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COVID-19: Our Response Must Match the Male Leaders’ War on the Pandemic

The language of war and combat has been engaged by leaders and commentators in the US and UK in response to the pandemic caused by the global spread of coronavirus. By invoking the language of war there is a deliberate intent to pretend that ‘we are all in this together’, to get us to line up behind our ‘fearless’ leaders (male) who hold power and not to seek answers to our questions until we have ‘beaten’ this enemy.

Image credit: WILPF
Madeleine Rees and Christine Chinkin
6 May 2020

The language of war and combat has been engaged by leaders and commentators in the US and UK in response to the pandemic caused by the global spread of coronavirus; we hear for instance of being in a ‘fight’ or ‘battle’, medical personnel and carers forming the ‘frontline’ against an ‘invisible enemy’ and in England the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ is invoked. Militarism is always the default position. We have had the ‘war on drugs’, the ‘war on terror’ and now the war on a virus. By invoking the language of war there is a deliberate intent to pretend that ‘we are all in this together’, to get us to line up behind our ‘fearless’ leaders (male) who hold power and not to seek answers to our questions until we have ‘beaten’ this enemy.  Acknowledgment is given to the service of the caregivers (more than 70% female worldwide) who do the work, in the health services, in the care homes, at the checkouts, in their own homes, but don’t make the decisions, or are even consulted as to the decisions. On his first day back at work, the Prime Minister of the UK, Boris Johnson, commended the British people for their ‘effort and sacrifice’ such as is expected from the population in conflict.

This militarism is dependent on the elevation of a particular construction of masculinity which necessitates a binary notion of gender. It is dangerous; war requires loyalty, deepens gendered divisions and sets in place a framework which, even before the curve is flattened, establishes what the post-pandemic priorities will be, unless alternatives become established policy now. Using the language of war buys governments time with their constituents, but what happens next?

The pandemic provides us with an opportunity of reviving the WPS agenda to see what it could and should look like. The situation as we move forward will resemble post-conflict transitions and attention should be given now to what so often goes wrong in relief and reconstruction. Knowing that most peace agreements fail, both in terms of further outbreaks of violence and of worsening existing inequalities, gives an added impetus to ensuring that the post-pandemic situation – in particular the political economy – doesn’t also fail.

The fault lines have been exposed and we see clearly those who have been hurt most, not just because of the virus but also through the social structures in which it took hold, characterised by rampant gender and racial discriminations, economic and political inequalities and the absolute priority of militarised security and profit over human security and rights. Indeed, the very notion of going back/reconstructing the pre-existing state of affairs rather than looking forward is misguided. Instead, we should challenge the current hierarchies of power and domination based on patriarchy, disruptive ‘gender ideology’ and predatory capitalism and instead look for redistributive change, including equal access to basic resources and valuing of concepts of care and social cohesion. Immigration policies that define skilled workers in monetary terms (while denying appropriate wages to those responsible for delivery of care and social cohesion) must be rejected.

The process has to include those who are traditionally marginalised and excluded from decision-making but who experience first-hand the fulsome effect of the lack of access to economic, social and cultural rights protections. So, we should look to the first pillar of WPS and ask who participates in the planning, design and roll out of programmes. Experiences of the virus, of the insecurity and uncertainties of unemployment, housing and social isolation are context-specific, gendered, complex and shifting. The needs and priorities of survivors within different social structures must be ascertained through full and ongoing consultation and active participation at the local, national, and regional level to inform appropriate responses, cohesive and coherent gender-sensitive planning.

Second, is the importance of accountability for state failure to exercise due diligence in preventing reasonably foreseeable harms, including gender-based violence and child abuse. The CEDAW Committee has warned that situations of crisis exacerbate the ‘risk of gender-based violence.’ That this is occurring is widely reported, and researchers have estimated there will be 15m additional cases of domestic violence for every three months of extended lockdown. They have also pointed to the potential effect of likely cutbacks to prevention programmes and resources. This comes on top of existing life-threatening shortfalls in services due to austerity about which the CEDAW Committee has also expressed its concern regarding the UK. Such harms are ‘widespread and systematic’ and responses are needed that recognise their seriousness as commensurate with crimes against humanity: the state must be held responsible for their investigation, prosecution and punishment.

