Written by Kanika Jha Kingra and Surbhi Singh
Women and girls across the world have been disproportionately affected in the year of the pandemic, not in terms of the impact of the virus, but more so socially and economically. While India was rapidly responding to the health crisis, millions of Indians were grappling with the unintended impacts of the lockdown measures on the economy and their livelihoods. Even before the onset of COVID-19, India’s female workforce was largely invisible, underpaid, under-protected and constituted the largest segment of the informal workforce, which is among the worst-hit this year. But several opportunities exist in 2021 to ensure that India’s women are not left behind in its recovery plans.
In a report authored by IWWAGE and TQH, data on women’s workforce and livelihoods showed some worrying and promising trends in 2020. India’s Female Labour Force Participation Rate (FLFPR) has been consistently declining over the past few decades, despite economic growth, decline in fertility rates, and rise in education levels. Further, in a country where approximately 50 per cent of the population is below the age of 25, there has been a consistent promise to leverage the demographic dividend. The numbers belie this promise – a majority of the female labour force now falls in the 40-44 age group, with the highest proportion of “unemployed, willing to work” job seekers in the 20-24 age group.
Women continue to work largely in the informal sector (94 per cent of women work in the informal sector) and most have no written job contract or defined benefits. They form a large part of the labour force in industries like fashion, the beauty industry, housekeeping and events, which have been severely dented due to social distancing regulations. This has put them at greater risk during the pandemic – mounting job losses, reduction in wages and financial insecurity — with many availing loans from informal sources. In an IWWAGE study, with nearly 1,500 informal women workers in West Bengal and Jharkhand, almost half the women reported a loss of income due to the nation-wide lockdown. According to data released by the EPFO, even in the formal workforce, women’s share in payroll additions decreased in the immediate months of June to August, post lockdown. Unemployment levels for women grew to 17.1 per cent as opposed to 10.9 per cent for men.
A survey led by LEAD at Krea University in four states covering over 2,000 women-led non-farm enterprises that were either micro or small in nature, showed that on average, businesses had reported a 72.5 per cent drop in revenues between pre-COVID-19 and June 2020, with many enterprises reporting a median revenue of zero in April. However, a resurvey of these enterprises suggests that several are showing promises of recovery since. Another study led by LEAD, in partnership with the Global Alliance for Mass Entrepreneurship on the impact of COVID-19 on 1,800 micro-enterprises, showed that 79 per cent of the female entrepreneurs reported low sales and reduced customer footfall. Nevertheless, there is still a glimmer of hope, with 19 per cent respondents reporting a scaling up of their businesses during this period.
Women’s collectives and SHGs proved to be a bulwark in the fight against COVID-19, producing a staggering number of face masks, PPE kits and sanitisers, and running community kitchens to feed food-insecure households during the lockdown. A study, led by IWWAGE and Project Concern International in Odisha, noted that 81 per cent of the 423 women surveyed would reach out to SHGs for any type of support and saw them as important avenues for social solidarity.
The Ministry of Statistics, Planning and Implementation also released the Time Use Survey this year. Findings indicate that 92 per cent of the women aged 15-59 years participate in unpaid domestic activities and spend nine times more time on household duties as compared to men. A disproportionate amount of unpaid care work is cited as one of the main reasons for low female labour force participation globally where a two-hour increase in women’s unpaid care work is correlated with a ten-percentage-point decrease in women’s labour force participation. However, there are other barriers too constraining their ability to participate in the economy. Women face an uphill battle when it comes to financial security, property rights or even access to rights and entitlements in the absence of formal identification. Over 176 million poor women lack a Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) bank account and 70 million lack a ration card. Access to information around rights and government programmes is also curtailed, compounded by the lack of access to smartphones and the internet. There is a 50 per cent gender divide between male and female internet users in India.
In the wake of the pandemic, the government was quick to respond to several issues. Cash transfers and relief packages under PMJDY and Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Rozgar Abhiyaan were announced within days of the lockdown. The SVANIDHI scheme that offers support to street vendors (approximately 30 per cent of whom are women) has disbursed Rs 1,080 crore, with 39 per cent of the disbursed amount going to women. ASHA workers, who have been at the forefront of the pandemic response in communities, were brought under the ambit of the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Package Insurance Scheme for Health Workers Fighting COVID-19 and were given Rs 1,000 every month as incentives for the additional responsibilities they took up. However, several other measures need to be undertaken to address the needs of millions in need of job and income support.
The need of the hour is a slew of initiatives to strengthen platforms that already provide opportunities to women, to significantly expand the opportunities available and to provide infrastructure that alleviates the burden of unpaid household and care work. This will be instrumental in ensuring that India’s economic recovery is gender-responsive. Strengthening Self-Help groups (SHGs) and women’s collectives through institutional and financial support; increasing skilling opportunities and preparing women for non-traditional jobs; investing in infrastructure and childcare services to reduce unpaid work; increasing access to banking, internet, education and employment opportunities; and using the new-found acceptance of flexible and remote work to increase the number of women in the labour force, can help plough back the gains made on economic empowerment in the last few decades.
(Kanika Jha Kingra is the Senior Policy and Advocacy Manager at the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE), an initiative of LEAD at Krea University; and Surbhi Singh is a consultant at The Quantum Hub (TQH), a policy research and communications firm)