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For now, the pandemic seems to have sharpened the prevalent gender divide in the workforce. (Photo:  Biplov Bhuyan/Hindustan Times)
For now, the pandemic seems to have sharpened the prevalent gender divide in the workforce. (Photo: Biplov Bhuyan/Hindustan Times)

The price of pandemic is being paid by women

  • Nearly two-thirds of India’s working women lost their jobs in April 2020. Very few had returned by August
  • If a large chunk of a young nation’s population doesn’t participate in economically productive wage-earning work, collective prosperity and growth become that much harder

It has been a long wait for Archana Kushwaha. In late-March, the private school where Kushwaha taught math and science shut down following a stringent lockdown to contain the covid-19 pandemic. Seven months later, the school in Atarra town of Uttar Pradesh remains shut. Online classes are not an option for the rural families who sent their children to the Ambedkar Shikha Niketan in the chronically poor Bundelkhand region. Since April, all five teachers, including 27-year-old Kushwaha, have been out of job.

“I am struggling to run my family now," said Kushwaha, a mother of two, who used to earn 6,000 per month from her job and had to pull her daughter out of school. Her husband, an occasional migrant who used to work in textile units in Gujarat, now labours as a casual farm worker, the only source of income for the family. “Even if the school reopens, families may not send their children to save on expenses," she said.

While the pandemic has resulted in widespread job losses across multiple sectors (including 21 million salaried formal sector jobs as per one estimate), women whose participation in the workforce was already on the slide have been particularly hit. As the economy slowly recovers, whether they return to work in adequate numbers will be one of the key factors that will determine India’s long-term economic health.

If a large chunk of a young nation’s population doesn’t participate in economically productive wage-earning work, collective prosperity and growth becomes that much harder. Women stepping out of homes to work in large numbers is a critical factor behind Bangladesh’s economic miracle.

But in India, according to ongoing research at the centre for sustainable employment at the Azim Premji University (APU), work participation rate for women (WPR)—a measure of the proportion of adults who work—fell from an already low 9.15% in December 2019 to just 5.8% in August this year. In comparison, WPR for men declined from 67% to 47% during this period, indicating a higher relative fall for women workers.

The study also looked at a panel of individuals who were employed in December 2019 and tracked those same people in April and August 2020. In April, 62% of the men who were working in December continued to be employed. For women, only 32% of those who were employed in December still had a job. So, nearly two-third of India’s working women were out of work in April. Very few had returned to work by August.

Gender Gap
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Gender Gap

Work opportunities for men rebounded strongly, but not for women, said Amit Basole, a labour economist at APU. “Women are engaged in precarious work and they often respond (to shocks) by withdrawing from the labour force."

Thus, for now, the pandemic seems to have sharpened the prevalent gender divide in the workforce. The fact that sectors such as education, retail and services like domestic work have been especially hit have made matters worse. With household finances stretched, ground reports already suggest a spike in child marriages and trafficking, coupled with a rise in domestic violence.

The pandemic, in effect, could set India back by eroding gender equity parameters within a family—and as women move back to unpaid household labour, poorer families may neglect the importance of investing in the girl child. Some form of government intervention may be urgently required—a so-called gender stimulus. But will it come?

Women aren’t returning

A range of factors explain the plunge in women’s WPR. For instance, when jobs are in short supply, it often goes to men in the family instead of women. There is already anecdotal evidence of this in textile hubs like Tirupur, Tamil Nadu, where the wife, instead of going back to work, is saddled with additional domestic responsibilities. The garment industry in Tiruppur used to employ around 800,000 workers before the pandemic hit, of which, 45% were women.

“Currently, the workforce is down by half. And among inter-state migrants, it’s mostly men who have returned while entire families used to work in the textile units earlier. This is also because factories are not working at full steam," said Viyakula Mary, executive director of the non-profit SAVE, which works on labour rights and gender empowerment. Mary lists several factors behind why women haven’t joined back—from an uncertain job environment and lack of transport facilities to taking care of children at home since schools are closed.

Over the last decade, despite falling fertility rates and significant improvement in education levels among women, female labour force participation rate fell sharply from 31% in 2011-12 to 23% in 2017-18—largely driven by a drop in rural women withdrawing from the workforce, shows data from the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) of the NSS.

One reason for this is sticky social and gender norms coupled with the higher burden of household work for women, said Hema Swaminathan, associate professor at the centre for public policy at IIM Bangalore. “Due to these norms, women tend to withdraw from the workforce as income levels rise. On the demand side, there aren’t enough jobs available, particularly those which allow women to balance household responsibilities or jobs which are closer home."

