As per reports, women have borne the disproportionate burden of loss of jobs, challenge to healthcare services and delivery, weakened social security systems, increased gender abuse and violence.
The recently released report by the UN Women shows that Covid-19 will push 96 million people into extreme poverty by 2021, 47 million of whom are women and girls. Four out of every 10 working women in India have lost their jobs post the lockdown. Women are over represented in many of the industries hardest hit by Covid-19, such as hospitality and entertainment.
For domestic workers, 80 percent of whom are women, the situation has been grim; who were neither paid during the lockdown nor absorbed back when things started getting back to normal. Even before the pandemic, paid domestic work, like many other informal sector jobs, lacked basic worker protections and social security safeguards. It is a genuine concern that women are likely to experience long-term setbacks in work force participation and income even as we open up our economies and get back to the new normal.
Those working women who did not suffer job losses were primarily the frontline warriors and the essential service providers such as healthcare workers, sanitation staff and grocery workers. These women continued working to compensate the loss of incomes in their families; often with inadequate access to appropriate personal protective equipment and overstretched work schedules, putting their health and the health of families at risk.
As lockdown forced people to stay at home, closure of schools and more number of people being at home exploded the unpaid domestic work of taking care of children and the elderly; the disproportionate burden of which came on the women. Reports suggest that lockdown led to increased levels of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.
Globally, an estimated 243 million women and girls aged 15-49 have been subjected to sexual and/or physical violence by an intimate partner in the last year. Cyber-violence, like sexualized trolling and online stalking and abuse have intensified too.
School closures and loss of livelihood have forced many young girls to get absorbed in agriculture, daily wage activities to support their families or resulted in early marriages and pregnancies. Estimates show that an additional 11 million girls may leave school by the end of the Covid crisis; evidence from previous crises suggests that many will not return.
It has been seen from the experience of previous health crisis that resources are often diverted from routine health services to mitigate the impact of the current health problem. This further reduces the already limited access of many girls and young women to sexual and reproductive health services, as well as maternal, newborn and child health services.
Every crisis comes with an opportunity; to look back, introspect and strategize and plan better for the future to prevent and be prepared for a more nuanced response for any future catastrophe. This moment provides an important opening to rethink and formulate policies with a gender sensitive lens addressing the already the already existing inequalities and gender gaps.
The absence of gender specific data renders many gender inequalities invisible. In the context of Covid-19, accurate sex-disaggregated data on incidence, testing, hospitalization and deaths is crucial to holistically understand the impact of Covid on women including maternal and child health care. It is equally important to collect sex-disaggregated data on job losses and unemployment. These important data points can help predict the pandemic’s full impact in communities on the basis of sex, age, location, economic status, disability and migrant status.
What we need now policies which are intentionally women targeted, support women-led businesses, provide them access to financial resources and enhance their income security. There is an urgent need to introduce women specific economic support packages, including direct benefit transfers (DBT) on the lines of Prime Minister Garib Kalyan Yojana, expanded unemployment benefits, grants and subsidized loans to women owned small businesses, access to affordable and quality childcare services. Increased allocation to MNREGA and expanding the limit of collateral-free lending to Women’s Self-Help Groups (SHGs) are steps in the right direction. Now is the time to acknowledge this unpaid domestic care work and redistribute this burden amongst the family members.
Any response needs to reflect that women have fundamental roles in both the workplace and in families, and the aim should be to support women in those roles by improving working conditions, flexible working hours and leave options and better aligning the childcare services and school systems to the needs of working women.
We need to ensure that girls do not drop out of schools due to extended school closures and protect them from early marriage. Parents need to be counseled and the school teachers have a vital role in ensuring that girls get back to classes when the schools reopen.
With the increased cases of violence against women due to extended isolation and home confinement, there is an impending need for a safe access to support services and emergency measures, including legal assistance and judicial remedies along with medical and psychosocial support. National Commission for Women has launched an emergency WhatsApp number in addition to online complaint links and emails to provide immediate help to the victims. We need to strengthen the women’s rights organizations working on the front lines and involve them in assessing and monitoring the risk and prevalence of violence in women and then developing programs to mitigate the same.
Without gender-responsive policies, the crisis risks derailing hard-won gains over the decades. We need an inclusive and transformative approach which is crucial for building a more equal, inclusive and resilient society where we place women at the centre of preparedness, response and recovery of the pandemic.
Dr. Megha is Deputy Commissioner of Income Tax, Government of India. Dr. Ruma is lead healthcare, World Economic Forum and Founder, Samarpann. Views are personal.