Third, we need to think now about what the political economy will look like as we move out of the pandemic unless alternatives become established policy now. We are already seeing signs of continued commitment to the disaster capitalism, land appropriation, environmental roll-back and economic bail-outs which increase the inequalities which led us here in the first place. Relief and recovery require identification of the short, medium and long-term needs of people as well as of society and how these are gendered. Will the care sector still be deemed as ‘essential’ work post-pandemic or will it become again devalued ‘women’s’ work? A survivor-centred and rights-based approach that prioritises economic and social rights including accessible, affordable and gender-sensitive healthcare, restoration of educational services and removal of cultural and other obstacles that deny girls equal access to them, and secure and decent livelihoods over a neoliberal reduction of the public sector is required. Whilst the primary obligation to respect, protect and fulfil human rights falls on the state, when resources are severely constrained, as they inevitably will be following the pandemic, international assistance and cooperation becomes a must. IFI reform programmes must therefore also be also be based on rigorous feminist economic analysis to ensure they do not worsen the situation through further entrenching existing structural and gender inequalities.

Fourth, general international law obliges the state to make reparation for acts or omissions that constitute human rights violations attributable to it, an obligation that WPS makes applicable to survivors of conflict-affected sexual violence. This entitlement is applicable to those whose human rights have been denied by government acts and omissions before and during the pandemic and is not satisfied by ex gratia payments or welfare benefits. Reparations should be transformative, that is they ‘should provide a route through which to address the disadvantage and discrimination that contributed to and made possible the gendered harm in the first place’. They thus seek to transform gender (and other) relations and social structures so as to address inequalities and reduce the likelihood of repetition. WPS resolution 2242 recognises the insecurity generated by ‘the global nature of health pandemics’ but, to reiterate the point, the reality is that the WPS agenda has not been able to deliver on its feminist transformative promise. It has been co-opted by the militarism of the Security Council in upholding a narrow and impoverished notion of national security.

It appears to many that we are at the beginning of an ending to the strictest controls being imposed, and as we move forward, it will be important to really examine, (and not to write out of this history!) those who did not seek the language of war and militarised responses and the results. What has been striking about the pandemic is that those states, led mainly by women (New Zealand, Iceland, Finland, Germany, Taiwan, Norway, Denmark) which have responded by NOT invoking war, but have instead dealt practically, sensibly, decisively and compassionately with the emergency, have seen far fewer deaths.

There is debate as to why this is so. The most compelling is that it is NOT because women are innately more compassionate and collaborative (a gendered assumption, but these attributes are also a product of social construction that must not be dismissed) but that the social and cultural context in which they exerted leadership was less fragmented, inequalities were not so stark and peoples’ wellbeing was a priority rather than personal, political or economic gain. This is neither definitive nor absolute but ‘Res ipsa loquitur’, the thing speaks for itself. Far too many people have now experienced first-hand the consequences of what uncontrolled militarism and capitalism leads to; in the aftermath of the pandemic their voices must be heard.

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Madeleine Rees and Christine Chinkin

Madeleine Rees is a British lawyer and Secretary-General of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), a role she has held since 2010. Christine Chinkin is Emerita Professor of International Law, Professorial Research Fellow and Founding Director of the Centre of Women Peace & Security at LSE.

Melissa Torres

VICE-PRESIDENT

Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani

VICE-PRESIDENT

Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo

PRESIDENT

Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

IPB Congress Barcelona

WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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Demilitarisation

WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

Militarised masculinity

Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

WILPF has been working on challenging the prevailing notion of masculinity based on men’s physical and social superiority to, and dominance of, women in Afghanistan. It recognizes that these notions are not representative of all Afghan men, contrary to the publicly prevailing notion.

Feminist peace​

In WILPF’s view, any process towards establishing peace that has not been partly designed by women remains deficient. Beyond bringing perspectives that encapsulate the views of half of the society and unlike the men only designed processes, women’s true and meaningful participation allows the situation to improve.

In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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