Opinion

A gendered view of the Covid-19 crisis

Vedeika Shekhar | Updated on April 22, 2020 Published on April 22, 2020

The pandemic and restrictions will disproportionately affect women in terms of work and standard of living. Gender-sensitive measures designed to help them through this crisis are needed

The outbreak of Covid-19, which began as a major health disruption, has now unprecedentedly expanded its influence into every sphere of human existence. As it grips the entire world, the global economy, which was already in a precarious place in 2019, is at risk of slipping into recession and affecting individuals, communities and countries in different ways.

The impact of Covid-19 in India is not gender neutral; it affects men and women differently. Experience from historic disease outbreaks and economic crises suggest that women are likely to be impacted disproportionately. It is estimated that 136 million non-agricultural jobs are at an immediate risk. This can have serious consequences for 90 per cent of total women workers who are engaged in the informal sector or have temporary jobs in the absence of social protection measures like health insurance, paid sick and maternity leave, pensions and unemployment benefits, etc.

The formal service sectors with higher female labour force representation like food production, hospitality and tourism, etc, are getting equally effected by the pandemic.

Added burden

As India’s workforce and job opportunities are rapidly masculinising, the menace of Covid-19 might make it more difficult for 121.8 million and 28 million female rural and urban workers, respectively, to return to work, thereby lowering the dismal female labour force participation further. Furthermore, for frontline workers, mostly women, it is an occupational hazard. They are at a higher risk of contracting the infection.

In a country where a massive part of unpaid care work falls mostly on women — they spend 297 minutes per day on it as against 31 minutes by men — the lockdown will disproportionately increase their household responsibilities, which may consequently have an adverse effect on their mental health. Migration exodus, lack of income and restricted supplementary nutrition services from the ICDS cumulatively increase the stress of providing family food security on women. Prioritising food and nutrition needs of men in such times will further deteriorate women-specific anaemia.

Further, curtailed outreach services for sexual and maternal health services will spike up maternal mortality rates. Alarmingly, a rise in domestic and intimate partner violence has been observed worldwide. Data from the National Commission for Women reveal that 69 out of 257 complaints during lockdown were domestic-violence related. In the absence of support structures and fewer channels of formal complaints, this data is presumed to be underestimated. As women are either unemployed or secondary earners, possibilities of leaving their abusive relationships during this economic crisis period are fewer.

Boost economic conditions

The government recently announced that to protect women, 20 crore women Jan Dhan account-holders will get an ex-gratia amount of ₹500 per month for three months, the collateral free loan amount to ₹20 lakh for women through 63 lakh self-help groups (SHGs) will be doubled — thus benefitting seven crore households — and 8.3 crore BPL families covered under the Ujjwala scheme will get free cylinders for the months, among other measures. Recognising the critical importance of medical insurance, a cover of ₹50 lakh per person for frontline health workers has also been announced. Health-related facilities provided by anganwadi workers are treated as essential services and thus exempted from the lockdown, within the established protocols of Covid-19.

Though the future for every country looks very dismal currently, this pandemic also presents us with a compelling opportunity to propose gender-sensitive, systemic and structural changes that could protect vulnerable women and build gender-equal systems. First, economic investments, government bailout and support measures should be extended to the informal sector and micro and small businesses that support more women entrepreneurs. Direct monthly cash transfers by governments to all deprived households in the informal economy, for at least three months, is recommended.

This is an opportune time to impart skills to women in alignment with the emerging demands of the market. In response to Covid-19, a cadre of professional care-givers, where women are imparted skills and trained as nurses, on community management of malnourished children, elderly and child care, needs to be created. There is an emerging and urgent demand for large-scale contact tracing to contain Covid-19 and a significant number of women can be recruited and trained to fill the gap. The use of digital platforms along with increasing the upper limit of MUDRA loans (currently ₹10 lakh) conditional on business plans can be increased to encourage women entrepreneurs, who currently constitute a dismal 14 per cent of total entrepreneurs.

The role of SHGs during Covid-19 is praiseworthy. According to the Ministry of Rural Development, more than 132 lakh masks have been manufactured by 14,522 SHGs spread across 24 States, in only a fortnight! Providing fundamental financial assistance and market and digital skills to SHGs is key to boosting rural production and consequently reviving the economy. Further, the existing model of work from home during the lockdown, policies like flexible work timings, short sabbaticals or part-time work options can provide a new model of shared responsibilities within families.

In extension, this is an opportune time to include paternity leave in the labour law and incentivise shared time for childcare amongst couples by offering tax credits. Finally, as property can act as a cushion against the shocks of economic crisis, the government should consider implementing a uniform law, mandating equal right to inheritance/succession for all women.

Social protection

In order to ensure nutritional security, in the absence of home-cooked meals, additional take-home ration in the form of dry ration can be distributed within the established Covid-19 protocols or corresponding money can be transferred through the DBT. Further, identifying high-risk pregnancies and migrant workers and extending services to them should be high priority. In order to ensure maternal nutrition, all installments related to schemes like Janani Suraksha Yojana and Pradhan Mantri Mantru Vandana Yojana should be made in advance. A comprehensive conditional cash transfer scheme with staggered incentives from birth to 18 years is recommended to ensure continuity in their education.

Finally, acknowledging the horrifying surge in domestic violence, the United Nations has declared all services related to ending violence as essential services during the lockdown period. In India, helplines, shelters, legal assistance and help-seeking behaviour of violence victims are very inadequate. Scaling up one-stop crisis centres in every district and shelter homes at the block level to make them more accessible to all violence victims, is advocated. SHGs, frontline workers and the IEC can be utilised to disseminate information and generate awareness against gender-based violence.

Worldwide, governments are struggling to respond to this crisis generated by Covid-19. Government spending on healthcare needs to be increased from a meagre 1 per cent to at least 3 per cent of the GDP, focussing more on preventive healthcare (currently at 7 per cent) that creates more job opportunities for women. This increased spending potential in the hands of women will create a multiplier effect on the GDP and make our health system more resilient to future shocks.

The writer is Young Professional, Women and Child Development Vertical, NITI Aayog. Views are personal

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Published on April 22, 2020
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