International Women’s Day: The Diverse Meanings of “Work From Home” for Women in Asia

Increase in domestic violence, lay-offs, care responsibilities, restrictions on domestic and international movement, economic insecurities, psychological burdens - these are just a few of the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic in Asia in the last two years. The gendered nature of COVID-19 impacts is obvious and has sparked large feminist responses in the region.

Overnight the world had to make dramatic shifts in life and work when the pandemic hit. The switch to work from home allowed populations to shield from infections while being able to keep work and economies afloat from one lockdown to another. Its popularity continues and the jury is out if work from home is the new future of work.

What does ‘work from home’ mean for a diversity of women during the COVID crises? How has it affected gender relations?  What solutions and strategies were used to cope with it?

Much of the work from home conversation derives from the standpoint of urban middle class women and women in the Global North, whose jobs could be shifted from an office outside to an office inside the home. For a great number of women, the COVID-19 pandemic meant the loss of income and financial independence, while rendering them more vulnerable to the violence that is perpetrated in the confinement of their homes.

We want to dedicate this year’s International Women Day to the diverse experiences of women who had to move their workspaces due to the pandemic and offer a platform for the portrayal of those experiences by the women from India, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong SAR and Southeast Asia.

India: A ticking time bomb of inequality

Shalini Yog Shah, Project Coordinator Body Politics Programme, hbs Regional Office New Delhi

In India work from home has not been an option for everyone, less so for women, with varying repercussions for women across inequalities of class, location, nature of work and their specific cultural and domestic circumstances.

For this response, experience of urban and largely middle class working -women are outlined. Even for her, the working middle class woman that had found her productive and assigned reproductive roles excruciatingly exacerbated due to the pandemic, her domestic situation was not uniform. Most women workers are considered supplementary income earners in Indian families and are relegated to an unequal sharing of household duties and resources in terms of space, nourishment and having to frequently justify the demands of paid work in stark contrast to the male ‘bread-winner’. All these factors combined with familism, an aspirational middle-class upbringing, a constrained co-habitational set up and fear of job loss, not to mention the ubiquitous gender based domestic abuse and intimate partner violence (the ‘hidden pandemic’ within closed walls) has resulted in higher levels of depression and anxiety symptoms for working women during this phase.

Peculiar manifestations of neo-liberal patriarchy inside homes with respect to COVID 19 is still to be examined in full; considering the response of Preethi, a young professional in an advertising agency:

Our household does not understand…I have to deal with the constant criticism of being on the computer all day…. And bringing the male boss home (albeit virtually).

In addition, the gaping digital divide is pushing back any gains women have made in the last decades. Broadly speaking, only one in three women in India has ever used the internet compared to more than half of men.

Overall, this scenario is generating a ticking time bomb of inequality that will be impossible to diffuse.  Those that are in the higher income bracket and in formal work will continue to be able to work from home -will get paid, hone their skills and progress economically and societally. And those that cannot afford working from home or with insufficient internet access will stagnate in scenarios of extended lockdowns and in the new normal of remote working.

We are scrambling for food and life. Successive waves have taken away the meagre income that I made from doing houses. There is nothing for rent and medicines, not to mention the loans. The employers let us go and doors ‘locked-down’. With each rising ‘wave’, we get further obliterated. (Munni, a desperate domestic worker seeking employment)

Considering the manifold complexities of women’s waged work in the Global South, work from home is, as for now, a practice that needs a broader understanding in the spirit of diversity and multi-cultural awareness. Further, a troubling question that remains is whether we are reproducing neoliberal patterns of working models, and will keep playing by their rules in our thinking and actions? Or use this inflection point for political-economic transformation in the Post COVID world.

Cambodia: The double burden

Rachana Bunn, Kate Seewald, Phearak Pich, Klahaan, a women’s organisation in Cambodia

A reflection concerning the gendered divisions of labour between intimate partners in Cambodian society, does well to begin with a reminder of some traditional Khmer teachings. Two are of particular relevance, the first being a well-known proverb that:

Women should not dive deep, nor go far.

What does this tell us about the socialisation of girls and young women? That their primary domain should always be that of the household, even though most Khmer women nowadays also participate in the formal or informal economy outside the home. Further, a second proverb adds that:

Women are as mothers, with a hundred hands.

This speaks directly to the double burden that women have long faced in Cambodia. As well as supporting the family with income, women carry the immense weight of responsibility for not only performing the vast majority of unpaid care work in the home, but also the unrelenting project management of these tasks – what feminists refer to as the ‘mental load.’ Where men do participate, this is seen as and referred to as ‘helping’ – a loaded term indicating that women’s natural role is to manage and complete tasks, while men’s is merely to contribute to that work should they wish to.

And so, it is of no surprise that when the pandemic hit and those of us like myself who were fortunate enough to continue earning an income from our homes, also faced a disproportionate uptick in family caring and housework responsibilities. After all, if women are the ones with 100 hands, why shouldn’t we be expected to take on home schooling, extra meal preparation, preparing enough supplies and medicines, caring for our relatives struck down by the virus, and so on, and so on, and so on? As long as women are seen as the ‘project managers’ and men the ‘helpers’ in the realm of essential household work, then unexpected crises will continue to be disproportionately borne by women.

