going through trauma as just Karma or destiny. In South Asia especially, we see women wear their tolerance of intimate partner abuse as a badge of honour. How he does it in “good faith” to make her a better person and “what will happen to the children?” are common justifications for tolerating abusive spouses, especially in cultures where separation and divorce are stigmatized for women. They would also adopt a victim mentality, and thus be entitled in their own way. They would expect to be taken care of, they would expect the man to be tough, and to predominantly provide for the family and would believe that only men can do certain jobs including changing a light bulb at home. These women who think a man who doesn’t fit into the ‘masculine’ box isn’t “man enough” and these women who put down, bully and harass other women for not being “woman enough” are very much an equal part of the problem too. Women, too, can be toxic in this way and hurt other women due to internalizing gender roles and misogyny. 

So should we now be surprised to hear about a woman who thought that a husband is justified in beating his wife? UNICEF Global Report Card on Adolescents conducted in 2012, found that 54% of adolescent girls in Sri Lanka felt so! Some of the ‘justified’ circumstances were if his wife burns the food, argues with him, goes out without telling him, neglects the children or refuses sexual relations. More than two out of three women in Sri Lanka believe that they cannot refuse sex with their husbands? Should we be surprised that most men AND women put the blame back on the victim of a rape or a harassment with remarks like “she should have been more careful”, “why was she out so late?”, “what was she wearing?”, “she certainly asked for it!”? Should we be surprised that in Sri Lanka, a woman is raped every 90 minutes and 95% of women are sexually harassed in public transportation? Should we be surprised that in Sri Lanka 44% of pregnant women are beaten at home

Are we going to shake our heads in denial that nothing is wrong or inequal about the current system, or are we going to do something that helps break the chain? Are we going to tell our sons and daughters that a home should be about love and partnership, not about power and hierarchy? Are we going to continue to put them into boxes and tell them what they should be, or are we going to help them enjoy the freedom of choice, and tell them they can be whoever their hearts desire to be? 

Whether you are a man or a woman, this is a conscious choice you have to make today. I hope you choose wisely – if not for you, for the generations to come.

Article by Taniya Lewwanduwage 

The views expressed on this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Hashtag Generation.

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