Covid pushed women back decades. India can’t be ‘atmanirbhar’ without bailing them out

USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) Performs

By Shravani Prakash, First Published in the Print

Emerging from history’s biggest lockdown into a “new normal”, life looks starkly different from the midnight of March 24th when we closed our doors to the outside. Women, especially, got pushed onto a rollercoaster ride back in time and their lives now probably resemble that of their grandmothers a few decades back! Not only did they face a disproportionately greater brunt of the lockdown than men, but women continue to be at the receiving end of the Covid-19 health crisis and the resulting economic slowdown. 

And to top that, women’s interests have been almost completely neglected in the survival and recovery measures. However, this time around, the cost of allowing the gender inequalities to widen will undermine India’s efforts for economic recovery. The multiplier effect of continuing with patriarchal anti-COVID-19 measures could end up inflating the already colossal crisis.

During the lockdown, once schools and day cares shut down and domestic helpers were sent on paid-leaves, 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 majority of the workload. In addition, they faced consequences of reduced access to  vital sexual and reproductive healthcare services as well as live with another “ shadow pandemic” of escalating domestic violence.

 And things are not expected get easier for women in the near future, despite the so-called unlocking. As caregivers, women will have to manage home duties for as long as schools and day-cares don’t 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 is becoming inaccessible.

The gravest impact, however, has been the rollback in progress of women’s work and economic advancement.  The longer schools are closed and paid-childcare remains a non-option, more and more women could be compelled to quit work in coming months. This would especially be in cases of women in 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, that’s been termed as a “She-cession in some parts of the world. Early estimates, including an IANS-CVoter Economy survey  and Research by Ashoka University already show that women’s careers have been the bigger casualty of the slowdown in India. Professions dominated by women like retail, hospitality, personal care and day-cares services have been hardest hit and are unlikely to recover soon.

Additionally, many businesses owned by women entrepreneurs have nearly shut down. Since only 8% of women-owned enterprises are registered and only 20% were earning more than Rs5,000/month, it is unlikely that many of these would have benefitted from the collateral free loans under the Government’s Economic Stimulus measures for MSMEs.  

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, making it tougher for them to return to the workforce. 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% 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 is 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  critically deplete the number of women nurses, ASHAs and other healthcare workers in 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% 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, like  accelerating women’s entrepreneurship could potentially generate 150–170 million jobs by 2030 or that increasing women’s workforce participation could add US$700 billion to GDP by 2025.

Therefore, all stakeholders must proactively initiate the urgent as well as long term steps to prevent the economic and social disempowerment of women.

Firstly, to ensure equitable policies and actions, we need to have a fair (not just token) participation of women in the decision-making process. At the policy level, there is a dire need to enhancewomen’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 taskforce, the Economic Response Task Force and in 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” to ensure more equitable and sustainable decisions.

Secondly, fixing the childcare gaps and caregiving needs of all employees will be a vital step for boosting women’s workforce participation. 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 make flexible work arrangements as the new normal for all employees and do away with the traditional criteria for “face time” when evaluating employee performance.   

Thirdly, there is need for relief measures to revive economic opportunities for women. For this, the Government must ensure that women receive a fair share of the relief measures rolled out under the Economic Stimulus package – whether by implementing Gender Budgeting or stipulating quotas. Additional long-term relief measures could include incentivizing funding support for women entrepreneurs and stipulating tax incentives for organizations that hire more women. This would be in addition to continued commitment towards building Diversity and Inclusion in all organizations. 

Next, to protect and incentivize healthcare workers, they 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.  

Lastly, we need a large-scale exercise in collecting and publishing sex-disaggregated data (on differing rates of infection, economic impacts and care burden; trends in domestic violence) to facilitate effective and evidence backed decision-making.   

In conclusion, I reiterate that efforts to rebuild the economy cannot exclude the gendered impact of social distancing measures and of the resulting economic slowdown.  Targeted measures for utilizing the skills and experience of women, initiated collectively by the Government, Industry Associations and the Private Sector, must be a vital part our vision of a resilient and “Aatmnirbhar” Indian economy.