The Covid-19 pandemic has brought women’s plight to the forefront. A few studies have already evinced extra work burden and domestic violence during the period of lockdown. The University of Valencia, the French government and DIW from Germany find that women are bearing considerably higher amount of work burden than men, especially due to home schooling of kids ( The Guardian , May 29, 2020).

A study by Institute for Fiscal Studies and the UCL Institute of Education find that in England mothers are 23 per cent more likely than fathers to have temporarily or permanently lost their jobs during the pandemic ( The Guardian , May 27, 2020). Loss of job and more burden of household work may also have affected women during the pandemic in India, and its severity could be much higher given a stronger grip of patriarchy. As there is no hope of getting respite from the Covid pandemic any sooner, its impact on women empowerment may have long run consequence.

In India, women’s position is no better under normal conditions. Women spend 577 per cent more time per day than men for domestic work, according to the data provided by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The government initiatives are not very proactive. The Central government’s gender budget as a share of the total budget has declined from 4.72 per cent in 2019-20 to 4.71 per cent in 2020-21.

Stimulus package

The recent announcements of the stimulus package have no significant gender component apart from ₹10 lakh collateral-free loans for SHGs (self-help groups). Cash transfer of ₹500 per month for three months to women Jan Dhan account-holders does not make much difference. The number of cases of domestic violence has been increasing in India since the national lockdown, as reported by the National Commission for Women (NCW). Under these circumstances, apart from excess work burden and domestic violence, does the pandemic leave any long term pernicious effect on women’s empowerment, especially for those who work in the rural and urban unorganised sectors?

How does it impact a woman who lives in a village in Uttar Pradesh or a woman who ekes out a living from the informal sector in Kutch, Gujarat? The pandemic may have a long-run effect on women due to: spatial distancing, popularly known as social distancing; and a massive reserve migration from the cities. According to government sources, by the end of penultimate week of May 2020, around 2.3 million workers and migrants had already returned to Uttar Pradesh alone.

Women’s role as caregiver has increased in importance during the lockdown and would likely to remain high during the time that follows. As a caregiver, women should remain protected and hence spatial distancing outside home becomes more important for her. This would curtail women’s opportunity to undertake work outside home. Women may not be able to work as labour in enterprises, which are generally congested, as family members would hesitate to accept.

Furthermore, households may hesitate to employ domestic help fearing contamination. One may argue that women may work indoors, say in small-scale units, to compensate the loss of earnings, at least to some extent. Loss of earnings will not only happen to women alone, as men would also get the pinch due to the economic downturn. But working from home will have an additional debilitating effects on women’s agency and empowerment.

Women working outside home are observed to have more ability to make or influence decision regarding financial and non-financial matters of family or even social matters in their locality. This is primarily because when women work outside their home, especially in employer’s enterprises, they engage in bargaining at a vertical level. This automatically increases agency, which is the ability to set a goal and pursue it. It has been observed that women working from home in traditional industries such as Bandhani in Kutch are able to influence decisions considerably less than other women working outside home.

Serious setback

Women’s role and empowerment would receive a serious setback when migrants return to their villages. Women have over a period of time come out of their traditional roles and ventured out of house to take part in farming, especially as decision-makers. In the absence of male members, female members had learned farming practices, such as land leasing and purchase and use of seeds, pesticides and fertilisers. They have also taken decision on informal and formal credit. Above all, women have traditionally worked as labour in agriculture.

However, female members’ participation in agriculture is dependent on opportunity left over by the male. During the main agricultural season men come back home and participate in agriculture. As agriculture is highly dependent on availability of water, men participate in work when sufficient water is available from the most important source — canals. Water may be available in other seasons or from other sources, but in lesser quantity.

Since productivity of land would be low if less water is available, the income would be lesser and hence men would not consider reduced quantity of water as an important resource. Water available during summer season ( ziad ) may not be of much importance to the men folk as the opportunity cost of working in agriculture is high. They would opt for some other work, or may migrate to the cities for employment. With the opportunity to utilise resources left over, women partake in agriculture as farmers and labours. They utilise water that are regarded less important by men. These women eventually develop more agency and abilities to make or influence decisions regarding family matters and agriculture.

The reverse migration due to Covid is likely to take away women’s opportunity to participate as farmer and labour, as male members would now find hitherto unimportant sources as important. Moreover, quite a few women act as household heads in the absence of the male members. They develop agency and take various decisions in the absence of men. Reserve migration is also likely to take away this opportunity from women.

Even as the pandemic will reverse achievements on the poverty front, it is also likely to reverse achievements on women empowerment and turn the clock back by a few decades. Women’s upward mobility would be severely constrained, more than that of men, as long as the 9 pandemic persists. The new norms would add another layer of hindrance for women to participate in work outside home. Women’s access and gainful utilisation of natural resource would also get constrained due to contestation with male returnees. The institution of patriarchy would find another opportunity to legitimise its presence.

The public policy to tackle the Covid pandemic should be gender sensitive rather than gender blind. The stimulus package of the government should be gendered from both the demand and supply side. Some amount of MGNREGA labour work should be reserved for women. They should be paid in cash as many may not have bank accounts. Furthermore, household enterprises of women should be e-linked to larger markets so that women are able to bargain at the vertical level. These initiatives would resist the backward slide of progress made in women’s empowerment, especially in small towns and villages.

The writer is Associate Professor, Institute of Rural Management Anand. Views are personal