And, at times, jobs which are available are hazardous. For instance, 96% of the 4.4 million beedi rollers in India are home-based and women account for about 84% of these workers who receive a paltry wage of 130 a day, according to a recent study by AF Development Care, a Delhi-based research consultancy. A majority of women beedi workers want to move to safer livelihoods but they can’t due to a lack of skills.

Home-based work of beedi rolling is now at 10-15% of pre-pandemic volumes, which has severely impacted women workers and their families, said Abdul Gaffar Ali, secretary of the Karnataka association of beedi workers. “Women who are illiterate prefer to do this work despite low wages since it allows them to stay at home and manage domestic responsibilities. Before the pandemic, we had trained over 200 women (from Bengaluru) as tailors but less than 30 of them could find work in garment units," Ali said.

Marriage penalty

A conversation with Mansi Gupta, 23, an experienced beautician from Noida, Uttar Pradesh, shows the impact of the pandemic on working women that goes beyond job losses and salary cuts. Between March and August, the beauty parlour which employed Gupta was shut. She rejoined in September but was offered 7,000 per month, less than half of what she used to earn before for a ten-hour shift. For someone who started off at a young age of 17, the economic shock is resetting her life. Gupta’s family has persuaded her to get married this December.

“I will take a year off. Then, it depends on my in-laws and husband if they allow me to work," said Gupta. She may have to give up on a career on which she invested six years of her life—nothing short of “marriage penalty"—and join the ranks of millions of women toiling within the house without pay. A recent time use survey by the government showed that women still spend 84% of their working hours in unpaid activities like domestic work, while men spend 80% of working hours on paid work.

Like Gupta, the pandemic pushed Bilasi Biswas out of her job. A domestic help, Biswas’ last job was as an attendant at a hospital in Kolkata, West Bengal. Every day, Biswas took a local train to reach her workplace from Bangaon, a small-town bordering Bangladesh. Despite being employed in an essential service, Biswas was forced to give up on the job as trains stopped plying during the lockdown. Local train services are likely to resume soon but the hospital has put a condition. For now, they will only employ those who can stay overnight and not those who commute daily in crowded public transport to minimize the risk of infection.

“I have three young children and cannot stay the night out of my house," Biswas said. To tide over the money crunch, she took 40,000 in two microfinance loans.

Between 40-50% of domestic helps working in Kolkata have lost their jobs and those who have work are earning a fraction of their usual salary as families are refusing to employ women who work in more than one house (to minimize the risk of infection), said Swapna Tripathi, a member of the Paschim Banga Griha Paricharika Samiti, a state-level workers union.

According to Tripathi, thousands of women who took the local train to reach Kolkata from nearby towns and villages are now in a precarious situation. “They are not enrolled under the rural jobs scheme. Most do not have ration cards (for availing subsidized food). Many of them have fallen sick due to sheer lack of nutrition," Tripathi added.

Apart from impacting workforce participation, the pandemic is also eroding hard earned gains in gender equality.

“On the ground, we are witnessing a spike in cases of early and forced marriages as well as trafficking in impoverished regions like the Sunderbans delta which is battling the twin blows of the pandemic and the Amphan cyclone," said Rishi Kant from the non-profit Shakti Vahini. “Girls as young as 14 are going missing overnight... as trains start plying, these girls will land up in brothels in cities like Mumbai and Delhi."

Nearly 200,000 more girls are at the risk of child marriage in South Asia in 2020, Save the Children said in its latest Global Girlhood report.

“We are deeply concerned about the impacts of covid-19. An increasing number of children falling into poverty as a result of the pandemic will mean more girls... at risk of early or forced marriage," Gabrielle Szabo, senior gender policy adviser at Save the Children, told The Lancet magazine in a recent interview.

The months ahead

Beyond the immediate impact in the next few months, the pandemic might also worsen the inter-generational equity parameters, cautions Swaminathan from IIM Bangalore.

If a family which is caught up in severe economic distress has to choose between sending a boy and a girl to school, it may opt to bet on the boy.

In such a situation, revising the age at marriage for girls may bring some positive changes by delaying childbirth and allowing girls to stay longer at school. The government will soon take a decision on increasing the age at which girls can legally marry (currently at 18 years), Prime Minister Narendra Modi said last month.

But to bring back women into the workforce, the government needs to do more, said Sandeep Chachra, executive director of the non-profit Action Aid India. “Starting from beedi rollers and domestic helps to unpaid farm labourers and sex workers, India needs to recognize and register women workers formally, reduce the gender pay gap and expand the scope of childcare support in the informal sector (by revamping the ICDS scheme)."

“The contribution of women as primary caregivers during a pandemic was absolutely critical to our survival as a society. It’s time we recognize and celebrate it."

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