Manitoba·Opinion

COVID-19 and gender inequality: Why Manitoba needs a feminist pandemic response

There are going to be short-, medium- and long-term gendered impacts of COVID-19. If we do not start being conscious of them now, women and girls are going to see more ripple effects of this continued crisis affecting their human rights, says Institute for International Women’s Rights–Manitoba advocacy co-chair Leah Wilson.

Without action, 'women and girls are going to see more ripple effects of this continued crisis'

A woman checks out a jobs advertisement sign in Toronto on April 29. From job losses to increased child-care responsibilities, the pandemic has hit women particularly hard and demands a feminist response, says the Institute for International Women's Rights–Manitoba. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Six years ago, I sat in my first-year women and gender studies course at the University of Winnipeg and learned about the beautiful concept of intersectionality — the idea that aspects of our identities including, but not limited to, gender, race, class and age impact our lived experiences. 

The Manitoba provincial government could use this same first-year introduction to women and gender studies lesson. 

In many realms, the COVID-19 crisis has brought increased exposure to gender inequality.

Women are at an increased risk of exposure to the virus as globally, as they represent 70 per cent of the workforce in the health and social sectors, according to the United Nations Population Fund

As individuals and families continue to work from home, there's no doubt domestic and child-care responsibilities will predominantly fall onto the shoulders of women as well.

A mother wearing a mask carries her baby in Asuncion, Paraguay, in a May 21 photo. Around the world, women are at an increased risk of exposure, according to the United Nations Population Fund. (Jorge Saenz/The Associated Press)

Across Canada, we are seeing a rise in domestic abuse, which has been associated with the stay-home orders resulting from COVID-19. One Toronto shelter saw a 400 per cent increase in calls reporting domestic abuse. 

According to a recent report in the Globe and Mail, at least nine women and girls were believed to be killed in domestic homicides across Canada, just over a month into the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Here at home, we've witnessed at least two women killed in Winnipeg — Marie Morin, 46, and Julie Racette, 34 — during the pandemic. 

Manitoba's women and girls are not immune to the gendered impacts of COVID-19. While we have heard from Status of Women Minister Cathy Cox that the province is preparing for a potential rise in domestic violence, it appears the provincial government isn't considering other aspects of its pandemic response through a gendered lens.

Province silent as women bear brunt of job loss

In an interview with the Winnipeg Free Press, Cox didn't directly answer a reporter's question about whether the particular needs of women are being taken into consideration as part of Manitoba's emergency response planning. 

Cox said the government is "working broadly to ensure that women [and] children are safe during this time."

Historically, though, Manitoba does not have a strong track record of supporting its women and girls.

In 2019, Manitoba outranked all other provinces with the worst rate of femicide in the country. This violence against women disproportionately impacts Indigenous women and girls, a trend which will likely be reflected in reporting coming out of COVID-19.

While women often bear the brunt of violence, many also shoulder the burden of single parenting. In Manitoba, about 63 per cent of single-parent households live in poverty, according to Statistics Canada data.

Financially, Canadian women are bearing the brunt of job loss during the pandemic. As job security plummeted in March, Statistics Canada reported more than twice as many women (298,500) as men (127,600) between the ages of 25-54 lost their jobs, though this gender gap narrowed slightly in April.

Experts have called the unraveling a "she-cession." 

We have heard little from the provincial government about how it will address women's job loss — though the premier and finance minister talk frequently about Manitoba's need for economic recovery.

Focus on bottom line ignores needs

In health care, when the provincial government has redistributed health funding, cuts have disproportionately impacted women. 

In 2017, when the Progressive Conservatives reformed the health-care system, they cut lactation consultants and the mature women's health clinic, and privatized other resources for women. Now, as the province transitions funds to "essential health services," we could see further cuts to programs intended to provide support and access for women. 

Conversations on gender-based analysis+ (GBA+) are taking place at the federal level. Women and Gender Equality Minister Maryam Monsef said her office has focused on increasing capacity for gendered responses to COVID-19, specifically by supporting women's shelters, sexual-assault programming and women's rights organizations.

It's time for our provincial government to recognize these conversations and initiatives have to take place in their legislature as well.

There is no legitimate reason the province could not provide income supplements to other areas of the population in desperate need, including single-parent families on EIA.- Leah Wilson

Though the provincial cabinet is male-dominated, Manitoba has a slightly higher percentage of women in its population — women who need their male counterparts to consider the gendered and intersectional needs of this crisis.

While all levels of government are struggling to respond to emerging needs amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Manitoba government has neglected the diverse needs faced by those in our communities, focusing instead on the province's bottom line. 

While Manitoba seniors and low-income individuals with disabilities are being provided $200 cheques to address fiscal woes they might experience during the pandemic, these "solutions" are not comprehensive and inclusive enough.

Income-tested and inclusionary supports need to be provided, especially to women and girls who face additional marginalization due to their gender.

There is no legitimate reason the province could not provide income supplements to other areas of the population in desperate need, including single-parent families on EIA. 

The premier has said further income-tested programs could take months to develop. In the meantime, we have seen the federal government unveil similar programs, such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, within weeks. 

A feminist response

For all of these reasons, the Institute for International Women's Rights-Manitoba is calling on the provincial government to adopt a feminist response to COVID-19. 

This means Manitoba must immediately apply gender-based analysis to its decision-making about COVID-19 responses; avoid cuts to public services and Crown corporations that would disproportionately impact women; establish universal child care; and establish a living wage for all Manitobans.

These calls are being echoed by feminist and women's rights groups across the country and globally. YWCA Canada, The White Ribbon Alliance, and the Feminist Alliance for Rights, are just a few organizations calling for a gendered lens to COVID-19 response efforts. Since March and the initial wave of shutdowns to hit our country, UN Women has been focusing on COVID-19 and the shock it can have to women's rights if gender equality is not prioritized.

There are going to be short-, medium- and long-term gendered impacts of COVID-19. If we do not start being conscious of them now, women and girls are going to see more ripple effects of this continued crisis affecting their human rights. 

The provincial government has a responsibility to be aware of these gendered impacts. If they aren't, they may need to return to school for a lesson on intersectionality.

The Institute for International Women's Rights–Manitoba has recently launched a campaign calling on all levels of government to adopt feminist responses to COVID-19. For more information, visit iiwrmb.ca/advocacy/feminist-response-covid-19-mb/.


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About the Author

Leah Wilson is a proud feminist and co-chair of advocacy for the Institute for International Women's Rights–Manitoba.

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