By Dr Simi Mehta and Ritika Gupta, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI)
As India has crossed 3.4 million coronavirus cases, these extraordinary times have created conspicuous situations both at personal and professional places for women. For example, there has been a rise in the cases of domestic violence and intimate partner violence within households. Also, there has been an increase in the layoffs and loss of jobs for women in professional places. Women are finding their homes as spheres of anxiety and fear.
Even before the pandemic, research had shown that progress towards gender equality had been slow across the world, there were large gender gaps in women’s employment caused by childcare burdens, inadequate employment, public and private spending on services like education, etc. Globally, COVID-19 has adversely affected the livelihoods of both men and women but it has been harder on women as compared to men. With this background, a lecture on Gender Implications of COVID 19 organised by Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI) on 20th August 2020 and it aimed to understand the national and regional effects of COVID 19 on women.
Professor Vibhuti Patel Former Professor, Advanced Center for Women’s Studies, School of Development Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai stated that in the past as well, gender implications of pandemics and epidemics had been hardly discussed. She mentioned that the term ‘social distancing’ was itself a highly controversial term because it has a painful legacy of the caste system in India. Women workers have been disproportionately affected by job loss, reduced working hours, and bankruptcy. She also said that if we see the data from 2000 to 2019 from 30.4% to 23.4%, we will find a continuous decline of workforce participation of women in the Indian economy.
Professor Patel also explained the gendered differences in the experience of COVID-19. Women who were employed had to juggle work from home and household responsibilities. As care work was stereotyped as a woman’s domain around the world, they tend to spend two to ten times more time on unpaid care work than men. In India, 94% of women are employed in the unorganized sector, involved in work which lacks the dignity of labour, social security, decent and timely wages, and in some cases, even the right to be called a worker.
She also mentioned that as reverse migration is happening, not all migrant workers left for their hometowns. As there was a lack of public health services they were doing community services like running community kitchens, looking after the sick and elderly as this was more economic in the times of lockdown. There was an increase in volunteerism to help the needy, especially from the students. They networked with the supply chains so the essentials could reach the households.
According to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, only 24.05 % of pregnant women and 17.47 % of newborns were registered between 1st April and 10th June. We do not even know if the rest even survived or they gave birth at home or whether the newborns received vaccinations and adequate medical care.
She also said that there has been a 24% increase in the export of agrarian goods but women are still not given equal wages. They are not even registered as workers or farmers. Women eat at last or eat the leftovers due to which they receive less nutrition. Reproductive health was completely neglected. During the lockdown, most of the private nursing homes closed down due to which highly inadequate public services have been treating COVID-19 patients.
As a result, women’s access to reproductive and maternal health care has been severely hampered. Due to the lockdown, there has been a switch to online classes. More girls dropped out of schools and colleges and there was an increase in forced and underage marriages. NSSO has already revealed stark gender gaps in computing ability. Violence against women escalated due to social isolation.
She also mentioned that there has been gender bias in government relief programs like Atmanirbhar Bharat and PM Garib Kalyan Yojna. Women have been completely neglected in these programs. She also pointed out some of the major concerns of the women’s rights organizations like ensuring delivery of reproductive health services, sanitary kits, menstrual health supplies, and mental health care, need to fight increased child marriages and gender-based violence, services of women’s helpline should be fully functional and be classified as essential services.
She also pointed out that to combat gender inequality we need to encourage equitable sharing of the domestic task through allowances for time off and compensation for all workers, implementation of legislation and policies for equal access to information, public health education, and resources in multiple languages. The migrant workers should be assisted with cash transfers as the informal economy is heavily dependent on them without whom sectors like manufacturing, construction, etc. would come to a standstill. Professor Patel also questioned why the Fortune 500 companies have not shown the same level of enthusiasm as for marathons when it comes to helping migrants or raising gender issues.
Professor Samapti Guha, Professor, and Chairperson, Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, TISS, Mumbai highlighted that 9.09 % micro-enterprises are lead by women in India, these enterprises are usually survival-type and not opportunity-driven in their working. This means they lack financial resources and even social capital because of societal pressure as they are usually based out of their homes. Most of them are not even registered so they do not have any credit history. She suggested that there should be skill training for women, not only for job employment but for self-employment as well.
Ms Urvashi Prasad, Public Policy Specialist, Office of Vice Chairman, NITI Aayog pointed out that there is a need for a dedicated unit in the government which collects metrics concerned with women. She said that gender is multi-faceted: it is about health, education, labor force participation, and attitude towards women. She also said that apart from rolling our legislations and policies for women, we also need to focus on its implementations where we presently lack. There is a need to work on capacity building and knowledge management. She also pointed out that there is a need for a change in attitude towards women via campaigns.
Dr Indu Prakash Singh, Facilitator, CityMakers Mission International pointed out that there was a lack of action from the union government towards the migrant crisis and in their way of managing the pandemic. He also stated that states which were open to civil society interventions faired well as compared to others.
Ms Maitreyee Hanique, Senior Fellow, IMPRI, New Delhi also highlighted the lack of data, as no attempts have been made by the government to provide gender-wise data of those who have been affected by COVID-19. She also said that during a recession women are the first to lose their jobs and also get less pay. The government even went ahead to dilute labour laws in the pandemic. The government has announced a host of initiatives which are detrimental to women’s concern and spirit of democratic government as a whole.
She also highlighted that Kudumbashree Programme in Kerala has been able to manage the COVID-19 crisis better because women, in general, connect better with the community. She also pointed out there is a need for more women-focused legislation like MGNREGA, which does not differentiate in the wages between men and women.
Professor Govind Kelkar, Chairperson, Gender Impact Studies Center (GISC), IMPRI, New Delhi and Executive Director, GenDev Centre for Research and Innovation, Gurgaon, who also chaired this event, summarised that there is a need for policies and programs to reduce the amount of unpaid care work. Only talking about the change will not help, we need to bring it in our practice so we need more studies and research on how to reduce this unpaid care work.
She also said that employers or state-funded provisions should provide childcare and tax policies that encourage both personal and professional spheres of work of women. She also talked about women’s access to basic infrastructure. Women need to be trained in the technological front as India is moving towards the digital age. There should be interventions to address gender norms that would create awareness about women’s role in society.