In a crisis, a policymaker’s attention is focused on those most obviously represented as vulnerable. After all, we have all seen the plight of migrant workers on our TV sets. But very few cameras can get inside abusive homes. Fewer will dare to talk about the stress, misery and indignity of women’s domestic labour with the newly unemployed or work-from-home husbands. Instances of domestic abuse rise in periods of recession. New research has showed that, during the Great Depression, financial uncertainty caused by the economic crash increased the prevalence of controlling behaviour between domestic partners.
And we are about to face the biggest recession ever. By association, we are about to have the biggest domestic abuse crisis too. Much like the virus, we don’t know where it is happening, and there is no way to test. When urgency sets in, social justice makes an exit. If we take this approach yet again, it would be at our own peril. We need a simultaneous and not sequential approach to deal with a public health emergency. We need to view it intersectionally with the inequalities that exist in society.
Historically, women have been left out of the Indian economy. Only 27% women in India work in the formal sector. Covid-19 threatens to make this worse. And it has a cost not just to women, but to the economy at large. In 2012, Mckinsey made an explosive projection. They said that $700 million will be added to India’s economy if the gender gap at work is bridged. We are set to miss the deadline on that opportunity within five years. The least we can do is to make sure covid-19 doesn’t lead India to spiral down the gender equity index. There are a few reasons for why it could happen.
Firstly, when jobs dry up, those who were finding it difficult to get them are at a disadvantage. Women who had taken career breaks on account of pregnancy, caregiving, etc. will face a bigger challenge in re-entering the workforce. The sticky floor phenomenon that keeps women in lower-level jobs and away from leadership roles might also worsen. Experienced and unemployed men will be in the market for cheap. And in already stressed balance sheets, will chief executive officers make room for inclusion? At a household level too, when resources are reduced, women are more likely to be left with inadequate food and nutrition. Women are 35% more likely than men to live in poverty, and therefore are more vulnerable. The economic impact of covid-19 will be higher on women than on men.
Second, frontline heath workers in India’s public health systems are predominently women. Globally 70% of the world’s healthcare staff is made up of women, but only 25% of global leaders are female. In rural parts of the country, the accredited social health activist workers and the anganwadi staff are highly engaged in the community. They are all women. They act as first responders to the community in domains beyond education. Many government welfare schemes are made accessible through this system. So, until we have a vaccine that reaches the grassroots, these women workers remain exposed to risk of infection.
Finally, recent studies have shown a steep increase in instances of domestic abuse and gender-based violence during extended lockdowns. While it isn’t always the case, but women are more commonly the victims of domestic abuse. Various studies have shown that financially empowered women get abused more. Patriarchy weighs more on those who have the power to escape. In lockdowns, there is no escape.
All of us have heard at least one woman in our lives that talks about how their work is a break from insermountable pressures that patriarchy puts on young working females. The same kind of a break is enjoyed by homemakers, too, while everybody else is at work or school. The breaks have disappeared. Even for the charecteristically empowered women, this battle against covid-19 is proving to be tough.
The crisis is helping us ask important questions. At least the top 1% of the privileged have made google spreadsheets to divide the chores equally between partners. The millennial couples are tinkering with the gendered roles of household work. In India, women undertake 10 times more unpaid household carework than men. Our gender equality figures in this context are comparable with Saudi Arabia. But if the funny videos of uncles making rotis are testimony to anything, it is that the middle-aged Indian man has entered the kitchen. And this time, it is not to ask for a glass of water or a cup of chai.
We need to build on these positive micro-changes happening around us. Empowerment won’t suddenly come one day and gender equity won’t be fixed magically. It is our small individual actions and recognizing that patriarchy plays a role in almost everything.
Another welcome change that might prove to be a gamechanger for women at work is normalization of work from home. There was a time when the internet was filled with memes about how work from home means a shirt on top, pyjamas underneath, office bag spread cross the bed and no real work done. Now it is full of complaints about how people are working longer hours and producing better results because they have nowhere else to be.
Many experts are enthusiastic about what that might mean for women. But I will refrain from making tall claims on it helping women. If work from home means taking care of home and work and manage expectations of about 15 people at once, then that will engender a separate mental health crisis for women. Unless we address the earlier problem of household carework sharing, work from home will have limited positive impact on labour force participation.
There have been suggestions on how the government can increase the Employees' Provident Fund contributions for women. Experts suggest that applying a gender lens while designing stimulus packages or schemes will help achieve greater socioeconomic equality and opportunity. But more importantly, India needs a comprehensive plan to make policy processes inclusive. There are no guidelines or inherent principles for policymakers to vet each policy and legislations through a gender lens. The United Nations, for instance, has WEP—Women Empowerment Principles—that guide each of their programmes. Most laws in India are not gender-neutral. Some legislations outright refuse the chance for men to be considered victims. All of this needs to change. That gender can’t be a second thought needs to be hammered throughout the circles of power. But will the men who currently crowd these circles do the harder thing? Only time will tell.
Prajakta Kuwalekar is co-founder of Engendered.