Mehr Mumtaz, Ohio State University, USA
COVID-19 has not affected all communities equally, and within the United States, racial and ethnic minority groups have been disproportionately affected by the virus. Reports indicate that immigrants and refugees, who constitute a large portion of the minority frontline workforce in healthcare, agriculture, and food supply chain industry, are at a higher risk of exposure to the virus. Although media and scholarship have hitherto focused on the public forms of marginalisation experienced by immigrant and refugee workers amidst the pandemic, such as their exclusion from healthcare coverage and financial relief measures, less attention has been paid to how the pandemic has reverberated along multiple dimensions of their private lives and domestic households. Within this group of people, refugee women face unique implications within complex systems of racial, cultural, national, religious, gender and class-based inequality in the country, and broader structures of gender inequality have especially exacerbated the vulnerability of refugee women and their families during the COVID-19 crisis. Refugee women in the United States typically work in client-facing low-wage jobs, which has threatened their paid employment due to closures of businesses in the country.
Refugee women’s employment in frontline occupations has also put them at a higher risk of contracting the disease. At home, refugee women have encountered a greater responsibility for unpaid childcare due to school closures, which has not only further jeopardised their paid employment, but also increased their children’s economic and health-related risks associated with the pandemic. Together, this means refugee women and their children may experience intersecting vulnerabilities between their public and private lives during this pandemic on top of their already marginalised position in society.
To start, the COVID-19 crisis has accentuated women’s pre-existing precariousness in the paid employment sector. Sociologists and scholars of gender studies have frequently pointed to the ways in which refugee women are more disadvantaged than men in host societies’ labour markets. Specifically, gendered labour markets and institutions in host countries produce occupational sex segregation which generates economic inequality between refugee men and women. This happens because refugee resettlement agencies often channel refugee women into low-wage domestic and service industry jobs, such as childcare and elderly care providers, laborers in family enterprises, in the service industry as cooks and cleaners, or as nurse assistants.
Conversely, though refugee men also find themselves in low-wage positions, they are typically placed in manufacturing and logistics industries. Despite both experiencing various disadvantages in paid employment sectors, refugee men and women occupy different positions within the United States labour market. For example, men tend to recover more quickly economically than women after a crisis, and it takes women longer time to make progress in their jobs and careers. Furthermore, women’s disproportionate responsibility for unpaid childcare and other domestic responsibilities further diminishes their human capital skills which are required to become upwardly mobile in the workforce. As a result, refugees’ precarious employment is interlaced with public and domestic inequalities which affect men and women in refugee households differently.
Gender inequality in formal labour markets and domestic households has put significant burden on women and produced economic strains on refugees’ dual-earning households, making them vulnerable to economic downfall. For example, since refugee women typically engage in client-facing care work, the frequent closures of client-facing jobs has put refugee women at a greater risk of being furloughed or laid off from their paid employment. Furthermore, due to closures of schools and daycares, refugee women with essential jobs are opting out of work to engage in unpaid childcare at home. Already burdened by expectations for unpaid housework, the risk to women’s paid employment has put women at a double disadvantage in public and domestic realms.
Studies find that although refugee women take on more paid work in their host country than they did in their home countries, women are less likely to stay employed compared to refugee men because, among other reasons, there is a greater expectation on women to provide childcare at home. This is reflected during the current crisis during which refugee women have been faced with either sacrificing their jobs to address the higher need for childcare at home, or feeling guilty for ignoring their domestic caregiving responsibilities. Although U.S.-born women and women from other immigrant groups have also faced similar experiences with gender inequality during the pandemic, refugee women’s challenges are unique in that they are vulnerable to weak social protections and human capital skills, as well as their place in the low-wage sector, which collectively, add to their overall structural disadvantage in the country.
Women’s unemployment and precarity in the formal labour markets could affect their families’ long-term progress in the country. Although research shows that second-generation immigrants tend to have better educational and occupational outcomes than their first-generation immigrant parents, intergenerational mobility can nevertheless be constricted by the first generation’s higher poverty levels, trauma and mental health issues, and linguistic isolation. As a result, COVID-19 could have long-term consequences for children in refugee households. For example, for most refugee children, school provides a space for them to establish connections with their teachers and peers, practice their language skills, and develop social and human capital skills that are vital to their educational success in the country. However, with that space absent under the current pandemic, many children in refugee households may struggle due to the lack of parental guidance on home schooling and other necessary resources important for their educational growth.
Refugee parents typically have lower English language proficiency, while refugee women specifically have been known to have low digital literacy skills. Furthermore, refugee families are more likely to live in neighbourhoods with scant internet access which creates practical barriers to their access to virtual learning tools. The compounding effects of these circumstances make home schooling and virtual learning a perplexing task for refugee parents, leaving children in refugee households with additional challenges to exercise their right to education. Additionally, many refugee children may also lag behind in their schoolwork due to the absence of parents from home, most of whom are serving as essential workers on the frontlines. The rise of domestic violence, child abuse and intimate partner violence during the pandemic could also negatively affect the psychological wellbeing of children, which could further stall their educational progress while quarantined at home.
Recent literature on the gendered dimensions of COVID-19 suggests there has been an egalitarian household division of labour between men and women during COVID-19. While the Council on Contemporary Families’ 2020 report suggests that men are reporting equal or greater participation in unpaid domestic work, such as spending time with their kids on their home schooling routines, this report ignores limitations faced by low-income refugee parents during COVID-19 who, unlike middle-class parents with white-collar jobs, usually do not have opportunities to work from home. Most refugees work as working-class frontline workers for whom it is a struggle to provide childcare during the pandemic, and those that are able to stay at home typically struggle to help their children with schoolwork due to their own limited language skills, digital illiteracy and low levels of education.
Ultimately, the question researchers must now ask is: what long-term consequences will women and children in refugee families encounter in the aftermath of the pandemic? In attempting to answer this question, scholarly conversations should give particular focus to the ways in which the pandemic has exacerbated gender inequality, and whether the pandemic has stifled refugee women’s economic mobility in host countries. Similarly, the consequences of public and domestic inequalities on children’s educational progress and their long-term mobility must be considered. Among refugees in the United States, women and children are the most vulnerable to social exclusion and economic immobility. This pandemic has exacerbated these vulnerabilities which could risk future intergenerational mobility among refugees in the country. Therefore, it is vital that researchers engage in nuanced understanding of how to dismantle inequity for refugees in host societies, and how to employ an intersectional lens to find solutions to creating equal opportunity for refugee women and children in destination countries.
Mehr Mumtaz is a PhD student in Sociology at the Ohio State University, USA. Her research focuses on the sociology of international migration, with a particular emphasis on immigrant and refugee incorporation in the United States and its relationship with racial, gender and class inequalities in the country. Her most recent study on refugees in Texas employed qualitative methods to examine how refugee men and women experience employment in Texas, and how gender inequality shapes their navigation with the local labor markets.
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