by Isha Prakash and Tamanna Meghrajani
The battle against the ongoing COVID-19 crisis has effectively incapacitated economies of over 180 countries. This pandemic has adversely affected every sphere of the economy, from the educational sector to the tourism industry. Even the thought of rebuilding or restructuring this elaborate arrangement built over centuries seems unnerving but with a plethora of businesses coming to a halt and some even dissolving permanently, post-pandemic policies for economic transformation may simply prove to be inevitable.
In what may be one of the first of such instances, the Government of Hawaii, in consonance with the same, has proclaimed a feminist economic recovery plan for the State to combat the socio-economic impact of COVID-19. The Hawaiian State Commission on the Status of Women officially announced a plan, namely “Building Bridges, Not Walking on Backs: A Feminist Economic Recovery Plan for COVID-19”. The plan has not yet been approved at the State level, but has successfully been passed in Maui County on the 15th of June, 2020, making it the first county in the United States to pass a feminist economic recovery plan.
Image credit: Miguel Bruna via Unsplash.
The association of economics to feminism might come as a fairly new concept for most of us. However, Feminist Economics is a school of economic thought and political action that gained immense visibility during the late 1900s and its origins can be traced back to the mid‐19th century. Since then, it has only continuously grown to develop its own concepts, analytical frameworks, and methodologies. With gender at its core, it seeks to establish a more inclusive and empathetic functioning of the economy to address and alleviate any exclusion that may have seeped in. Unarguably, economies around the world continue to be extremely unequal, often excluding many fractions of a society at a great cost. Thus, today, feminist economics has evolved into a political practice that aims at enhancing the functioning of economic systems and guaranteeing that everyone has access to a dignified life, on the fundamental basis of equality. Well-known philanthropist Melinda Gates even shared that ignoring the effects of COVID-19 on women could cost the world an estimated $5 trillion; highlighting that women are an essential part of the economy.
Increasing discussions around and switching to alternative economic models like that of degrowth or the popular ‘Doughnut’ models, are helping shape a new economic system that is centred around care and measured in terms of the overall well-being of the citizenry, reduction of inequality, and wage gaps, among others. The main goal of these systems is to enable communities to thrive by distributing the care work between men and women, across all class/racial/ethnic lines. Such alternative economic models are not just to cater to the situation in the current pandemic. Countries like Iceland, New Zealand and Taiwan, have already implemented such plans much earlier. Naila Kabeer, Joint Professor of Gender and International Development in the Departments of International Development and Gender Studies at London School of Economics, believes that we need to include justice as one of our crucial features to revamp the economy; and according to her, Hawaii’s feminist recovery plan may just offer such a model.
Analysing the Plan
This plan is a novel endeavour to create an effective economy by introducing a gendered perspective to mitigate the persisting economic marginalisation in society. The State Commission was first instituted to assist in legislative advocacy and implementation of policies concerning women and children. It has since then shaped numerous progressive pieces of legislation for the State such as eliminating gender binaries from driving licenses and a remarkable law that permitted all those convicted of prostitution to erase the same from their official records; making Hawaii the first State to let its citizens do so, without having to prove that they were victims of sex-trafficking as a pre-requisite.
The most important component of this Economic Recovery Plan includes a number of proposals including the provision of a basic income for all, creating a special emergency fund to be availed of by marginalised groups such as undocumented women, immigrant women, domestic workers, and differently-abled women, “ensuring women have access to ‘green jobs’ in renewable energy, energy efficiency and construction jobs (89.9 percent male workers) through stimulus programs that promote gender and racial equity”, among others, and even a waiver of co-payments for the tests and treatment of the coronavirus. The revival policy also bestows a 20% proportionate share of the COVID-19 response funds to meet the express recovery needs of Hawaii’s native populace, a minimum wage for single mothers, in addition to free childcare for all essential workers.
Apart from this, the drafters have expressed a clear intent to reduce financial precarity for people by recommending a shift from a luxury-, military-, and tourism-focused economy construction to more sustainable forms of employment in all fields, including the manufacturing of protective equipment for personal use.
Ms. Khara Jabola-Carolus, the Executive Director of Hawaii’s Commission on the Status of Women, told the Washington Post’s The Lily that she strongly believes that Hawaii’s plan can be adopted by other States as well.
This plan includes universal free child care for all emergency and essential workers, paid family and sick leave, and mandated pay parity for child care workers to educators and nurses. “What we keep repeating is ‘there is no economic recovery without child care.’”, opines Kathleen Algire, director of the Hawaii Children’s Action Network, “For parents to go back to work, their children need to be cared for.” Earlier, generous investment in child and elder care has been shown to have potential to push present labour supply to support 3 million new jobs in the United States alone; so this should be an important part of any economic recovery plan. Thus, addressing this and providing for free childcare for essential workers is yet another positive of the Hawaii feminist recovery plan; especially since women are known to constitute 76% of the essential workers in health care and 73% of those in government and community-based services.
