“Ten richest men double their fortunes in pandemic while incomes of 99 percent of humanity fall” is the headline of the report that Oxfam launched this week. A report full of staggering numbers, showing that inequality doesn’t only disrupt lives and societies, it actually kills. The pandemic has both exposed and exacerbated existing inequalities. It is one of the reasons Barbara van Paassen started the People vs Inequality podcast. The hard hit that women took became the topic of the first series. In this blog she shares the stories of changemakers fighting inequality and four key take aways to turn the tide.
“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” (Arundhati Roy, 2020)
Arundhati Roy said it so well; the pandemic is an opportunity to do things differently and to imagine a better world. As growing inequalities are threatening our societies, endangering our planet, and destroying lives, the question is: how can we use this moment to create a more just and equal world? In order to start developing an answer to this question, I took a deep dive into the issue of women’s economic justice, which has only become more urgent as the Covid-19 pandemic goes on.
It was the focus of the very first series of the People vs Inequality podcast, which is a space to reflect and learn with change-makers working to tackle inequalities and injustice. We hear about their work, the choices they make, the approaches they take, the obstacles they face and their hopes and dreams in making real change happen. I am happy to share some of the findings from the first series, in which we explored the question: women’s economic justice – how can we make covid the gamechanger we so desperately need?
Three women, three stories of change
It is often said Covid-19 has exposed and exacerbated gender inequality. It has also provided a spark of hope that the world would see what needs changing. Whilst governments are falling behind, feminists and women’s rights advocates are stepping up their game. So, what can we learn from the work and stories of changemakers on how to turn the tide? Not just to build back ‘better’ but to build ‘differently’, with an economy that works for everyone and a society in which all women’s work is valued, and their rights are respected. In the first season of the People vs Inequality podcast, we heard from three inspiring women working tirelessly for justice. These conversations about strategic dilemmas, personal experiences and structural change exposed areas of stagnation but also revealed pockets of hope for a more equal future.
Elizabeth Tang, General Secretary of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF)
“For too long domestic workers have been dismissed as not doing real work. People fail to recognize that this is work that must be done. We owe them so much, our society depends on them, the economy thrives because of them.”
Elizabeth Tang is a longstanding unionist building power with one of the least protected and hardest to organize groups: domestic workers. Under Elizabeth’s leadership, the International Domestic Workers Federation grew to represent almost 600,000 workers across 63 countries.
Domestic workers, most of them women and many of them migrants, face a wealth of obstacles. Many people don’t know that they were amongst the hardest hit in the pandemic. Despite the fact that 67 million domestic workers across the globe are major contributors to society and the economy, they are often rendered invisible, and their work is seldom recognized. It is not easy to tackle the persistent social, gendered norms and vested interests of those relying on domestic workers’ cheap, often informal, labour.
Listen to Episode 1 of the People vs Inequality podcast to hear more about how despite the challenges created by the pandemic, domestic workers are coming together to call for a caring economy.
Emilia Reyes, Programme Director for Equidad de Género and Coordinator of the Campaign of Campaigns
“To get women’s economic justice we need a complex and holistic strategy. If you look at the problems, they are global. It is demanding to think of the bigger picture, but otherwise, it is a never-ending cycle.”
Emilia Reyes is a ‘technical activist’ and global campaigner, working to address the fundamental imbalances in global economic policies and multilateral decision-making. She takes a feminist and decolonial approach and challenges the unequal division of labour and resources not only between genders but also between the Global North and the Global South.
Emilia is lobbying for international agreements and policies that stop powerful corporations and rich countries from draining resources from the Global South – effectively challenging tax avoidance, illicit financial flows, debt burden and austerity conditions that affect women disproportionately. She started the Campaign of Campaigns, bringing together different movements from around the globe to rally around a joint ‘macro’ agenda for change.
Listen to Episode 2 of the People vs Inequality podcast to hear more about how feminists are coming together to shift economic power.
Anuradha Rajan, Executive Director of the South Asia Women Foundation India (SAWFIN)
“I challenge the paradigm of scale, which is very patriarchal. Small is beautiful. You can have a thousand plants blooming and they don’t all need to be violets; they can be different colours. The point is whether they are gearing for the same change, to address inequality.”
Anuradha Rajan has a long history of working for gender equality and is now the director of SAWFIN, India’s only women’s fund. Anuradha supports local trans and women’s rights movements by providing direct flexible funds and is passionately advocating for other funders to do the same.
Over the past 1.5 years, she has taken a deep dive into how women were responding to the crisis and how to best support them, balancing urgent practical needs with the work for long-term strategic change. She is now sharing the findings with the world and calling for a complete reimagining of social justice work and today’s corporate paradigm of philanthropy. She champions locally-led, holistic, long-term work that embraces the small and centres the most marginalized.
Listen to Episode 3 of the People vs Inequality podcast to hear more about how women’s funds are reclaiming philanthropy for systemic change.
Four takeaways for turning the tide on inequality and injustice
Building on the stories of Elizabeth, Emilia and Anuradha, we invited three more amazing women for a conversation in the last episode of this series. We asked Naila Kabeer (London School of Economics), Njoki Njehu (Fight Inequality Alliance) and Armine Ishkanian (Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity) what struck them and what insights they take away from the work and stories of Elizabeth, Emilia and Anuradha. Based on all these conversations, the following four lessons stand out.
