Alessandra recently graduated from LSE with a master’s degree in International Social and Public Policy. She is interested in gender dynamics, economic inequality and informality and advocates for the rights of women and minority groups.
By now, there should be no doubt that when a crisis strikes different groups are hit differently. As the COVID-19 emergency has shown us so far, a pandemic ends up magnifying existing – and often conveniently ignored – inequalities.
The situation faced by single mothers exemplifies the effects of the pandemic on women. In the UK alone, there are about two million single parents, 90% of which are women. Around 70% of all single parents in the country are currently in work and, out of them, three out of ten live in poverty. School closures and self-isolation have meant that single mothers have all of a sudden found themselves alone with children at home. Self-isolation makes it extremely difficult to count on the help of family members and many women have reported the stress of being locked inside all the time looking after children on their own, while, in some cases, also caring for the elderly in the family. At the same time, single mothers tend to work in more precarious, low paid jobs, which do not offer the option of remote working. Thus, this situation forces them to decide whether going to work, exposing themselves to the risk of infection and having no one to look after their children, or staying home, eventually losing their job.
The mental stress that comes from this situation is extremely high and is worsened by the implications of children staying at home. These include an increase in food costs as single mothers now have to deal with the additional and unexpected economic burden of substituting school lunches with home-made meals. For a single mother of two that means providing ten extra meals per week. From a social policy standpoint, the situation in which single mothers currently are allows us to draw a few lessons. Firstly, the austerity measures implemented throughout Europe in the past years, which have led to cuts in budgets for welfare programmes targeted to categories deemed as “undeserving”, clearly have a responsibility in the poor coverage and low support that many women are now receiving. Secondly, the caretaking systems that many countries have in place at the moment are just not good enough. The lack of available and affordable care services places too much of a burden on women, who are not able to break out from the cycle of less secure and lower paid part-time job positions. Many single parents do indeed prefer to work more flexible but lower paid and lower quality jobs, as it allows them to perform the level of care-taking they actually need.
The vulnerability of this of women during the pandemic calls for emergency measures to be implemented as quickly as possible. Access to financial support schemes should be easy and quick and extra money should be put into the system to allow everyone’s needs to be met. A gender-neutral policy-making is not going to be effective as it is not going to cover the needs of those groups who are systematically disadvantaged. While it is pivotal to act intelligently during the crisis, it seems clear that these issues are rooted in deeper gender-based disparities and more has to be done during normal times in order to strengthen women’s position in society.
COVID-19 is a disaster for women worldwide, threatening to turn the clock on gender equality. But it could also offer a window of opportunity for change and evidence-driven policy advocacy. In order to shape improved and gender-sensitive future policies, it is now important to record how differently this pandemic is affecting women and men. As vulnerable single women are currently paying much of the cost of poor and narrow-sighted policy making, this situation offers us a chance to rebuild a system that was insufficient in the first place.