According to International Monetary Fund, women’s participation in the workforce could increase India’s GDP manifold. A McKinsey Global Institute study calculated that the economic impact of achieving gender equality in India is estimated to be $700 billion of the added GDP by the year 2025.
Additionally, a report published by International Labour Force Organisation in 2018 says that the percentage of Female Labour Force participation fell from 36.7% in 2005 to a mere 26% in 2018. The report also highlighted that 95% of women work in the unorganised sector or are participate in unpaid work. Approximately 77% of working women in India remain locked out of the labour market.
The impact of the pandemic has been dangerous to the world, but the situation is much worse for women. The pandemic has globally magnified the already-existing inequalities. Women are already facing consequences of the lockdown — being trapped with their abusive partners — and might further threaten their basic rights and freedom.
The crisis cannot be restrained to health only. It has given birth to an economic crisis as well. India is entering its fourth recession since we became independent. Due to COVID-19, almost all sectors have seen a downfall in income and investment.
In India, the rate of participation of the female labour force has been on a decline for more than a decade now — standing at 21% in 2019 according to the World Bank indicators. With less than a quarter of women in the workforce, India ranks 9th from the bottom — the poorest standing in the world with only some Arab countries below it. The problem is further diversified by unequal wages, with women earning only 35% of what a man does.
A study by Oxfam India suggests that the economic loss from women losing their jobs during the pandemic has been about $216 billion, which cuts out 8% of the country’s already-dying GDP and thrusts down women even lower in the economic strata.
There is a range of challenges for women in India, from lack of quality education and formal skill development to facing harassment at workplace. These factors restrict girls from gaining decent employment, and even though there is legislation available, they fail to protect women in workplaces and stop women from going out to work.
A set of underlying social, economic and political barriers play a huge role in limiting employment opportunities for women. Gender segregation is prominent in a majority of Indian families from a young age. Girls are encouraged to pick up domestic chores, while boys are encouraged to study and earn. This segregation not only prevents women from joining the workforce, but also pressurises men into being the sole earning members of their family.
Much of a woman’s work is either in the informal sector, which doesn’t pay much, or in taking unpaid caregiving responsibilities. One major argument presented for this is: who will take care of the family? It’s normalised for women in the Indian society to be family-oriented and take care of the family.
The pandemic has also shaken up the lives of urban couples who were dependent on domestic help for raising their kids. With a countrywide lockdown, the burden to manage a child while working from home is bound to fall on the shoulders of women — as they usually earn less than men due to the existing workforce. The expectation of taking care of the child only lies on them, due to a deeply patriarchal Indian society.
Women, mostly in low paying jobs and without any benefits, thus face an increased chance of losing paid employment. Moreover, due to shutting down of schools, an overwhelming healthcare system, and catering to the needs of the elderly (especially during the pandemic), increased participation of women in unpaid care work has also been observed.
Even for women who are able to secure employment in the formal sector, most have to deal with the glass ceiling, beyond which it is almost impossible for them to rise within an organisation’s hierarchy. This is not due to lack of professionalism or talent, but a cultural barrier that only allows a management to see men as more worthy of CXO positions.
With most of the regular salaried positions within MNCs resorting to digital work, this highlights another problem within India, and that is gender disparity in accessing the internet. Compared to 67% men, only 33% of women have access to the internet in the country. When it comes to urban areas, the gap stands at 62% and 88% respectively.
Occupational segregation is another major barrier that restricts women. Most of the women in India work in industries such as agriculture, textile and domestic services. Women are over-represented in ‘low-value’ and unskilled occupations that depend on social interaction, making it impossible for them to work from home.
Even among women, the worst-hit group is women from the Dalit community, who face the triple burden of class, caste and gender. This places a Dalit woman in the lowest ebb of the hierarchical strata, which treats them as sub-humans. Further, women from this community are employed in unclean and hazardous occupations, so the choice seems to be either unemployment or working for a job that puts them at a higher risk of contracting the virus.
According to the 61st round of NSSO, only 13% of the women from the Dalit community are employed as cooks, as compared to 33% of upper-caste women. Their wages tend to be exploitative, with no benefits or compensation for working extra hours.
Although the pandemic is not gendered, the response of leaders all over the world needs to be. Policymakers need to address the concern of women, not just by announcing a one-time stimulus package that might get lost in the corrupt system even before reaching the recipient, but by addressing the gender gap in employment. Women must be provided with a safety net to protect them against lay-offs, an equal representation in the planning of the post-COVID-19 world, as well as an inclusionary approach that takes into account various socio-cultural factors.
It is highly unlikely to expect much from the government that has already shown apathy to the backbone of Indian economy — its own migrant workers. Indian women have historically been underpaid and overexploited compared to their male counterparts. Without a gendered approach, the pandemic is not only going to push women further into poverty due to accruing debt, but also deprive them of any chance they might have of escaping it.