In addition to highlighting marginalised groups’ perspectives, Ms. Jabola-Carolus insists on keeping the process feminist by relying on a community-based open consultative process: “This means participatory and low-barrier.” It comprises a potential shift of power by compelling those who possess it, to share the stage with and invite public participation in local governance. “Participatory decision-making in this example is not only about the content, but the strategy and areas we address as a group,” said Dr. Kealoha Fox, a Native Hawaiian scientist and member of the Hawaii Feminist COVID Recovery Team, convened by the State Commission on the Status of Women itself.
Recovery plans have thus far mainly served the purpose of being objective or neutral and are implemented for everyone, acting as a blanket policy. However, circumstances differ from person to person. More so owing to the patriarchal societies we live in, where sexism, racism and other such biases will most definitely seep into any policy that does not actively incorporate or address gendered, racial, class, and ability perspectives, writes Marissa Conway, Co-Founder of the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy. She further adds “If this pandemic has made one thing clear, it’s that as long as we base our society around patriarchal values, wealth will always win out.”
Concerns and Criticism
However, as most things do, this too comes with some apprehension; researchers Vasanthi Swetha, a Research Associate at LEAD (Krea University) and Amal H., a researcher and economist, have both voiced concerns that although the intentions are bona fide, the plan could prove to be short-sighted and suffer in the long run, with respect to its intended benefits. The plan, according to them, caters to a trigger-happy society that does not fully understand the limitations it poses in an already-suffering economy. They state that fitting feminist goals in with the economic system must not mean beginning from scratch; rather, there must be an attempt to find new inclusive methods to help shape the pre-existing economic system.
Conservative voices have also critiqued the plan by saying that this method of revival might just end up causing more harm than good in the long run. “In fact, many of these costly proposals would end up hurting the women they aim to help by increasing the cost of labour and making it harder for businesses to come back,” says Karin A. Lips, founder and president of the Network of Enlightened Women, an organisation for culturally conservative women at American universities. Nonetheless, it remains an undisputed fact that this plan is a laudable initiative, with a formidable attempt being made to account for several communities.
“We have spent the last 50 years pushing for gender equality and making sure women have the same rights as men. To let that fall at this time of crisis just seems like a really regressive step,” says Dr. Clare Wenham, assistant professor in Global Health Policy at the esteemed London School of Economics. She strongly believes that the time is ripe to seek a shift in, rather than simply return to the previous economic model in place.
What makes this design seem incredibly impactful is that this blueprint is more than just a list of good ideas, it also has reformative capabilities. Rather than reinstating pre-existing structures that continue to represent capitalist and patriarchal characteristics, this proposal seeks to use this circumstance to put in place a system that is capable of contributing to gender equality and is also encouraging other States and countries to do so. “This is our moment to build a system that is capable of delivering gender equality. It is time to centre gender in the nation’s rising racial and economic justice movements,” states the plan, in its attempt to be both inclusive and intersectional. Thus, instead of simply homogenising women into one equable unit, it duly acknowledges the distinct adversities that women in a Society face, across disparate social strata and milieux.
If followed through, this plan of action may mitigate the grave gendered impacts and the ostracism of selected sections of today’s society. It naturally encompasses an increase in economic costs (such as that incurred by implementing paid family leave, paid family and sick leave, the universal basic income policy and so on), and challenges in execution (for example: long-term recovery processes mentioned in the plan, such as addressing the “acute shortage in public interest lawyers, social workers and advocates, housing, and programming to assist victims” by enacting “loan forgiveness for public interest lawyers”, increasing funding for victim-assistance programs, etc.). The drafters also believe there is always space for improvement of the recommendations. Thus, it is yet to be seen if this plan is as powerful in its delivery as it claims to be and organisations like The Big Push for Midwives’ Tanya Smith-Johnson, feminist scholars, advocates and governors around the globe eagerly await the results.
The most prominent feature of this design, however, apart from its opportune potential for execution, is that it comes close to doing what most policies and policy-makers have only attempted to achieve for a while now, and that is to be inclusive of several communities sans losing sight of the primary goal; in this case, economic revival. It must be noted here that if critical and transformative frameworks, such as this, were developed to reach one’s objectives, a better world might not just be a Utopian fantasy; but an achievable reality.
Isha Prakash is a penultimate-year law student at Government Law College, Mumbai. Her primary areas of interest are legal research and policy design, with a strong inclination towards human rights and gender justice. Follow her on Twitter at @prakticallyisha.