Our COVID response is deepening gender inequality in India.

Measures taken to slow the spread of the COVID19 pandemic in India are demanding ever more unpaid work from women, curtailing their opportunity for paid work and putting them at increased risk of violence, says Angelin Jenifer.

In most Indian households, responsibilities like cooking, cleaning and washing have always predominantly burdened women and girls. This unpaid care work heavily constrains their ability to carry out paid work. As a result only 24% of females in India were participating in the Indian labour force before the COVID19 pandemic struck. Employment is one of the strongest predictors of women’s empowerment and India has one of the lowest female employment rates in the world, on a par with Saudi Arabia. The COVID19 pandemic, and the measures taken to tackle it, are making matters worse. 

Physical distancing measures, school closures and overburdened health systems have meant increased demand on women and girls to provide around the clock care for children, the sick and the elderly. The absence of household help has forced them to do all this by themselves. These domestic workers, who are mostly women that migrate from rural areas, are also massively impacted by the pandemic. They are usually hired by middle class urban women; financial pressures and movement constraints mean many have lost their jobs. This informal sector rarely provides legal contracts and there is little regulation or support for these women. 

Lockdown, although now partially lifted in most places, still means limited availability of public transport. The metros, railways and buses women use to reach work have been deprioritised as they aren’t major commuter routes. If this continues for long, it will only magnify the damage to women’s position in families and society. 

Boys get phones and girls get left behind.”

In rural India, it is considered a taboo for young girls to have access to mobile phones. If there is limited economic resource in the family, boys get phones and girls get left behind. The digital gender gap is growing, and as online classes and working from home have become the new norm, the consequences of this unequal access to technology are greater than ever. Especially in rural areas, where internet access and smartphone ownership are least common. Post-pandemic this might exacerbate gender inequalities in education and the job market as well. 

Loss of income causes economic instability and this insecurity is making women more vulnerable in the household. Unemployment for women means being dependent on their husbands, losing social ties and being essentially trapped in the home.  Domestic violence, another major issue prevalent in India, has reached a ten-year high.

As an army of women health workers fight at the forefront of the pandemic, it is the duty of the government to respond to their needs.”

Women’s employment and remedial services to combat domestic violence must become a priority in the recovery efforts. The social and economic crisis of COVID-19 must be understood through the lens of gender. Initiatives to enhance digital access and skills should be scaled up and targeted specifically to low-income women. The policy response to this crisis must be structured around rebuilding economies and societies in ways that empower women to lead safe, productive and fulfilling lives. Right now, our response is making matters worse.

Feature image: Photo by Pau Casals on Unsplash

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Angelin Jenifer

Angelin Jenifer

Angelin Jenifer, a Public Policy student working as a Youth Accountability Advocate with Restless Development, New Delhi. Her focus area is Gender Based Violence, she works in raising awareness in a slum community.

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Our COVID response is deepening gender inequality in India.

by Angelin Jenifer Reading time: 2 min
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