India’s coronavirus crisis-induced lockdown pushed women back decades. Most of their lives now resemble their grandmothers’ again — spending a significant part of their day cooking, cleaning and managing family. And those working from home, if they still have a job, are on a “double double-shift“. Not only did women face a disproportionately greater brunt of the lockdown than men, but they continue to be at the receiving end of the Covid-19 health crisis and the resulting economic slowdown.
To top that, women’s concerns have been almost completely neglected in the survival and recovery measures initiated by the Narendra Modi government. However, this time around, the cost of allowing the gender inequalities to widen will undermine India’s efforts for economic recovery and plans for an ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’.
A crisis on all fronts
During the lockdown in cities, once schools and daycare centres shut down and domestic workers went on leave, caregiving and household responsibilities on women increased exponentially, adding to their already huge unpaid care burden. While men did pitch in and came to appreciate the challenges of balancing unpaid work with paid work, women still bore the majority of the workload. In addition, they faced consequences of reduced access to vital sexual and reproductive healthcare services as well as lived with another “shadow pandemic” of escalating domestic violence.
Things are not expected to get easier for women in the near future, despite the so-called ‘unlocking’. As caregivers, women will have to manage home duties until schools and daycares open – which may even take as long as the development of a Covid-19 vaccine. In addition, elderly care responsibilities on women are also increasing as hospitals and nursing support become inaccessible. More and more women could be compelled to quit work in the coming months. This would especially be true in cases of women with jobs that can’t be done remotely, but even those managing to work-from-home with kids around could be driven to taking breaks in their careers.
These numbers would add to the already detrimental impact of the economic recession, which has been termed as a “She-cession” in some parts of the world. Early estimates, including an IANS-CVoter Economic Battery Wave survey and research by Ashoka University, already show that women’s careers have been the bigger casualty of the economic slowdown in India. Professions dominated by women, such as retail, hospitality, personal care and daycare services, have been the hardest hit and are unlikely to recover soon.
Additionally, businesses owned by women entrepreneurs have been negatively impacted and many of them have ceased operations. Since only 8 per cent of women-owned enterprises are registered in India and only 20 per cent were earning more than Rs 5,000 per month, it is unlikely that many of these would have benefitted from the collateral-free loans under the Modi government’s economic stimulus measures for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs).
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The consequence of the job and business losses on women will be long term, since this would further lead to reduced access to opportunities like networking, re-skilling and mentoring. Also, since organisations will be looking to cut employee costs while expecting higher productivity, biases will increase against working mothers and young women who could potentially need maternity leave and childcare pay-outs in future. Women entrepreneurs and independent professionals would also suffer from similar biases.
Another grave reality is that 83 per cent of nurses fighting on the frontlines in India are women and they could be facing double the risk of infections than their male counterparts. Infections and stress are also rising among ASHA workers, who have proved to be the backbone for tracking, testing and monitoring Covid-19 patients across villages and cities. This trend threatens to critically reduce the number of women nurses, ASHAs and other healthcare workers in the near future.
What can be done now?
The government and the private sector must take note of that fact that this imminent loss of economic freedom and purchasing power of women, who are drivers of 70 per cent of consumer purchase decisions, could have a detrimental impact on businesses trying to recover from lockdown losses. They must also remember the estimated benefits of advancing women, which could potentially generate 150–170 million jobs by 2030 or that increasing women’s workforce participation could add $700 billion to the GDP by 2025.
Therefore, all stakeholders must proactively initiate urgent as well as long–term steps to prevent the economic and social disempowerment of women.
Include women in decision-making process
At the policy level, there is a dire need to enhance women’s representation in task forces and action committees driving the government’s policies. This will help overcome biases from the male dominance in the leadership teams of the PMO, the NDMA, the PM’s Covid-19 task force, the Economic Response Task Force and the policymaking machinery of most states. In addition, women’s voices must be fairly represented in advisory bodies, think tanks and sector-specific industry associations that lobby with the government.
At the micro-level, all organisations must involve women when devising workplace policies for the “new normal”.
Fix childcare gap and caregiving needs of all employees
Given that schools and daycares might not open for many months to come, the government should proactively promote equal sharing of care work by engaging men through public campaigns and mandating that employers provide sick leaves and flexible work arrangements. This may even be the opportune time to introduce policy-mandated paternity or parental leaves. Employers, on their part, must do away with the traditional criteria for “face time” when evaluating employee performance.
Revive economic opportunities for women
The Modi government and state governments must ensure that women receive a fair share of the relief measures rolled out under the ‘Atmanirbhar’ package – whether by implementing gender budgeting or stipulating quotas. Additional long-term relief measures could include incentivising funding support for women entrepreneurs and stipulating tax incentives for organisations that hire more women. This would be in addition to continued commitment towards building diversity and promoting inclusion in all organisations.
Protect and incentivise healthcare workers
Frontline workers must be assured access to safety equipment, testing, treatment and a vaccine when it becomes available. They could also be provided with bonuses and cash rewards for their services.
Collecting and publishing sex-disaggregated data
This data — on differing rates of infection, economic impacts and care burden, and trends in domestic violence — can facilitate effective and evidence-based decision-making.
India’s efforts to rebuild the economy cannot exclude the gendered impact of social distancing measures and economic slowdown. Targeted measures for utilising the skills and experience of women, initiated collectively by the government, industry associations and the private sector, must be a vital part of our vision for a resilient and ‘Atmanirbhar’ Indian economy.
The author is an independent economic policy research consultant and founder of Ellenomics (a platform for advancing women). Views are personal.
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