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Women’s rights activist Dr Aparajita Gogoi tells us how the lockdown has impacted women and girls and what can be done to address their issues

Throughout history, whenever there has been a crisis, it has always taken a larger toll on girls, women and children. The COVID pandemic has resulted in women and girls facing the brunt of it. Dr Aparajita Gogoi, Executive Director of the Centre for Catalyzing Change (C3) and the National Coordinator of the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood India, has been working for the rights of women and young girls. She explains how this pandemic and the subsequent restrictions have placed women and girls at more risk and what they are doing about it. Excerpts…

55-year-old Tokiko Shimizu, has been appointed as an executive director of Japan’s Central Bank, making her the first woman to fill one of the six executive posts, since the Bank’s inception in October 1882.

Shimizu was appointed as part of a sweeping reshuffle at the Bank of Japan, becoming one of a team of six executives responsible for running the central Bank’s daily operations.

She joined the Bank of Japan in 1987, taking up roles in the financial markets division and foreign exchange operations, and was general manager for Europe and chief representative in London between 2016 and 2018.

Women make up 47% of the Central Bank’s workforce but only 13% of senior managerial posts and just 20% of expert positions dealing with legal affairs, payment systems and banknotes, according to the Bank’s data.

Women have been represented on its policy board — the highest decision-making body responsible for setting monetary policy —since it was established in 1998. But only one of the board’s nine members is a woman, and the Bank has never had a woman governor, unlike the Federal Reserve or European Central Bank.

Over the past decade, demographic challenges and the growing number of women in higher education has slowly begun to change Japan’s male-dominated management structures.

But while women account for 51% of the Japanese population, according to 2018 World Bank data, the country is ranked 121 out of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum’s latest global gender gap index.

The country also ranks at the bottom among the G7 countries for gender equality, according to the WEF, despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s pledge to empower working women through a policy called “womenomics.”

CNN

The mayor of Japan’s Osaka has come under fire for suggesting men should do grocery shopping during the coronavirus outbreak because women are indecisive and “take a long time”. 

Japan is under a state of emergency over the pandemic, and residents in some areas have been asked to shop less frequently and only send one family member out to get supplies to limit contact.

When the Malaysian government imposed a Movement Control Order in mid-March, requiring almost all workplaces to close and employees to work from home, after a sharp rise in coronavirus cases, the last thing it expected was jokes about men shopping.

But a specific measure of the Movement Control Order, or MCO, is to allow only one person, the “head of the family,” to go out to buy groceries. Despite there being close to 240,000 single mothers in Malaysia, who are likely in charge of their households, the presumption remains strong that the head of the family is a man.

After this announcement, jokes abounded among Malaysians on how untenable it is to make a man go out to buy fish and vegetables because knowledge about these things is the woman’s domain. The Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development did not ask how this rule might impact single mothers going out to get their home supplies, especially if they have young children and no other adults around to babysit.

Jokes aside, Malaysia’s government does not appear to have considered the distinct implications of the MCO and working from home on Malaysian women, from work-life balance to domestic violence. It needs to rectify this, and fast.

Malaysians have not experienced a situation akin to a lockdown in 50 years. Few are familiar with the notions of working from home or flexible work arrangements, which have been introduced or implemented as a matter of national policy only in recent years and are not yet widespread.

The MCO means that where ordinarily during the day parents go out to work and children are sent to school or day care, all of them are now to stay in together and establish new routines.

In his speech persuading citizens to stay in, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said: “Mothers now have more time at home and they can try all sorts of new recipes to cook for the family.” This remark missed the point: far from giving mothers a break, the MCO actually requires them to continue fulfilling their job obligations while concurrently playing the primary caregiving role.

The division of labor in Malaysian families, even when both husband and wife are working outside the home, is already unequal. During the MCO, women’s complex burden of work and family is becoming more distinctive.

I n the words of a friend, a senior female professor, scientist and faculty leader: “Working from home for me is one hand on the ladle and the other on the phone.”

A government reminder that all family members should equally contribute toward household chores would have better served to improve the lives of women working from home than half-jesting references to gendered expectations.

Recent public service announcements from the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development further show it is fundamentally unaware about how such narratives, drawing on gender stereotypes, harm women.

The public service announcements, now widely joked about around the world, contained advice to women on preventing COVID-19 and dealing with the lockdown. They asked women not to wear “house clothes” but to dress up and put on make up while working from home.

