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Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Why rural women are bearing the weight of India’s second Covid wave

Governments must lead the way in charting a path of sustainable, gender-inclusive economic recovery, start by focusing on unemployed rural women


Updated: June 2, 2021 6:21:49 pm
the burden of unpaid care work under the second wave increased significantly for rural women. (Express photo: Praveen Khanna)

Written by Mitali Nikore, Shruti Jha and Priyal Mundhra

India, which has one of the lowest female labour force participation rates in the world, has always had more rural women at work than urban. Pre-Covid, about 25 per cent of rural women were in the workforce, versus 18 per cent of urban women. And it’s these rural women who’ve borne the burden of the lockdowns and Covid-19 most heavily — losing jobs, incomes, forced into precarious working conditions, all while ferrying water and firewood, cooking, and tending to unwell family members.

In the first month of the national lockdown, between March to April 2020, 15.4 million women lost their jobs, of which 12 million were rural women. Despite this steep initial fall, rural women’s employment rebounded back to pre-Covid levels by July 2020.

Over the past year, urban women were pushed into rural work. Between March 2020 to March 2021, the number of women employed in rural areas increased by 9.6 per cent, while those employed in urban areas fell by 19.6 per cent. This shift was much lower amongst men, with male rural employment increasing by 0.8 per cent, and urban employment falling by 0.3 per cent.

As the second wave hit rural India with an unexpected ferocity, it washed away 5.7 million rural women’s jobs in April 2021. Rural women formed nearly 80 per cent of job losses in April 2021 compared to just 11 per cent in April 2020. Some early signs of recovery were seen in May 2021, as nearly 2.8 million rural women returned to employment (11 per cent of rural female workforce), even though 8.6 million rural men lost jobs (3.5 per cent of rural male workforce).

So, why have rural women become such a big casualty of the second wave? A dipstick survey and consultations with over 50 women’s community organisations conducted by Nikore Associates between August 2020-April 2021 reveals five major reasons.

First, the burden of unpaid care work under the second wave increased significantly for rural women. Women in rural India spend five hours per day on unpaid care work, as opposed to an hour spent by men. The paucity of health infrastructure combined with the intensity of the second wave implied that women had to withdraw from paid work to take care of ailing family members. Consultations with self help group (SHG) mobilisers across several states revealed that women earlier working in SHGs, nearby factories, and shops have withdrawn from work owing to household responsibilities.

Second, rural women find their mobility more constrained than ever before, making access to markets and workplaces difficult. Even before the pandemic, venturing outside villages, especially after dark, was an odious task for women. With lockdowns prevailing in almost every state, consultations revealed that rural women were unable to travel from rural areas to small towns for informal work as street vendors, domestic workers, and daily wage labourers. Women farmers saw their agricultural produce go to waste as they were unable to sell at mandis and nearby markets. Fisherwomen in the coastal areas were also unable to carry on fishing and undertake subsequent sales of their catch.

Third, the availability of MGNREGA jobs, which served as a lifeline for rural women, declined following the first wave of Covid-19. In 2020-21, rural women formed 51 per cent of all persons employed under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme, with the budget for the scheme receiving an allocation of Rs 1.1 lakh crore thanks to increased funding under the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan. In 2021-22, the scheme received Rs 73,000 crore under the budget, 34.5 per cent lower than last year (Union Budget, 2021-22). Despite demand increasing by 3 per cent, job availability fell by almost 21 per cent between April to May 2021. Moreover, several stakeholders shared that in periods of job scarcity, women usually forfeit their own employment to make space for their male relatives.

Fourth, industries with women-intensive employment, which were already on a slower recovery path, saw demand collapse under the second wave. Work from home in sectors such as textiles and handicrafts on piece-rate pay systems is commonplace for rural women. As lockdown restrictions eased and incidence of Covid-19 reduced, supply chains began pivoting back with traders and aggregators ramping up inventories. Community-based organisations purchasing from rural women shared that they were planning to revive physical exhibitions in April/May 2021, and had restarted production of kurtis, shirts, bags, etc., moving away from mostly producing face masks. Such events had to be cancelled owing to the second wave, leading to job and income losses for rural women.

Fifth, rural women are being displaced by returning male migrant workers in agriculture. While the first wave triggered reverse migration where nearly 30 million migrants returned home to rural areas, male returnees were hopeful of their unemployment being temporary and families banked on savings. However, the second wave has brought with it increased health expenses, the reality of depleted savings, and the looming, credible threat of prolonged unemployment. Consultations revealed several instances of returning male migrants taking higher paying jobs in the agriculture and farm sector, leaving women to pick up the most low-paying, labour intensive work.

As we slowly but surely see the second wave receding, governments must lead the way in charting a path of sustainable, gender-inclusive economic recovery, starting by focusing on unemployed rural women. Public expenditure and investment should focus on schemes and sectors which have high job-creation potential for women including MGNREGA and the care economy, comprising childcare, elderly care, and other care services. Personal protective equipment (PPE) could be preferentially procured from women-led SHGs for distribution in rural healthcare facilities, reducing logistical costs and spurring local economic development. India’s 2.5 million frontline healthcare workers ASHAs, AWWs and ANMs, most of whom are women, must be recognised as workers, provided appropriate PPE and paid adequate monthly wages in recognition of their service to the country. Landless women farmers and agricultural wage workers are most vulnerable and should be targeted under cash-based social protection schemes. Most importantly, schemes such as the PMGDisha, need to have a special focus on improving digital literacy for rural women, so that they are not left out of the growing digital economy.

The writers are with youth-led economics research and policy think tank, Nikore Associates. Research assistance provided by Krsna Singh and Arushi Sharma

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