Women performing additional household work during the lockdown comes as no surprise to all of us – but the idea itself isn’t challenged in society either. Our social conditioning has accustomed us to the idea of women getting the worse end of the deal. However, in the course of the pandemic outbreak, there have been too many incidents that highlighted the gender gaps. While the only other setback we have faced is working from home, COVID-19 has impacted women from low-income groups in unimaginable ways.
To start with, the number of domestic violence cases has doubled during the lockdown, as per National Commission of Women reports. With a higher access to amenities in urban areas, it is safe to say that a majority of reported cases are from cities, where female mobility is higher. The situation in rural India is a whole lot worse. Research has shown presence of extreme patriarchy in agrarian societies. As most farm equipment is designed by and for men, women’s agricultural work does not yield as much produce. In a neoliberal capitalistic society that associates a person’s worth with their productivity, women’s place and value has been reduced to child-bearers. The NSSO (National Sample Survey Office) 2011-12 data pegs India’s female labour force participation rate at 25%, one of the lowest in the world. Women bear the brunt of the current economic crisis as they are far more likely to lose their jobs. Lack of paid leaves and insurance leaves little to no safety net for those living on hand-to-mouth survival. There is also a lack of formal processes for unionization among female-centric occupations, such as domestic workers, vendors, hawkers, farm workers, sanitation workers, garment workers etc. As a result, even though women constitute 80% of the informal economy, they have no leverage to bargain with for guaranteed social security. While low income levels will probably force more women than before to take up jobs, it might also result in payment of lower wages, widening the pay gap. OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), an international organisation that works to build better policies for better lives, reported that most jobs created after a major world crisis is targeted at mainly men, making chances of equal pay for women even slimmer.
Poor women do not have the luxury of working from home with increased chores and exceedingly low penetration of smartphones and digital services in BPL (below poverty line) families. They lack the access to gig economy. With the partial lockdown, men are naturally expected to return to the job market sooner as their pay-scale is invariably higher – women expected to forgo the scope of earning ‘till things return to normal.’ Food shortages also impact women’s overall health and nutrition. Limited rations means prioritising the nourishment of men and boys as better breadwinning prospects for their households. Since care work is unpaid and unmeasured, its importance is not considered at par. The higher onus on women to carry out household chores and childcare or geriatric care activities reinforces itself among the younger demographic as well. Girls are expected to drop out of school to help out older female members in the family. With not as many women in leadership positions or visible in the formal workforce, girls’ education is taken for granted or not paid heed to. Shrinking income levels lead to unfavourable resource allocation going as far as to have gold as an influencing factor. Sonia Bhalotra’s study shows a direct correlation between gold prices and gender bias. Surging gold prices lead to female foeticide due to higher value of dowry, the archaic practice being rampant in rural India to this day.
Coming back to the pandemic, let us have a look at the deplorable state of the frontline health workers. A vast majority of them are female, and this number is overwhelmingly large if one includes first responders such as Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) and Anganwadi Workers. These grassroots-level warriors are not compensated for their work – nor is their pay commensurate with the increase in their ever- burgeoning workload; their monthly salary is no more than INR 1,000. They are also not equipped with PPE kits when conducting daily surveys, jeopardising their own health. The medical workers that do have PPE kits are not so much better off either, especially during menstrual cycles. They have the added burden of not soiling the expensive protective gear (priced at INR 2,000 per person) and do not have the option of taking it off midway to access washrooms so they eat and drink less – this is not ideal among women who already receive poor nutrition and are susceptible to disorders such as anaemia. With supply chains also being impacted, supply of female hygiene products are not prioritised despite high demand due to low purchasing power of women; this is compounded with no primary care provided for reproductive health due to a male-majority leadership at the Panchayat or Corporation level. A World Health Organization working paper from last year with surveys from more than a hundred countries informs of 70% health sector personnel being female, with an astounding pay gap of men earning 28% more than women.
On top of all this, social isolation prevents women from accessing their support systems such as helpful relatives and a friend circle to express solidarity. In many villages and informal settlements, this strength in number among women is important for tasks as simple as going to the common toilet or fetching water together to avoid being violated. In quite a few cases, limited or no supply of gas is making women resort to using coal and wood as cooking fuel again; the smoke emitted from this is hazardous for everyone’s health but even more so for women who directly inhale it while cooking.
Women self-help groups (SHGs) are a huge success in rural India not because of savings, but because it bolsters women’s self-efficacy and political participation levels in a public forum. Andhra Pradesh, the state with the longest history of self-help groups, saw an anti-arrack movement in the early 1990s to oppose mass production and sale of liquor in order to stop instances of domestic abuse. NRLM’s (National Rural Livelihood Mission) growing success over the years illustrated itself in the face of the pandemic, too. Women affiliated with SHGs have been one of the few demographic groups to still hold jobs as they rapidly manufactured masks, run community kitchens, and trained in ANM (Auxiliary Nursing and Midwifery) using funds from their savings groups. The program is an exception in that it emerged a winner among all government schemes – most schemes use women in running household-level social welfare interventions, giving more and more unpaid work to women, like running from pillar to post for administrative paperwork. But NRLM is the one program run by women on their own terms and diversifies into several options of livelihoods. Perhaps gender mainstreaming and involving women in policymaking is indeed the best way forward – in not just combating COVID, but in also helping the world get back on its feet post-COVID.