The Covid-19 pandemic has reconstructed the face of the world. It has drastically altered, rather than redefined, a new reality — a reality that has proved to be devastating for many of us. A more than two-month lockdown across the country with education institutes shut, roads empty, labourers having lost their jobs, migrant influx, cases on a rise, health system stalled, and inflation has left people in distress.
By the end of first week of June 2020, 67 lakh migrants had returned to their native places. This number is poised to increase with time. While millions have already lost their jobs, a report by Global Consultants estimates that India is set to lose around 130 million jobs due to Covid-19.
News headlines have detailed how the lockdown has affected the common man, especially the migrant labour force and small businesses who have the burden of taking care of their families, feeding their children and paying for their education. However, these reports have failed to call attention to the plight of women who remain an invisible face throughout the pandemic, registering a disproportionate effect of the pandemic on men more than women. The understanding of women’s plight cannot be built by taking a gender-neutral lens; instead, it requires for us to look at pandemics through a gendered lens or perspective.
The most significant setback that women have incurred during the Covid-19 pandemic is in terms of employment. Women account for less than 26% of the labour force in India, the lowest amongst most countries. However, with the onset of the lockdown, more women than men have lost their jobs and found themselves in a more vulnerable position. In April 2020, women, along with Dalits, suffered the most significant slumps in employment, where rural women were worst hit.
Around 43% of rural women lost their employment in the first month of the lockdown. Even in the post-lockdown scenario, with the economy attempting to fall back into place and businesses trying to operate with minimal employees, women were the ones who were the first to go out of work due to cultural assumptions about them being less productive than men. Lack of transport facilities and maternity leaves have become a thing that can easily trigger loss of employment among women.
Hence, the gendered nature of employment has become crystal clear during the pandemic. Along with this, the female workforce in the healthcare sector is also at risk. Women account for more than 70% of health care workers and 17% of doctors. Apart from regular doctors and healthcare workers, women handling Covid-19, such as ASHA and Anganwadi workers, receive little or no medical safety equipment. This puts these women and their family members at higher risk.
The number of domestic violence cases has risen since the beginning of the pandemic. Men frustrated with the lockdown, loss of jobs, financial instability and restraint on the sale of alcohol often took their frustration out by inflicting violence on women in the house. There has been a 50% increase in the rate of domestic violence by intimate partners within the last three months. A study has also pointed out the fact that cases of domestic violence were reported in large numbers from districts with stricter lockdowns. Red zone districts witnessed a 131% surge in cases of domestic violence as compared to green zone districts.
Although the lockdown has been lifted, the continually restrained movement has tied women to their homes, leaving them no space to breathe or move away from the house to take some time off. In this context, authorities should ideally be taking cognisance of the situation. Since most of the security forces are occupied in the prevention or relief duties of Covid-19, it may be challenging for women to report cases of harassment.
With the increasing number of daily cases, the health system in India has reached its threshold. There are not enough beds or ambulances to cover all the Covid-19 cases, leaving no space for women to get the needed health facilities, especially for maternity. Women losing their lives in labour or during childbirth is becoming a news headline every other day. According to The Week, in villages, this increasing trend has led to an increase in the number of childbirths at home by the hands of midwives. This is not safe either for women or the child.
According to The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), with the distortion of the supply chain during and post the lockdown, the production of essential sexual and reproductive health material has been hit, leaving women helpless when taking care of their sexual well-being. Therefore, it becomes imperative that women’s safety and well-being is given fair priority. The absence of any such robust and comprehensive plan and policy will perpetuate the pre-Covid situation.
The Covid-19 pandemic has served as a reminder to fortify the public health infrastructure in the context of women’s mental health issues. Even though the Covid-19 fatality rate for men is 2.8 % and women, 1.7%, the mental health of women cannot be overlooked due to various social, cultural and economic factors. Women are witnessing a sharp increase in caregiving responsibilities, with even less freedom, space or economic security.
