A Feminist Economic Recovery Plan

By Kirthi Jayakumar

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a heavy toll on economies, and the idea of reconstruction seems daunting. With several nations imposing lockdowns and businesses themselves coming to a halt, post-COVID-19 economic transformation may need new, transformative, and creative approaches to create meaningful impacts.

A feminist plan
A powerful example of this new, transformative, and creative approach is unfolding at the behest of the Government of Hawaii. The components of the Feminist Economic Recovery Plan include the following: the repertoire of ideas within its fold include providing universal basic income, making special emergency funds available for marginalized groups such as undocumented women, immigrant women, domestic workers, women with disabilities, and survivors of sex-trafficking, among others, and waived co-payments for COVID-19 tests and treatment. The plan also provides a 20% pro rata share of the COVID-19 response funds to meet the express recovery needs of the indigenous population, and a $24.80/hour minimum wage for single mothers, alongside free publicly-funded childcare for all essential workers.

What makes it tremendously empowering and effective is that this solution is transformative: instead of returning to structures that brought us to this point, this approach is striving to look at approaches that aim “to build a system that is capable of delivering gender equality.” In doing so, this approach is effectively dismantling capitalist and patriarchal structures that had adverse gendered impacts and excluded several sections of society from within the ambit of economic planning.

Hawaii’s Commission on the Status of Women – a division that in itself is a rarity given that very few of the world’s nations have such an office – has impressed upon the need for “a deep cultural change” in its pursuit of this design. The plan is wholesome in that it is intersectional and inclusive, and acknowledges the unique challenges of women across different social positions and contexts. Rather than homogenizing and essentializing “women” into a monolith, this plan acknowledges and provides for indigenous women, immigrant and undocumented women, aged women, women engaged in caregiving, homeless and incarcerated women, survivors of domestic violence and sex trafficking, femme-identifying and non-binary people, and women with disabilities. The plan envisions not only addressing the needs of different communities, but also operationalizing its focus through robust implementation.  

Speaking truth to power
The idea of calling for an economic shutdown in itself gendered in its impact. Women engage in unseen and unpaid labour - and this continues even during the shutdown and lockdowns presently. The economic impact of COVID-19 is only one part of the damaging consequences of the pandemic beyond the obvious implications of the spread of the disease. Domestic violence targeting women and non-binary persons, workplace sexual harassment in work-from-home contexts, and sex trafficking have risen. Even before the lockdown, women and non-binary persons experienced discrimination at the workplace – with the re-entry of women after sabbaticals being rendered anywhere from difficult to impossible and the exclusion of non-binary persons having been normalized in capitalistic structures. With the economic shutdown, these realities are exacerbated even more.

In the words of Khara Jabola-Carolus, the executive director of Hawaii’s Commission on the Status of Women, “There’s the economy we see, and then there’s all this other activity that co-exists and props it up — that’s where women live. This “Upside Down” of women’s work is in overdrive, not slowdown. Normally, this “women’s work” seems nonessential, but during COVID-19, it’s [society’s] only defense from total collapse. If we want a sustainable recovery, we need to formally revalue this work, entice men to do it, and integrate our economy around it.”

A route to recovery, but with a caveat
Hawaii’s powerful example offers a fillip to many of the world’s nations. In its dedicated pursuit of economic recovery, the plan also questions patriarchal structures, unacknowledged gendered impacts, and several intersectional factors that complicate lived experiences in ways that capitalistic plans do not acknowledge. Patriarchy plays a significant role in the way economic plans are made and implemented – and gender realities are seldom acknowledged in framing, implementing, and evaluating plans.

However, there are some causes for concern. Researcher Vasanthi Swetha says, "The Feminist Economic Recovery Plan holds an extraordinarily inclusive set of goals for the Hawaiian Economy. Although the intentions come from a place of thoughtfulness, the plan as it is could provide short term benefits but in the long term there are repercussions that are currently overlooked. First, when it comes to the usage of the stimulus funds, the elaborate sources of funds listed and channels designed are perhaps for initiating a stimulus but the probability of them becoming unproductive cash transfers is high. This is because as much as the aim is to make sure men and women are placed equally, that cannot be merely done with transfers when there are very few listed ways to confront the fact that men hold more ownership than women, and as a result of power dynamics these transfers could be futile. ii) The current situation holds a lot of space for innovative recovery however relocating careers for women and men may not be the most strengthening path, taking into consideration the gestation person. For example, tourism and investing in sustainable development need not be exclusive of each other. In order to accommodate feminist goals with the development process, there cannot be an endless stream of starting afresh, rather what is needed is interdisciplinarity and intersectional ways to mould the current structure to create an inclusive society. This process of recovery might end up hurting more people than helping in the long run, although this plan, unlike most other plans, intricately targets every single section of the society; both small and big, both the unheard and the heard."

Researcher and economist Amal H. echoes these concerns, and adds, "What the plan is missing is a wholesome blueprint for the future. The feminist focus is definitely appreciable - and the core goal of making sure that every community is accounted for is definitely valuable. But without clarity on what the long-term recovery arc looks like, this may be a bit difficult to rely on to achieve the feminist outcome everyone is hoping for. Regardless, the most important takeaway here is the fillip to the inclusive coverage: every community has been accounted for, and the last mile is not an afterthought. That is powerful." 

At its core, the plan asks four questions to help develop a stimulus to resolving the economic downturn: How should the state find money to deal with the situation it is in? What can be done to stimulate jobs? What should funding be spent on? What would a resilient economy look like?  
These deep and focused questions can be asked and explored anywhere: with a comprehensive focus on the realities specific to each region it is engaged with, with due regard for gender-related and intersectional challenges as they manifest. The scalability of this plan lies in the fact that it speaks to a form of structural violence that is common to the entire world: patriarchy. If a global commitment to pursue such a framework would come alive, we could truly march into a future that holds more promise than the past we will leave behind.