They also guided women on preventing conflict with their husbands during MCO by avoiding nagging and by humoring the husbands’ ineptitude at housework in a funny voice fashioned after magical cartoon cat Doraemon. Predictably, the announcement received much flak and the ministry has since apologized.

But even so, the government’s actions, words and responses in relation to the MCO are continuous demonstrations of deep-seated misogyny and insufficient political will to effectively address gender inequality and insensitivity.

Malaysia has pledged commitments to international instruments on gender equality and empowerment, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Sustainable Development Goals, but visible change is still slow in coming in terms of translating these commitments at the national level.

Malaysia remains trailing in gender equality rankings in the world. The Global Gender Gap Index report for 2020 shows Malaysia ranks 104th out of 153 countries, the second lowest among ASEAN countries. It places 97th in economic empowerment, a fall since 2018, in the same survey.

Its female labor force participation rate is 55% compared to 80% for men. Only 16% of Malaysia’s members of parliament and ministers are women.

What the government should have been doing, when thinking about the MCO, is urgently addressing its impact on single-headed households; the surge of domestic violence and child abuse reported during the period; and the unequal gender division of labor at home that affects women’s productive work.

The COVID-19 crisis and the MCO could, ironically, be opportune testing grounds for the Ministry of Women’s new leadership to showcase its readiness and aptitude to deal with women and gender issues. It must be said, however, that it has yet to make the grade.

Asian Review

Two years year after South Korea became the centre of Asia’s #MeTooMovement, the country’s first feminist party is hoping to keep women’s issues on the political agenda by winning seats in Wednesday’s national assembly elections.

In a campaign dominated by the government’s response to the coronavirus epidemic, the newly formed Women’s party has warned that South Korea’s poor record on sexual discrimination and violence risked being overlooked.

Young women have shaken up the country’s political culture in recent years with high-profile campaigns targeting the country’s molka spy cam voyeurism epidemic, strict beauty standards and the decades-old ban on abortion.

Despite its economic power, technological prowess and the soaring global popularity of its pop music and cuisine, South Korea remains a deeply conservative, patriarchal society. It ranked 108th out of 153 on the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Index, while women comprise just 17% of MPs in the national assembly – well below the global average of about 25% – according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

“Almost all male politicians, regardless of being progressive or conservative, are traditionalists when it comes to women’s rights,” said Lee Soo-jung, a criminology professor at Kyonggi University near Seoul, adding that some did not understand the difference between pornography and sexual crimes.

Launched only last month to coincide with International Women’s Day, the Women’s party is expected to struggle to attract votes from the two main parties – President Moon Jae-in’s liberal Democratic party and the conservative United Future party – and their smaller allies, as it attempts to win four of the 47 seats being contested through proportional representation in the 300-seat assembly.

“The two biggest parties dominate the political scene, but many diverse voices need to be heard,” Kim Eun-joo, co-leader of the Women’s party, told the Guardian on the eve of the election. “We’re not a party for women to discuss a wide range of issues – we’re about improving the lives of women, and that’s why we only have a small number of campaign pledges.”

To win a seat, the party would need to secure a minimum of 3% of the popular vote. But given that it is unlikely to attract male voters, it would probably have to win the backing of double that proportion of female voters.

“The setting up of the Women’s party is significant, but as a minor party it would be fairly difficult to tap into a broader electorate,” said Chae Jin-won, a professor in politics at the Kyung Hee University in Seoul.

Chai Hyun-jung, a 33-year-old working mother in Seoul, said she had been put off by the party’s sole focus on women’s issues, adding she was more likely to vote for a candidate who pledged to improve early-years education and address high property prices in the capital.

“I have too many other responsibilities in my life to solely focus on gender issues,” Chai said. “Of course, I’m angry about cyber sexual violence, but I’m sceptical that giving a single seat to a feminist party will actually make a noticeable difference.”

Kim said the party’s campaign had been held back by a ban on loudspeakers and other rules that apply only to candidates vying for proportional representation seats, and by social distancing rules imposed in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

“Teenagers and young women are the groups whose voices are heard least,” said Kim, whose members have received death threats and had stones thrown at them during the campaign.

“South Korean women have been forced to put up with injustices such as digital sex crimes for years. If we put off confronting these problems until the next elections in four years’ time, it will be too late.”

The Guardian