Around 70% of women work in the informal economy and the job losses due to the coronavirus have led to a loss of their financial independence, leaving them exposed to exploitation and abuse. These women are vulnerable to experiencing varied mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety and trauma. This resonates with a 2016 study, which shows that women with lower income than their male counterparts are twice more likely to be depressed and six times more likely to suffer from anxiety.
In Indian society, women are considered caregivers or food providers at home. As a result of the pandemic, husbands, children and other family members are all at home, adding more responsibility onto the shoulders of women. Women are expected to provide food even in a situation when they limited ration or are out of ration. Women have to be there all the time to keep a check on everyone’s well-being, both physically and mentally, leaving no space for themselves to express their anxiety.
Already, women bear an asymmetrical burden of the care economy thought taking care of children, the elderly and their other household duties, even while participating in the labour market. This burden only increases with the closure of schools. For those who are working from home, the pressure has increased to maintain a balance between work and household responsibilities. All this has led to severe mental pressure on women.
Between men and women, there is not just disparity in terms of pay but a severe disparity in terms of mobile ownership in India. A Harvard Kennedy School study points out that only 38% of women have mobile phones as compared to 71% of men in the country. This gap has resulted in severe isolation and lack of information flow amongst women regarding the pandemic and matters of their interest. Due to restrictions on movement, women are unable to reach out to their relatives and share their burdens or thoughts. Nor can they seek support online for their problems.
The technological gap has also affected the education of women in the country. With education switching to an online learning medium, the lack of technological devices has become a barrier for women to gain through online education. For instance, in a survey in Telangana, it was revealed that 39.6% of families do not own smartphones. Only 48.9% of families own one smartphone, and 7.4% of families have two smartphones for two children. The situation is more or less the same in most parts of the country. In a country where boys receive preferential treatment, it is not difficult to imagine that this technological disparity has affected women more than it has affected men.
The more unfortunate part of the pandemic has been that the women who were working or studying outside their native places had to move back. Since coming back, they have been burdened with the expectation of get married. This trend has gained currency primarily in developing countries, where coronavirus has given rise to poverty and food insecurity. With schools and colleges shut, marriage is being seen as a preferred option.
According to a survey of participants from 32 countries, 69% of respondents said that they believed girls are more likely to be negatively affected by closure of school due to the pandemic than boys. Of the 69%, more than half cited increased household chores during the pandemic as hindering continued education and 40% noted that early marriage and pregnancy as a result of school closures were a worry.
This also coincides with the current lack of jobs, which leads parents to find a suitable partner to secure their lives. All this has led to women losing the autonomy and liberty to make decisions for themselves. Women’s increased financial dependence on their male counterparts has also become a tool to bolster the patriarchal norms of households.
Overall women are not only dealing with the health-related risks of the pandemic, but also an accompanying “shadow pandemic” that needs to be addressed at the policy level. Hence, pandemic relief policies should be made while keeping gender at the centre. These policies should be gender-balanced to provide women with the required aid to mitigate their problems. The initial steps could be of restoring pre-existing health services and social safety net schemes for women and adolescent girls.
Other measures can include greater engagement between the government and private institutions/NGOs to provide support to women in terms of education, domestic violence and mental health. One example would be setting up a recovery fund with government and employer contributions. Such a setup has been effectively utilised in Kerala. The pandemic is likely to last long in India. In such a situation, women can be redirected to attain the skills to work in new industries with ever-increasing demands of personal protective equipment and masks.
As Covid-19 has brought distress and devastation, it becomes imperative that we rethink the highly inequitable formation of society and the precarity with which the vast majority of women workers live and work. The situation becomes more worrying in a country such as India that stands poor in almost all the indicators. Consequently, there is an urgent need for a gender-sensitive pandemic response. This can be achieved by publicising helplines, relaxing lockdown rules for women to leave home and seek support, sensitising the police, prioritising women’s employment, and enhancing their digital access.
The absence of such measures can further deteriorate the situation that was reflected in the 600,000 social health activists who went to strike starting on August 7, 2020. It was a result of harassment, underpayment and lack of protection from the virus. Thus, understanding and responding to the Covid-19 crisis through the lens of gender will have long-term advantages and help us be better prepared to tackle a complex situation like this in the future.