April 2020, about a month after the announcement of the world pandemic, I conducted a study on how working mothers spent their time. The majority of survey respondents noted that caring for household chores and children was entirely their responsibility, and they constantly had to think about the efficient distribution of time between work and house chores. Although they had to multi-task before the pandemic, it was very difficult to have work and family in one place – at home. The closure of schools and kindergartens has burdened their roles as both mothers and employees with additional responsibilities. The main purpose of the study done in the spring was not necessarily to look for possible effects of the pandemic. At the same time, it was also focused on a very narrow circle of women and did not meet the specific requirements of different groups. Nevertheless, reading the results of the survey after seven months turned out to be very interesting, and I wanted to talk to women again working in different fields. I conducted only a few interviews for this article, which gave me a general impression of the changes.
In the spring, the hardships caused by the pandemic seemed temporary, and women did not talk about long-term and fundamental changes in their lifestyles. After seven months, the number of infected people has increased dramatically, the risk of deteriorating health is now much more real, the end of the pandemic is not yet in sight, and the future is uncertain. Although what is certain is the increased need for care at the political, public, and individual level. Much of the care still relies on women’s labor either inside and outside of the home, and in many cases on both.
Care work, by definition, refers to activities performed for the physical, psychological, and emotional well-being of another person (s). The impact of the pandemic on all aspects of human life has further highlighted the importance of care work for society. Even everyday decisions on which people's lives and health depend on such as wearing a mask, keeping social distance, and avoiding crowds, are expressions of caring for oneself and those around them. In addition, care involves a great deal of work, mostly done by women, and concentrated in both the formal and informal sectors of the economy, as well as in families and personal spaces. The disproportionate distribution of care-related work creates time poverty for women, preventing them from participating in public life and caring for their own well-being. Care work, among other things, is also a hazard to health and life. During the pandemic, it became even more apparent how necessary and essential, though undervalued and precarious, is the work done by teachers, nurses, social workers, therapists, service workers, and domestic workers.
Although both daily life and the economy depend on the formal and informal care work provided by women, it is still undervalued. Rarely is its political significance and the strengthening of relevant institutions discussed. In a society where care work is considered an integral part of a woman’s nature, the burden of increased care in times of crisis automatically falls on women and remains unaddressed by any pandemic anti-crisis policy.
It came as no surprise that the groups most affected by the crisis response measures were left out of the government's anti-crisis plan that was announced on April 24. One of the groups among these was women working in care work such as nannies, caretakers, domestic workers, and others (Coalition for Equality, 2020) who had a problem receiving the one-time assistance.
Motherhood during the Pandemic
According to a 2018 study by the UN Women, on average women devoted 45 hours per week to unpaid labor, while men devoted only 15 hours (UN Women, 2018). Not surprisingly, new activities and responsibilities have been added to women’s unpaid labor with the closure of schools and kindergartens. Comparatively fortunate women who have maintained an income and continue to work from home integrating work and family responsibilities has become even more difficult. If until now they had every part of the day planned out, now every day is full of surprises. Demarcating work and rest has become virtually impossible, leisure-related activities have been replaced by even more domestic work, and women have incorporated the care work normally done by public institutions.
Feminist circles have long discussed and criticized neoliberal discourse that individualizes motherhood. It portrays motherhood as the work of only one woman who is free to make decisions. This debate has been made even more relevant by the pandemic (Güney ‐ Frahm, 2020). According to the modern idealized image of the mother, a woman should be able to perform several activities at once, integrate domestic choresand work, be emotionally involved in their child's life, maintain good relationships with family members, and have a social life as well.
Achieving this ideal is even more difficult in a pandemic. New dimensions have been added to the role of mothers that very few people talk about: increased unpaid workloads, work-related changes, and adapting to new methods of teaching children. The addition of new duties to the role of mother has not provoked an appropriate response from the state. According to the respondents, one of the most important challenges was the transition to online education. Women say they often have to take on the role of teacher as well. Increased responsibilities interfere with their professional life and leave them with almost no time off. In addition, a large proportion of students and teachers across the country are unable to engage in educational processes due to the lack of computers and stable internet access (Shalvashvili, 2020). The situation is even more difficult for large families with several school-age children. Despite all this, no support programs or services were created for them and, as expected, additional responsibilities related to care were added to the invisible labor of women.