China: no clear border between work and life

Deng Mengxuan is the director of a local NGO working on environmental information disclosure.

It took me months to adapt to working at home with two children and my husband together. Working from home means ‘no clear border’ between work and life, same for adults and kids. And the feeling of low efficiency upset me.

But it was a reset button.

I used to blame myself for not being a ‘good’ mother because I am very devoted to work. The past two years gave me more time to be with my families and to rethink our relationships. My husband and I communicated more about family roles and we manage to distribute housework and child-education tasks evenly. Now that he could see how I work, he understands better about my work and my pressure.  

Peer support and professional consultation has been very helpful. When work slowed down, I had time to join online groups for working mothers, NGO leaders and children psychology study. We discussed our concerns and supported each other by sharing information and individual practices. I stopped self-blaming and have re-established my work regularity at home. It was challenging at the beginning but everyone was adapting and learning.

Hong Kong SAR: Power to Women Migrant Workers

Sheilla Estrada, Chairperson of Progressive Labor Union of Domestic Workers in Hong Kong

In Hong Kong 4-5% of the population (340,000) are migrant domestic workers (MDWs) from Indonesia and the Philippines, as well as a smaller fraction from Thailand, Nepal, India and Bangladesh. 98.5% of these workers are women. We have to live-in with employers as per Hong Kong policy. Due to the high cost of housing, the lodging space provided by employers (as specified in contracts) may be rooms shared with their household members, or a section of the lounge/kitchen, which makes MDWs more open to potential abuses. Most of us are working 16 to 18 hours/day and are 24 hours on call.  We are the lowest-paid workers responsible for multiple tasks, and our minimum monthly wage specified by law (HKD 4,630 or 530 Euro) is significantly lower than that of local workers.

During the pandemic, our employers also work from home and kids have online lessons, which tend to heighten our workload and stress. Now many MDWs have to give up leaving the employer’s home on our weekly leave day. We have longer working hours, less sleep and rest, not taking days off, but we are the ones going out for grocery shopping, being exposed to the risk of infection. Lately there are cases that once MDWs are confirmed of having Covid, their employers no longer allow them to return home, or worse still, get immediately fired -- leaving them sick, homeless and jobless.

As union we help to outreach and raise awareness of MDWs on healthcare, the government’s pandemic protocols, labor rights and welfare, and harmonious relationship with society. We provide masks, sanitizers, medicines, food, shelter, legal counselling, and referral to NGOs, consulates, HK government units for MDWs in distress. We call for our own governments, Hong Kong Government, and employers to assure that we are protected, recognized as other workers, and respected as human beings – not only in difficult times but throughout.

Together we fight the virus. Power to Women, Power to Women Migrant Workers!!! Happy International Women’s Day 2022.

Southeast Asia: women and feminist groups are at the forefront of building support and solidarity

hbs Bangkok Office

The scoping paper “Feminist Interventions and Emerging Issues in Southeast Asia in the Time of COVID-19” initiated by the hbs Regional Office in Bangkok and written by Laine Yeoh identified some key impacts the pandemic had on the feminist movement in the region. We are presenting some of the findings relevant to how women were affected by work from home in Southeast Asia.

Gender-based violence work was labelled as non-essential: Survivor services that were classified as “non-essen­tial” struggled to continue their operations during the pandemic. One glaring example is how domestic violence shelters were closed, though cases of domestic violence were increasing. In Lao PDR, an on-going research on sexual health and reproductive was inter­rupted when funding for the project was abruptly re-channeled to finance a COVID-19-response. Organizations began negotiating for better con­ditions for women’s safety during lockdown. Women’s Aid Organization (WAO), Malaysia’s most prominent shelter provider for domestic abuse survivors, public­ly called on the government to lift travel restrictions for domestic abuse survivors escaping unsafe situations and to make a strong public stance against domestic violence.

Long-term advocacy: Feminist movements have long been working in solidarity with other activists to improve the understanding of partners and allies of their work for better law and policies. COVID-19 has resulted in more feminist partici­pation across various forms of collective action. Feminists are demanding better representation among policymakers and drawing more attention to the shadow pandemic of violence, and how COVID-19 impacts women and children. One example is the upcoming global initiative #EmptyChairs campaign which is being developed to address the absence of CSOs in deci­sion-making in policy spaces such as the Human Rights Council and the absence of women in COVID-19 task forces.

A critical feminist lens applied to advocating for vaccine equity emerged in #Fem4PeoplesVaccine, led by DAWN and TWN, a coalition, which includes Southeast Asian feminist organizations. There were also efforts to explore the intersection of healthcare with climate justice and women’s rights. Youth feminists also mobi­lized on various intersections of sexuality, climate change and mental health on platforms and apps like Discord or Telegram.

The pandemic and its ongoing economic and social crisis of unparalleled propor­tion continues to affect almost every aspect of people’s lives. Class, gender, race, and ability as well as access to education, infrastructure, technology and vaccines shape how well groups as well as individuals are getting through the fallout of the pandemic and the new normal. The pandemic amplified and exacerbated inequal­ities and injustices worldwide. Women and marginalized groups were hit particularly hard. However, this paper reveals, that women and feminist groups are at the forefront of building support and solidarity in creative ways despite numerous obstacles.

To learn more, please find the full paper here.