Updated: March 27, 2021 8:10:46 am
The COVID-19 pandemic’s role in amplifying gender inequality has exacerbated one of the toughest challenges to the India story. Women are being pushed out of the workforce at an alarming rate, as several economic surveys and a special series of reports in this newspaper have highlighted. Women’s labour participation rate in India was worryingly low to start with. But the economic blow of the pandemic has fallen disproportionately hard on women, with the female labour participation rate falling from around 11 per cent between mid-2018 and early 2020 to 9 per cent, according to data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE). By November 2020, 49 per cent of total job losses were of women, who were already present in fewer numbers in the workforce. Again, while India was an outlier in the distressingly low levels of female urban workforce participation, the devastation of service sectors and the textile industry, which tend to employ more women, has battered urban women incomes.
For women across several strata, the statistics add up to economic distress, layoffs and more precarious work in the informal sector. They also mean a reversal of journeys from small towns to cities, from familial dependence to financial autonomy. Cultural notions about work appropriate for women and restrictions on their mobility have always played a role in holding women back from economic mobility. Indian society has largely chosen to incentivise male earnings and wealth at the expense of women’s labour and “place” in the house. The prolonged closure of schools and the increased burden of carework on women that the pandemic has entailed imply that women will find it that much harder to return to paid work. In a scenario of widespread economic distress, families are also unlikely to pay for childcare that enables women to step out of the house.
This has grim implications for gender equity in India, especially on women’s health and nutrition, education and autonomy, especially at the bottom of caste and class hierarchies. For decades now, the rising numbers of women in higher education represent a spurt in aspiration. The pandemic threatens to undo the gains. For India to not waste its gender dividend, it needs to enable more women to transition from the home to the workplace. Governments and policymakers must pay urgent attention to this snowballing crisis. In the short term, that could mean greater support for women workers and industries that employ women. In the long term, it would mean catalysing processes of social change that unleash the potential of half the population.
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