The situation of single mothers who take on the role of both the primary breadwinner and primary caregiver in the family is especially difficult. According to one of the respondents, the unpredictable environment and the fear of losing their job increase the degree of her stress and have a negative impact on her mental health.
During the pandemic, the daily lives of mothers of children with disabilities were further complicated. In addition to care work, which is associated with the greatest effort and time in the absence of support from the state, mothers have had to combine the functions of teachers, psychologists, speech therapists, and other specialists (UNICEF, 2020). Children who were undergoing various types of therapy before the pandemic can no longer benefit from these services due to the restrictions. Discontinuation in therapy is a setback for many of them and jeopardizes the progress made so far. It is true that many parents try to keep their children engaged in different activities at home; however, it is natural that these efforts don't yield the same results. The work done by mothers of children with disabilities has been extremely undervalued thus far and adapting to the difficulties caused by the pandemic required greater effort on their part. The resources of single mothers or parents of children with disabilities will not be able to meet these many responsibilities for much longer without relevant and consistent policies.
On the other hand, therapists (behavioral therapists, language and speech therapists, occupational therapists, special educators, physical and art therapists) are also at risk of being left without a salary for an indefinite period of time since their payments are contingent upon completed sessions (Publika, 2020). As a result of a labor struggle by the union of therapists, they received their salaries on the condition of restoring missed therapy sessions. This case underscores once again how unpaid care work is attributed to women who perform this work either for free or for very low pay.
Women on the Frontlines of the Struggle against the Pandemic
Globally, women make up 70% of healthcare workers and are at the forefront of healthcare, especially nurses, midwives, and public healthcare workers. Most of the medical staff, including cleaners, are also women; for example, janitors and food service staff (United Nations, 2020). In Georgia, too, the number of women in the field of health care is much higher than that of men (Georgian National Statistics Office, 2019), consequently, they are at increased risk of infection. According to a survey conducted by the Solidarity Network, 91% of the nurses surveyed are women, while 84.6% of the respondents have a salary of less than GEL 500. Even before the pandemic, nurses worked several jobs to earn enough pay (Kveliashvili, 2020). Poor pay and working in a constantly stressful environment create insufficient conditions for them to take care of their own health.
For a large proportion of women health workers, domestic chores and caring for family members are added to the increased working hours during the pandemic. In a society where responsibilities related to the child are mainly shouldered by mothers, women often feel guilty when they can not give the child "enough" time. Numerous respondents of the study - mentioned at the beginning of the article - expressed concern that children could not receive the attention they needed from their mothers because of their work. In the case of mothers on the front lines of the pandemic, the conflict between work and family is even more intense as the well-being of the community and their children also depends on the care they provide. The conflict between these two roles is associated with the greatest amount of stress.
Social Work and the Pandemic
During the pandemic, the workload of social workers increased because of the severe socio-economic and psychological background of the country. Social workers had a heavy workload before the pandemic: therefore, one of the main demands of the strike, which began in 2019, was to increase employees. Nevertheless, in early 2020, about 40 social workers were fired without explanation.
Along with being understaffed, social workers had to travel by taxi at their own expense when the restrictions were put in place, as well as they were not provided with the necessary means to protect themselves (Mgaloblishvili, 2020). With the rapid increase in the number of infected and dead, the role of social workers has become even more pronounced, although the state does not acknowledge this and does not feel obliged to develop corresponding policies. Social workers have to use their own resources to fight for decent working conditions, while these resources are vital to the population.
