Basic Income. Picture 123RF/Borislav Marinic
Basic Income. Picture 123RF/Borislav Marinic

Every year in August, gender issues are discussed in a slew of articles. It is not necessarily a bad thing to highlight perhaps the biggest challenge that intersects race, class and economic status in SA. But in 2020, Women’s Day was celebrated in the context of a revived policy proposal — the introduction of a basic income grant (Big).

For those of us overwhelmed by mismodelling of Covid numbers, exploding unemployment, incoherent policy decisions about cigarettes and alcohol, debates about borrowing money from the IMF, abhorrent stealing of Covid-19 funds and predictions about how long it will take the economy to return to the (still high) pre-Covid unemployment levels, it might be worthwhile to look at just one thing: the plight of women in the country.

The global picture for women is bleak. In the 12 months before the Covid-19 outbreak, UN Women reported that 243-million women and girls aged 15-49 were subjected to sexual and/or physical violence perpetrated by an intimate partner. These levels increased horrendously with lockdown — by 30% in France and 25% in Argentina, for example. SA was not spared this horror. Reporting on the increased femicide rate in July, the president said a woman is now murdered every three hours in this country. Many believe this is at least partly due to the enormous psychological pressures of the lockdown that include rising unemployment and poverty as well as huge food insecurity.

As we push our resources into plans for a financial recovery we pull them away from other areas that will disproportionately affect women

Globally women make up 54% of employment in accommodations and food service (the same figure applies to SA); 43% of jobs in retail and wholesale trade (54% in SA); and 46% in other services (SA 59%), including the arts, recreation and public administration. These are among the sectors worst affected by the crisis.

Women’s jobs are estimated to be 1.8 times more vulnerable to this crisis than men’s and, though women make up 39% of global employment, they account for 54% of overall job losses. In SA in February 2020, for the population aged 18-59, 64% of males were employed and 51% of females. By April, 6.5% of these males and 11% of these females had lost their employment. Of those who kept their jobs, more women than men were forced to reduce their working hours, often to zero.

As we push our resources into plans for a financial recovery, we pull them away from other areas that will disproportionately affect women. We saw with Ebola and Zika, for example, how maternal mortality and adolescent pregnancies increased due to lack of access to contraception and fewer resources for maternal health because of the focus on the virus.

But it is not only the gender pay gap and the refocusing of financial resources that disadvantages women. The wealth gap in SA is stark. Women are less likely to own property or have assets, find it more difficult to access credit and spend far more time on unpaid work such as care work — a demand hugely worsened during the lockdown.

This year has put us in the middle of the starkest picture of the ugliness of the world and of this country. It has forced us to think about the kind of world we want to live in. The conditions women are experiencing now are not due to Covid. They are a continuum of a gender-violent society that manifests in economic and labour deprivation, poverty cycles and physical violence.

Simpler mechanism

We have to change this. We have to address the structures that perpetuate the oppression of women. We have to take responsibility as individuals, as people with power, as citizens of the country, to change. But we now have an opportunity to do something that has the potential to make an immediate impact on the lives of poor women in this country — a Big.

In 2016, we argued that a national minimum wage (NMW) could make an enormous difference to the about 6.5-million workers who earned less than R3,500 a month. But the success of the NMW relies either on the moral conscience of employers to comply or a strong government inspectorate. A Big requires neither. It is a much simpler mechanism for ensuring that the most vulnerable of the population — those who have paid the highest price for our development path, and now for the Covid crisis, on behalf of the rest of us — will receive an income that allows them to survive and begin to exercise some agency in confronting often hostile home, community and labour market environments, especially through what is bound to be a very difficult few years ahead.

Framed in this way, the Big does more than patch a hole in the social safety net. It brings foundational stability for agency and, as such, is in line with what others have called a citizen’s grant or a people’s grant. But for this to have any effect, it has to be significant. The estimates of such citizen’s grants start at R1,000 per person per month. Such a value makes sense if one considers that in February the value of Stats SA’s food poverty line was R580 per person per month, and the so-called upper bound line, factoring in the costs of basic non-food expenditures, was R1,265 per capita per month. Clearly this Big is not a lot of money per person per month. But it is enough to make a big difference.

We recognise this is a large amount of money, probably more than R140bn a year in funding. This is very daunting, especially in the current environment. But it has to be held against the fact that our country is not a great place for women. It is offensively inadequate to confront the socioeconomic violence, discrimination and stifled potential of our women with a platitude that men must change their behaviour. If the funding of a Big requires some budget reprioritisations, then let us take those bold steps to make it happen.

If we are not to have a Big then what are we proposing to invest in our women and confront the reality sketched here? Our hope is that we make brave moves that fundamentally change the lives of women to the benefit of all of us. The social, economic and moral arguments make this imperative. The Covid crisis has at least given us an opportunity to do something exceptional in building a better future — will we seize the moment?

Jurgensen, a gender inequality researcher, previously worked at Nedlac, managing the process that brought about the national minimum wage. Leibbrandt, a professor in the school of economics at the University of Cape Town, is director of the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit.​.

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