We Cannot Have a Lockdown Exit Strategy Which Ignores Women

Policies have barely recognised that women disproportionately bear the brunt of the lockdown situation. This cannot continue as we come out of it.

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic precipitated a crisis in the country, there has been limited examination of its gender-differentiated impact.

To some extent governments have recognised and tried to address the heightened risk of gender-based violence during lockdown.

Beyond this, policies have barely recognised that women disproportionately bear the brunt of the lockdown situation, with reduced economic opportunities and increased burden of unpaid work.

As we move into the exit strategies and post-lockdown policies, we have an opportunity to reshape existing gender disparities.

While women constitute over 85% of all health workers in India (PLFS, 2017-18), they also crowd the low level services within the sector that exposes them to maximum risk with stretched supplies of PPE.

They are the ones working prolonged shifts to substitute for those colleagues falling sick; and many are spending days in a row in cramped and unhygienic temporary quarantine facilities. The ASHA workers, despite facing public anger in many places, are working at the frontlines of community surveillance, devoid of PPEs, masks and other protective gears.

Needless to say, the direct fight against COVID19 in India is largely being driven by women at the frontlines. 

Also read: ASHA Workers Are Indispensable. So Why Are They the Least of Our Concerns?

The extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic have also created indirect impact on women by further burdening them with invisible yet challenging roles within the household. In India, evidence shows that women already perform ten times more unpaid work than men.

Given that rigid gender norms do not change overnight, women’s burden of domestic responsibilities has been aggravated with household members locked indoors, but reluctant to negotiate sharing of chores.

Closing down schools and Anganwadi or day-care centres as well as collapse of normal healthcare services have substantially increased women’s roles in looking after children, the sick or quarantined, elderly and disabled.

The responsibility of subsistence adds to their burdens especially with no school meals, desperately scarce food stocks, yet more mouths to feed. 

Also read: India’s Lockdown Is Blind to the Woes of Its Women

For women in paid work, public messaging emphasises ‘work from home’ which may be possible for 4-5% of all women workers in urban white-collar jobs.

However, 94% of them are women farmers, vendors and petty retailers, micro-entrepreneurs, domestic workers, and construction workers; predominantly in the informal sector without identity cards, formal contracts or social protection: they are experiencing catastrophic loss of incomes. The lockdown will probably further deteriorate the already plummeting female workforce participation rate.

This calls for exit strategies that would focus on including women at the centre of the policies.

Some of the immediate interventions of the government would be to recognise women’s contributions in fighting COVID and extend special provisions to ensure women health workers are not excluded from government support.

Women walk past closed shops during nationwide lockdown to curb the COVID-19 pandemic, in Kolkata on May 8. Photo: PTI

The direct intervention in retaining women in the economy would be to increase the number of person-days in NREGA to at least 200 days per year to provide women informal workers with remunerative opportunities, recognising women as farmers for including them in the schemes like the PM-KISAN Yojana, providing one-year moratorium to the 37 million women MUDRA borrowers to boost small businesses of women and providing tax breaks and subsidies to sectors that employ more women such as garment factories, service delivery start-ups and so on.

Beyond this, women would be immensely supported by the re-institution and normalisation of regular public services in health, education, childcare and other basic amenities, creating support mechanisms for food security like universal PDS for the next six months at least, additional cash transfers for those losing their livelihoods due to the extended lockdown, and provision of respectable amounts to the 20 million women pensioners instead of the meagre Rs 333 under the COVID-19 relief package or the Gareeb Kalyan Yojana.

The Centre has also promised a Rs 500 cash transfer per woman for the next three months starting in April; however this needs immediate activation of all JDY accounts, more than 50% of which are still inactive (World Bank Findex database) 

The issue of documentation for urban informal migrant workers is proving to be a significant barrier. So a proper implementation of the COVID-19 relief announcements needs to include massive drives for registration, followed by an expanded social security coverage for the excluded millions of unregistered workers with emphasis on inclusion of women. 

It is obvious by now that the pandemic is no longer a mere health crisis but is leading to a deep humanitarian tragedy. Given that women are bearing significant costs of the COVID-19 fallout, the relief announcements by the government definitely need a second version that not only has a vision for the immediate six-month post lockdown period, but that duly acknowledges women’s contributions in fighting the crisis and ensures that women as economic agents do not fall through the cracks.

A special focus on women’s inclusion would be central to effective exit from the lockdown.

Jashodhara Dasgupta and Dr Sona Mitra are co-conveners of the Feminist Policy Collective, a collective of researchers and activists working to promote transformative financing for gender equality.