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The Pandemic Might Not Be Gendered, But The Lockdown Sure Is. Here’s How

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This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

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.

woking women

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.

Challenges For Women In The Informal Sector

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.

Challenges For Women During The Pandemic

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.

workplace harassment

Challenges For Women In The Formal Sector

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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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