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Women’s empowerment, the gangs of Medellin, and child marriage: New essays on the impact of covid-19


It is now well understood that covid-19 is much more than a crisis in global health. Since its emergence in early 2020, the pandemic has plunged many economies into recession, disrupted most activities, and wrought havoc with people’s lives. Many of the most significant effects are not direct consequences of the virus itself, but of the policies that desperate governments have introduced in response, either to limit the spread of the virus or to protect certain parts of the economy or society from it.

How the pandemic affects institutions

The effectiveness of these policies depends upon institutions: not only formal institutions, such as those mechanisms which coordinate the health response, enforce lockdown measures, supply emergency relief, organise social protection, and restart the economy, but also informal institutions such as the networks through which information and is communicated, trust is developed, and communities are mobilised.

Conversely, the pandemic also affects institutions – it may challenge or strengthen social norms, break down or exacerbate existing patterns of inequality, and destabilise or perhaps reinforce the balance of political power. Taking an institutional perspective, therefore, allows us to simultaneously consider the multiple ways in which covid-19 is affecting developing countries, and to look beyond the immediate impacts of the virus to the deeper and more long-term implications. In this collection of essays, EDI researchers explore these themes, applying a range of research methods to better understand the institutional impact of covid-19.

The role of women in India during covid-19

The first of these, Soledad Prillaman’s The Power of Women’s Collective Action looks at women’s empowerment in the specific context of Self-Help groups in India. This work builds upon previous research which revealed how such groups had enabled collective action and greater political participation, allowing women to further political demands, such as improved access to services or better protection against domestic violence.

In the pandemic, some of these groups have been unable to function due to policy restrictions, while others have played an important role in the response, helping to co-ordinate emergency relief, distributing food and medicines, and supplying information. The open and important question considered by Prillaman is whether the previous trends of growing women’s empowerment will be derailed by the former effects or consolidated by the latter.

Opportunities for strong governance in Colombia

In the second essay, Crime in the time of COVID-19: How Colombian gangs responded to the pandemic Blattman et. al. study the gangs of Medellin, Colombia. They are interested in the extent to which these gangs may be performing some of the functions of the state, in providing services, enforcing lockdowns or supplying goods and information – and in so doing, achieving some level of legitimacy. Contrary to anecdotal evidence, they find that, in fact, citizens do not turn to the gangs for these functions, but instead look to the state to play these vital roles. The pandemic, therefore, may be an opportunity for the state to demonstrate its unique capacity in this regard, and so contribute positively to questions of governance and legitimacy.

The pandemic and child marriage in Bangladesh

The third essay, by Amirapu, Asadullah, and Wahhaj - The Threat to Female Adolescent Development from Covid-19 - concerns the tension between traditional institutions, specifically patriarchal, gender norms in the home, and state institutions, through the provision of female education or training and the enactment or strengthening of laws. The premise of the essay is that covid-19 has disturbed the balance between these two forms of institutions, initially through lockdown measures which disrupted schooling and employment, and perhaps also in more long-term ways which are yet to be understood. The essay identifies the phenomenon of child marriage as an indicator of the strength of patriarchal institutions and seeks to determine whether these covid-19 effects are altering the incidence of the phenomenon in any way.

Just the beginning...

Over the next couple of months, we will publish several more essays written by EDI researchers on EDI's own project website. Upcoming essays cover a number of topics including the exposure of Chinese firms to covid-19 shock, vulnerable groups's in India, as well as the results of two rapid research projects into responses to covid-19 which were undertaken during the pandemic.