Women Employed in the Service Sector
The pandemic highlighted how important people employed in the service sector are to daily life. Supermarket employees, along with healthcare professionals, were one of the most important parts of the life cycle. In addition to their importance, the pandemic also exposed their harsh working conditions. Shortly after the curfew was imposed, it became clear that most supermarkets and pharmacies did not provide staff transportation, and people whose work was essential had to walk several kilometers to get home from work every day (Burduli, 2020). The employees in big grocery chains had to stay overnight and work 60 hours a week (Commersant, 2020). This news outraged the public, although it did not encourage political decisions regarding changes in working conditions or pay.
For those who are employed in the service sector, or are familiar with the working conditions of these people, this information came less of a surprise. The difficult working conditions in this field and the gender aspects of the problem were addressed in the 2019 study "Living Beyond Means" supported by the Heinrich Boell Foundation. The study showed the special vulnerability of women employed in the service sector in Georgia. Added to their already hard working conditions, instability, feelings of insecurity, and long working hours is domestic work which is underappreciated by the state and often their own family members. All of this has a negative impact on quality of life and poses a threat to women's physical and mental health (Gogberashvili & Karapetian, 2019). In addition, they have a higher risk of infection during the pandemic and further complicating working conditions. Despite the fact that these people worked in difficult conditions at heightened risk, the talk of developing a policy tailored to improving their working or economic conditions has not even been broached.
Another expression of care that is particularly relevant to our reality is transnational care. This type of care has to do with emigrant women, whose paid care work is used to provide for their children and family members in Georgia. In many cases, women (mothers or children) who are members of the family of emigrant women become the main caregivers of the family and the so-called chain of care (Hochschild, 2015). The pandemic highlighted this phenomenon and its problems as well. The working conditions of emigrant women became even more volatile during the pandemic, with many of them losing their jobs altogether and living with other women at the expense of their savings or by taking on debt (Karapetian, 2020). Women who are informally employed, due to lack of necessary documentation, often are unable to go out even in case of extreme need and are left at the goodwill of their employers (Karapetian, 2020). As a result, the degree of physical or social isolation of emigrant women has increased, and incomes have declined, which has also had a negative impact on the well-being of those dependent on them. For such women, a pandemic, in addition to health risks, also dramatically increases the risk of economic problems and even homelessness. Women in transnational labor are considered cheap labor and without rights in the host country, while their own country cannot offer them aid or alternatives. Their problems are invisible in both their own and the host country's economic or social programs.
In the article, I tried to get a general idea of the situation of women deprived of political programs and the impact of the pandemic. Naturally, the impact felt is different for all groups, although these groups of women are associated with an increased burden of caring labor and a high risk of infection. It is also important to note that all groups of women are at increased risk of violence in pandemic conditions. The need for isolation and restrictions on movement put many women at risk of being locked up under the same roof as an abuser. In addition, access to services is limited, which further aggravates their situation. It is now known that the rate of reported violence in some countries has increased by 25%, while in others the number of cases of violence has doubled (United Nations, 2020). Domestic violence statistics have not yet been published in Georgia, but according to organizations working on violence against women and domestic violence, the level of referrals to them has increased (IDFI, 2020). Women who have gained some type of economic independence may lose their income and find themselves in a vulnerable position once again.
Since the declaration of the pandemic, the political content of care work done by women has increased. Carrying out of the functions of the closed social institutions - kindergartens, schools, other medical and social institutions - has been placed under the personal responsibility of women in such a way that no support mechanism or program has been offered to them by the state. At the same time, those public institutions that have not closed and continue to operate with a higher workload are standing on the increased care work done by women: hospitals, online schools, and other care facilities. During a pandemic, women perform the functions of social institutions from their personal spaces. Their work is not noticed by the existing state policy or is attributed as part and parcel of being a woman. In fact, caring for one's own family or community, the need for which is even greater in the present situation, would be much more difficult without the participation of women and their extra effort.
Despite increased responsibilities and higher risks that women exclusively face, their needs have remained beyond the anti-crisis plan. It is believed that taking on additional responsibilities and risks related to care work is a personal choice made by women. In the light of the intensified epidemiological situation and the tightening of restrictions, the question arises: how long will the resources of women last undertaking the functions of the collapsed institutions?
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