The outbreak of the novel coronavirus is not just a health emergency for India. Back in March 2020, when one of the strictest lockdowns in the world was imposed in India, more than 120 million workers lost their jobs overnight. Majority of these workers were from the informal sector and half of them were women. With restrictions eased and economic activities struggling to achieve normalcy, by November 2020, men who had lost their jobs had regained most of it and left behind were women – with no jobs, and no social security net.
In India, the virus has unsympathetically burrowed deep and has adversely affected the social and economic composition of the country. A composition that is already marred by gender inequalities, gender roles and stereotypes.
The pandemic has disproportionately affected women, especially those who are part of the labour workforce. According to an analysis, COVID-19 and gender equality: Countering the regressive effects, conducted by McKinsey Global Institute in the year 2020, women are more vulnerable and susceptible to COVID-19-related economic effects because of the already existing gender inequalities. Using the unemployment data, trends and surveys in the United States and India, the study estimates that female job loss rates owing to COVID-19 are about 1.8 times higher than the male job loss rates globally, at 5.7% versus 3.1%, respectively. According to the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy, the already low labour participation rate for women has shrunk even further after the pandemic to 11% compared to 71% for men.
In India, where inequalities against women are intuitively practised, the disparity has only worsened due to the lockdown imposed by the government to contain the COVID-19 outbreak. The pandemic has had catastrophic effects on microenterprises; according to India’s sixth economic census, published by the MInistry of Statistics and Programme Implementation in the year 2016, 13.8 % of microenterprises in India are owned by women. Most of these businesses are self-financed and are operational in sectors like beauty, education, tourism, food, retail etc and these sectors have been pillaged by the pandemic induced lockdowns.
Women in India do not have the same access to healthcare, education and jobs in comparison to their male counterparts. India ranks 112th out of the 153 countries mapped in the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Index, that uses the pre-pandemic data. For a country that has women as 48% of its population, they contribute only 18% to the country’s economic output. The figures are upsetting and distressing.
The job loss has impacted women grievously, upending their lives with ramifications that are irreversible. The pandemic has increased their unpaid work and has put extra burden on women through increased domestic responsibilities, household chores and child care demands. If continued, women will be squeezed out of the productive economy soon. Without the participation of women in active economics, India’s dream to become a coveted $5 trillion economy by 2025, becomes a daymare.
The threat is real and the thematic debate on gender equality cannot continue anymore just on papers, it has to convert into actions that set into motion a holistic, comprehensive and inclusive recovery path for India. Although the massive fiscal stimulus package by the central government aims to provide support to the vulnerable groups, it is not enough. There needs to be an introduction of gender-neutral formalisation at a greater scale. Till the time gender lens is missing from policymaking and developmental initiatives and till social orthodox, norms and stereotypes continue to marr and hinder women’s participation in economic activities, all that is done and achieved will become moot.
To say that only time will tell, if India rises to the challenge up ahead, will be imbecile because the time to rise is now. The future is gender inclusive and social norms are liable to change. We need to decide whether we choose to build a better resilient and equal society or leave half of the population to teeter on the edges. The choice is ours and we need to be wise about it.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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