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Covid-19 hit women hard, now Budget 2021 must support women

Published: Saturday, October 10, 2020

Covid-19 impacted on every family in Ireland, through the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job or the impact of lockdown, and the effects of this global pandemic will be with us all for a long time.

For women, there were very particular impacts such as the closures of schools and creches which exposed the care inequalities between women and men, as women’s care responsibilities increased. Alongside this, job losses occurred in sectors in which women predominate, such as retail and hospitality. Domestic violence increased and the barriers to access supports were more pronounced. In Ireland specifically, we saw how women were forgotten when it came to implementing policies to alleviate the financial impact of Covid, when women who were returning to work from maternity leave were excluded from the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme. This anomaly was only corrected after sustained pressure from women affected. 

Budget 2021 is being implemented in the context of a global pandemic which has shone a harsh spotlight, and even reinforced gender inequalities. Budget 2021 must now build the foundations for a feminist economic recovery, building a society that works for us all - based on public services, fair taxation, valuing the care economy, equality and sustainability.

Perhaps the most glaring learning we can take from lockdown and the impact of the pandemic is that care work is absolutely essential for a functioning economy and society. However we are starting from a base where care is deeply gendered and extremely undervalued. Professional Early years workers, and all those working in the care economy are some of the lowest paid and most precarious workers, while the unmet need for social care services is a fundamental barrier to the dignity, autonomy and inclusion of disabled and older women.

This is our opportunity to solve the childcare crisis once and for all, by delivering in Budget 2021 the start of a public model of early childhood education and care. This means increased investment in Early Years, rising to at least 1% of GDP over the next decade. It means funding national afterschool care, supports for childminding and the Childcare Ireland agency. Critically, we must see the introduction of a Living Wage for all Early Years Educators in 2020 as a first step to delivering appropriate salaries for childcare professionals.

Our world of work and welfare was built for men; it is an outdated model that does not accommodate women’s working lives. The recent B&A survey of the views of the public on a Four Day Working Week shows a desire for change and a new working model that provides greater work life balance, enables care and is environmentally sustainable. A return to ‘normal’ will not support women, families or new ways of modern working. A new approach must focus on creating decent, sustainable well-paid jobs, not jobs at any cost. One critical measure in Budget 2021 would be the acknowledgement of care by allowing those working part time to be eligible for Jobseekers payments. Similarly women should receive payments in their own right through implementing individualised payments, as was proven to be successful in the pandemic income supports, rather than being a dependant of a partner in the eyes of the welfare system. 

Overall, Budget 2021 must reform the welfare state so that it counts women in by recognising and rewarding all forms of participation and work and providing individual access to income and supports. 

We are at a critical point in our history. We have a new Government approaching their first Budget, which will shape the direction of our economy and society for the next number of years. It is critical that this Budget chooses to fund investment through progressive, gender sensitive taxation. It must deliver universal public services on the basis of need, not ability to pay, by investing in the care economy, health and in housing. The housing and homelessness emergency continues to have a devastating impact on women and families throughout Ireland. Ireland now has the highest rate of female homelessness in the EU, with lone parents particularly at risk. As well as critical measures such as the development of an Irish model of affordable cost rental housing, Budget 2021 must gender proof all homeless and housing strategies and establish gender sensitive support services for women living in homelessness. 

As we face into Budget season, and the reality that Covid-19 will be with us for a while to come, it is critical that Government take a gender sensitive lens to the priorities and decisions made in Budget 2021.

Orla O’Connor is Director of the National Women’s Council (NWC)