The signs are worrying, and they all point to an intensifying crisis in gender inequality. For one, the pandemic appears to have set back young women aiming to get into medical school more than the men. Analysis of numbers of those who appeared for the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) from 2017 shows a sharp fall in the attendance rate of girls in 2020 — a first in four years. Only about 85 per cent of the girls who registered for the test wrote it eventually, as compared to 86 per cent of the boys. In 2019, the corresponding figures were 93 per cent and 92 per cent respectively. This could be one index of what teachers and experts have been warning of: As education goes into a tailspin due to the pandemic, the disproportionate burden of consequences will fall on girls and women in higher education, undoing the gains of decades.
The virus might not discriminate in its victims, but the pandemic appears to have strengthened all systemic inequalities. It has been extremely hard on Indian women, especially those at the bottom of India’s caste and class hierarchies. It is not education alone. Evidence is also trickling in of how women are being edged out of the post-lockdown economic scenario. For instance, as migrants returned to villages in the great exodus, the share of women in the work generated under the MGNREGA dipped to an eight-year low during the first five months of this financial year. The labour force participation rate of Indian women has been appalling even in good years. But as analysis of real-time employment data in June by researchers showed, women who had jobs before the virus struck were 23.5 percentage points less likely to retain them than men. In a worsening economic scenario, this leaves them to fight for only the most precarious, ill-paid work — if they have not already opted out of the workplace because of the increased responsibilities of domestic work and childcare during the pandemic. The home, itself, is hardly an idealised safe haven, with several studies flagging women’s increased vulnerability to domestic violence during the lockdowns.
For decades, Indian women have mounted a challenge to the inequality hard-wired into families, societal structures and institutions through education and aspiration. As the pandemic eats into those precious reservoirs of resilience, the implications for their autonomy, health, nutrition and general well-being are bound to be dire. Governments and policymakers must find a way to address and mitigate this silent but snowballing crisis.
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