Towards a caring economy

By Sajini Fernando and Harini Amarasuriya | Published: 2:08 AM Dec 18 2021
Through Cat's Eye Towards a caring economy

By Sajini Fernando and Harini Amarasuriya

The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in unprecedented challenges and its devastating and lingering impact on the people, society, public health, economy and governance is unmistakable. The pandemic exposed many unpleasant truths about our societies, especially the vulnerabilities and structural inequalities that continue to disadvantage and discriminate on the basis of various political, social and economic factors. 

More specifically, there is growing evidence that shows that the impacts of COVID-19 are exacerbated for women and girls across almost every sphere, whether it is physical integrity, access to services, economy, health or social protection. Many women and girls were forced to share the same space with their abusers as gender-based violence increased during the pandemic, where many victims were prevented from making formal complaints, seeking psychosocial help or accessing sexual and reproductive health services. The slashing of household incomes due to pandemic-related restrictions compounded the economic impact on families, pushing many women into the informal sector or making it difficult for the women who are already working in the informal sector, to make ends meet. As women, especially those in rural settings, are more likely to hold less secure jobs in the informal sector, they are more likely to earn and save less, leaving them even more vulnerable and disproportionately affected in the face of economic shocks. 

Women have been traditionally assigned the role of a caregiver and home-maker, where she is required to devote herself to either exclusively fulfilling household responsibilities, or paying equal attention to successfully completing both her professional and household responsibilities. We often see women in households being described or portrayed in the media as having almost superhuman capabilities – cooking, cleaning, attending to the needs of other household members, while working and attending to their own needs.  Women, especially those in the public eye are expected to maintain a ‘work-life’ balance even if it means working extra hours. Often, this entails taking on care work at home which is rarely acknowledged as ‘work’ requiring time, labour and energy. In essence, care work has been identified as a private activity that most often falls on the shoulders of the women and girls in our households. As a result of the prolonged school closures and the heightened care needs of minors, the elderly and persons with disability in households, unpaid care work increased requiring many women to work extra to supplement the household economy affected by the pandemic, leave their jobs and careers to care for their families, join the informal sector or even leave the country as migrant workers. This socio-economic reality makes it absolutely important for women and girls to be adequately brought within social protection nets, and represented and included in the national response to mitigating the economic and social impacts of the pandemic. 

Protection schemes

Existing social protection schemes as well as social protection responses to the pandemic in the form of cash allowances, pensions, insurance, livelihood development schemes are all affected by structural limitations–they are most often limited in scope. Considering the rise in cost of living, size of households and the reduction in incomes, the benefits are inadequate; the coverage is low and targeting is poor. Certain target groups such as informal workers in the middle of the income distribution may not even qualify for benefits. There are budgetary constraints and inequitable resource allocations and there is a lack of coordination in the implementation of schemes, leaving many, particularly women, outside the protection of these schemes. 

Progress as a country and recovery from the pandemic should help lead our societies towards a more just and equal world that works not only for the rich and influential as it currently stands, but also for the poor, vulnerable and marginalised. Although the need for robust measures to strengthen social protection for these target groups should be uncontested, an assessment of the Budget for the financial year of 2022 and the discussions around it reveals that it has failed, yet again, to acknowledge this gendered reality. The proposals show a lack of comprehensive policies to strengthen existing social protection schemes or introduce new ways to address these structural issues. 

How little social protection has been prioritised can be understood by one simple observation: the budgetary allocation for the Ministry of Defence exceeds the allocations for health, agriculture, transport, labour, education, women and child affairs combined, stamping in absolute terms the public policy focus of the government. Further, there is a significant drop in the allocation for one of the key ministries that facilitates social protection, which is the State Ministry of Samurdhi, Household Economy, Micro Finance, Self-Employment and Business Development. It appears that the Budget does not adequately take into consideration the scores of people who may have fallen below the poverty line and the ones who may have lost their sources of income due to the pandemic, but are ineligible to receive social protection benefits. 

Issue of microfinance 

Consider the issue of microfinance in Sri Lanka. Although microfinance practices were aimed at addressing issues of financial exclusion and encourage gender and economic empowerment through the provision of livelihood opportunities for women, the microfinance sector as it stands today has resulted in an acute and vicious debt cycle, and reproduced gendered inequalities. Instead of investing in business ventures, many women are often seen obtaining microfinance loans for everyday social reproduction and care needs. Close to 200 women have already taken their lives over the financial insecurity that results from the various predatory and exploitative practices surrounding microfinance in Sri Lanka. Although Budget Estimates over the years have allocated funds towards the provision of debt relief for microfinance loans granted to women, issues remain, and it is unclear as to whether the allocations have had a tangible impact on the everyday lives of these women; whether the funds have been effectively utilised to assist those in debt and to provide for those who have lost someone due to such debts; and whether the government has adopted substantial measures to ensure that predatory practices are dealt with in a manner that guarantees non-recurrence.  

Reduction in budgetary allocations for social protection for various vulnerable target groups and non-wage sectors as outlined above, results in more women having to bear the burden of bridging those gaps through their unpaid labour, while also looking for ways to increase their household incomes. 

What is required is an economic approach that is centred around the principles of care and wellbeing that acknowledge the need to support social reproduction and care work. Pushing these to the margins and regarding them as ‘private’ responsibilities is exploitative especially of women’s labour.   Although the concept of ‘gendering’ the budget is discussed at length during the build up to the budget, these discussions are not transformed into policy actions. A healthy economy needs to work for all – not just a few, and this means ensuring wellbeing is placed at the centre of the economic planning process. 

By Sajini Fernando and Harini Amarasuriya | Published: 2:08 AM Dec 18 2021

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