- The urgency of addressing women’s economic justice in a global pandemic
“Covid left in sharp relief the kinds of inequalities we are taking for granted. The ten richest people in the world are all male, all white and mostly live in the US. The poorest, well they are too many to count, but we can almost safely say that most of them are women from marginalized social groups who eke out a living on the very margins of the global economy. Is that a world we want to preserve?” (Naila Kabeer)
After hearing the stories, the phrase ‘Covid-19 ‘exposed and exacerbated’ gender inequality’ seems like an abstraction that doesn’t do justice to the dire situation of many women and marginalized groups. Domestic workers being laid off without any social protection, Indian urban women moving back to the countryside in the desperate hope of survival, and women across the globe facing increased care burdens and threats of violence: these conversations clearly show the urgency of tackling this problem at its root. As Emilia said, women are the shock absorbers of crisis, stepping up where governments fail.
The pandemic put into sharp focus the work that needs to be done and the obstacles to overcome. The problems of austerity and women’s unpaid care burden are now more visible. So are the pervasive social norms, vested interests and the absence of women’s voices in decision-making that need to be tackled. The podcast was a great reminder for me – and hopefully you – of the amazing work that so many women and trans people are doing, historically and since the pandemic, which needs to be amplified and supported.
- The importance of intersectionality and participation
“If someone is not visible or legible to policymakers, their needs are not going to be addressed. And unless we involve people in conversation, agenda-setting and decision-making, we are going to end up reproducing some of the same problems we have seen. We say another world is possible, but how do we get there? One of the ways is to involve everyone in the conversation.” (Armine Ishkanian)
They say many roads lead to Rome, but I would add ‘and the best roads have some things in common’. Our guests approach women’s economic justice in different but complementary ways: bottom-up organizing, advocacy (or ‘working on people at the top’), campaigning and local to global movement building. They also clearly illustrate the importance of participation and collective action, which has become more evident over the past 1.5 years. Whilst some challenges are universal, women of colour and those in the Global South are hardest hit, reflecting not only gender, but global, racial, and other – often intersecting – inequalities.
Taking an intersectional approach to understanding the issues and obstacles different constituencies face, and recognizing women’s diverse knowledge, needs, and agency is key to making participation and collective action work. Elizabeth, Emilia, and Anuradha all showed clear examples of how to do that: from mobilizing, training, and facilitating domestic workers to share their stories and demands with governments, to taking a humble and listening approach as a funder to understand the different needs and ensure maximum ownership for those that are doing the work (and know their realities best). They share how thinking about your own positionality and power is crucial.
The experiences of Elizabeth, Emilia and Anuradha show the appetite for, and effectiveness of the power of numbers, of coming together as women, communities, and movements, of putting pressure on those that hold power to ensure women are at the table and their rights are protected.
- The need to remain focused on systems change whilst addressing urgent needs
“If you see someone is hungry, you cannot ignore that and say ‘well actually I am working to smash the patriarchy, just wait’. We need to find ways to meet immediate needs and balance that with the structural work that needs to happen to achieve real transformation.” (Armine Ishkanian)
The pandemic has shifted the work of changemakers and challenged some of the assumptions and realities too often taken for granted. New challenges and solutions for sustaining the work came up, from urgently addressing basic digital skills to new ways of mobilizing resources. It also brought old dilemmas and tensions into focus.
We tend to focus on the short term, especially in times of crisis. It is clear that urgent needs are to be addressed. However, Emilia reminded us of the risk of “everyone tending their own fires” and not addressing structural causes on a local and global level, allowing problems to persist or shift from one place to another. Anuradha highlighted the need to balance short and long term, and that they can go hand in hand if you take a transformative approach when dealing with urgent practical needs. We need to create spaces to reflect and strategize for the long-term (an important aim of the People vs Inequality podcast!) and build caring communities for changemakers to sustain the work.
- What gives hope: Coming together across movements
“We need to understand that all these issues are interconnected. That there is no separation of countries, genders, age when there is a challenge that impacts people. That debt, water, education, climate, dignity, these are not isolated issues. When we understand all these connections, we can start to build broader and more connected movements. To move from competition to actual solidarity.” (Njoki Njehu)
The pandemic has created a window of collective awareness of the need for change. So how can we capitalize on that? One thing came up again and again in the conversations: this is a time in which movements are coming together in ways they have never done before. Elizabeth is encouraging domestic workers to unite their efforts with other worker’s unions. Emilia is bringing together movements to show them they are not alone and to build a strong voice on a common agenda. Anuradha is joining forces with women’s funds across the globe in a joint call to transform philanthropy.
So, let’s use this momentum and let’s get it right. There is a lot to learn from the women featured in this first series, and from many other women and their communities and movements across the globe. We have kicked off this journey to find new ways to tackle inequality and injustice. We invite you to join us for more!
Listen to the first season of the People vs Inequality Podcast and subscribe to stay updated.
This blog was originally published on the Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity website https://afsee.atlanticfellows.org/blog/2021/tackling-inequality-in-times-of-crisis-insights-from-the-people-vs-inequality-podcast. A previous blog introducing the podcast can be found here
Barbara van Paassen is an Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity at the London School of Economics, and an advocate and independent consultant who supports change-makers in their work for social justice, drawing on her own experience in policy-making, research, and advocacy and campaigning. She works with civil society organisations, foundations and social movements around the world to build research and strategies for a more just and equal world. She is particularly passionate about women’s rights, economic and climate justice, and the right for everyone to be heard. The People vs Inequality Podcast is a production by Barbara van Paassen (creator and host) and Elizabeth Maina (producer). The podcast is supported by the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity and the International Inequalities Institute, at the London School of Economics.
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