Since March 2020, India’s unemployment surge has disproportionately befallen women. Women’s labour force participation has fallen to 11%, compared to 71% for men. Only the fortunate could work from home; the rest, who mostly work in the informal sector, could not. And the line that divides which occupations were susceptible to home-based work cut through classes as neatly as it did genders.
To make ends meet, poor women have had to borrow money from extended families and former employers. Moreover, the lack of economic autonomy has pushed wives to depend more on husbands. Women across India have suffered from corroded freedom and domestic violence. Increased unemployment has further depleted women’s bargaining power in the labour market. Progress in mitigating pandemic-induced economic losses thus reinforce a bias towards re-employment of men.
India’s gender gap extends beyond employment. India also faces a digital gender-divide. While 63% of Indian women own a mobile phone, only 21% of them use the internet. Patriarchal norms empower husbands and other male relatives to regulate the usage of mobile. This regulation hampers women’s ability to participate digitally, acquire relevant skills, and capitalize on work opportunities.
Lockdown restrictions have also immobilized women. Even before the pandemic, women could rarely travel outside alone. Now, the pandemic imposes further restrictions that affect leisure, education and employment.
Covid-19 has upended years of progress on women’s unpaid care work, as the burdens on caring have risen by 30%. Whatever efforts men might have made the pandemic’s outset to share labour have been short-lived. Increases in household work also restrict time for women to pursue other economic opportunities. Ruchee Anand, Head of Talent Solutions and Learning Solutions at LinkedIn (India) said that, “the (gender) gap is wider in India than the rest of the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region, with 63% of women and 69% of working mothers in India claiming they have faced discrimination due to their household responsibilities.”
What, then, can the Indian government and other organizations do to support those women who bear the pandemic’s brunt?
The Indian policy response lacks a gender lens and has not taken into account the long-term implications that women face. Recently, António Guterres, the UN Secretary General, requested governments to “put women and girls at the center of their efforts to recover from COVID- 19.” To that end, the Indian government distributed cash transfers of INR 500 to women for 3 months. But cash transfers work are a modest solution. The Indian government ought to reinforce cash transfers with a more expansive and gender-specific scheme that targets women’s needs.
In India, 9.6 crore Indian women work, with spare protections, in the informal economy as domestic servants, ragpickers, street vendors, agricultural workers, and beyond. A robust safety net is necessary, which ought to include supportive schemes such as pensions, paid sick leave, and equal pay regulations.
At every level of government, gender-specific data on Covid-19’s impacts must be collected. This will ensure the development of sound policies that address women’s needs.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.