During Womxn’s Month, it is important to take seriously the glaring inequalities that the recent National Income Dynamic Study: Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM) results have revealed about the racialised, classed and gendered consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The findings reveal gendered inequalities in terms of income earned, employment lost, number of hours worked and number of hours spent on unpaid care. These inequalities are linked. They are not coincidental, and they can be examined by considering the cost of care and the value of care in society.
Before the pandemic, womxn living in poverty were the most vulnerable citizens in South Africa. We know that womxn have higher unemployment rates, and that when employed, either in the formal or informal economy, they earn less and have poorer access to assets. Post apartheid, poverty remains racialised and gendered. The vulnerabilities brought about by unemployment and inequalities in employment are compounded by the cost of the caring responsibilities that are carried by womxn.
The pandemic has increased such burdens on womxn as primary caregivers. There is more care required from them as a result of the closure of schools and crèches, and also when a member of the household tests positive for Covid-19. There is also more precarity in the labour force, with less opportunity to engage in employment or seek employment in lockdown.
Given what we know about the inequalities in paid and unpaid work, this article highlights the degree to which one key area of the Covid-19 emergency packages – the eligibility requirements to apply for the Covid-19 grant – fail to integrate gender rights into the redistribution of resources. The Social Relief Distress Grant (the Covid-19 grant), is not universal – it has specific conditions.
One of the requirements of eligibility is that an applicant cannot be in receipt of a social grant. Given this restriction, it is not surprising to find out that two-thirds of the recipients are men. While the inclusion of working-age men in a social protection system is applauded, this reminds us of how womxn, specifically working-class black womxn, are marginalised in South African society.
There is a simple reason why most womxn are excluded from applying for the Covid-19 grants. They are primary caregivers and, as such, they receive the child support grant (CSG), which excludes them from applying for the Covid-19 grant. There are seven million caregivers who receive the grant on behalf of approximately 12.5 million children, and they are almost all womxn. The beneficiary of the grant is the individual child. The primary caregiver receives the grant, on behalf of the child, to carry out care work.
Care is labour and the labour comes at a cost. So what is the cost of being a primary caregiver during Covid-19? The cost is not simply the inability to apply for the R350 Covid-19 grant. The costs are much more serious, and so in this article we consider them while drawing on the findings from the NIDS-CRAM survey results.
The state provides money, in the form of social grants, to the caregivers on behalf of those receiving care. A range of work activities – shopping, cooking, cleaning, feeding, educating, talking and supervising – go into converting a social grant into caregiving. It is a great deal of labour.
The cost of these activities is financial, but they also require other resources, such as time and cognitive labour. These demands are heightened during the pandemic. We know that more womxn live with children and therefore will perform more of these activities. The findings from the NIDS-CRAM survey tell us that nearly 80% of womxn are spending more than four extra hours a day on childcare.
While the grant was increased, it has been outlined elsewhere what the problems and real “value” of the increase are. The increase fails to support the costs of caring for children, especially primary caregivers who are caring for multiple children. It also fails to cover the time required to convert a social grant into caregiving.
The cost of care in times of food insecurity also includes the cost of “shielding” children from hunger. Again, the findings from the survey uncovered a large “shielding” of child hunger, where adults experienced hunger for four days or less in the preceding seven days.
About half of the respondents (47%) indicated that a child did not go hungry in the household (i.e. half of children were shielded). It is not “households” and “adults” that are shielding children from hunger – it is caregivers, largely womxn, who have managed to protect the children in their household against hunger.
A significant cost of the need to provide care is related to the way in which it impacts the type of work that specifically working-class womxn engage in, because it specifically pushes womxn to more flexible, insecure and poorly paid work activities. For all womxn, it reduces the number of hours they can work and it may prevent them from working early in the morning, or in the evening, or at night.
It also includes the cost of an alternative caregiver (a relative, a neighbour or a crèche), should the primary caregiver be able to engage in employment. In many instances, this option is not accessible and womxn have to bring their children to work, which can be dangerous or inappropriate.
Womxn’s caregiving responsibilities and practices of care interfere with paid work. During Covid-19, this has become even clearer. The findings from the NIDS-CRAM survey show that womxn in the informal economy saw a decrease of 49% in the typical number of hours worked in April 2020 compared to a 25% decrease in typical hours for men. And subsequently, womxn in informal self-employment saw their typical earnings decrease by nearly 70% between February and April 2020.
One of the central features that link the glaring gender inequalities in paid and unpaid work is the privatisation, and invisibility of care in society. The eligibility requirements of the Covid-19 grant are a useful lens to understand the ways in which different needs have been interpreted by the state as legitimate bases for entitlements.
The entitlements working-aged womxn receive are as primary caregivers (the social grants they receive on behalf of the children they care for), and not as citizens in their own right. The Covid-19 grant and the eligibility requirements clearly demonstrate the state’s understanding of gender and womxn’s roles, which are firmly located in the family.
The state’s inability to recognise the real cost of care for a child is one thing. The treatment of womxn as caregivers only and not citizens is another, but both highlight the glaring gap between gender equality rhetoric and reality. Womxn’s rights as citizens are being ignored when they are deemed caregivers and not citizens as well.
The cost of the caregiving role has increased in the midst of the pandemic, and now, in addition to that, womxn are being actively discriminated against by the state’s eligibility requirement for the Covid-19 grant. DM/MC
Elena Moore is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cape Town.
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