The Covid-19 pandemic has had devastating impacts on the physical and mental well-being, as well as financial conditions and job security of people around the globe. India is no exception to this. But while the damage is universal, it is surely not in equal measure for all. The only consistency is that, through every socio-economic stratum, it is the women who have been the worst hit.
Even in pre-pandemic times, women were not faring any better. As per data, the pre-pandemic poverty rate for females was 13.3% vs 12.1% for males in India. Wage gaps, in general, have been a prevalent phenomenon in all countries. Despite being on par with men, women are subjected to a lesser remuneration for the same amount of work, sometimes more.
As per a TOI report dated September 2020, an estimated 87 million women and girls were living in extreme poverty in 2020 in India and this number was expected to increase to around 100 million by 2021 in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. This report was in view of new data released by UN Women and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
The data is part of a UN Women report — “From Insights to Action: Gender Equality in the wake of COVID-19”. The report on 129 countries shows that the pandemic will push 96 million people into extreme poverty by 2021, 47 million of whom are women and girls.
In addition to this, projections from the International Labour Organization suggest the equivalent of 140 million full-time jobs may be lost due to COVID-19; and women’s employment is 19 percent more at risk than men.
This is supported by data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) which states that post lockdown, the unemployment rate among women shot up to 17%, which is double the rate among men. State and central-level lockdowns by the governments to break the virus’s transmission cycle hurt economic activity, and have resulted in such widespread unemployment at present.
Among the industries worst hit by the pandemic are hospitality, food business, retail, and entertainment. All these industries are composed of a predominantly female workforce. In addition to this, working women from the lower strata involved in construction work or domestic help had no option but to go packing back to their homes on very short notice.
Other women who were running their independent businesses through loans from Self-Help Groups (SHGs) and small investments are likely to have suffered huge losses owing to a slowdown in business.
What comes as very shocking is the status of the healthcare industry which is currently the lifeline of the country. Despite being the primary caregivers, doctors and first responders such as nurses and so on, women in these roles are under overwhelming amounts of stress, but their situation is no better. They shoulder the same, often greater, the burden of work as their male counterparts and yet, the wage gap prevalent in the healthcare industry is a whopping 28% globally.
Currently, despite life going back to normal to a certain extent and people resuming work, women are unable to do so. This is largely due to a crippling lack of infrastructure and transport facilities that can ensure safety to women in going to their workplace amidst looming fear of infection. This is why women are choosing to stay at home instead of actively looking for new jobs or resuming their old jobs again.
This has pushed most women in the country towards their savings, which are now fast depleting. These hardships often push women into dangerous and risky ventures such as the sex trade. In a society such as ours where financial independence is pivotal in ensuring the physical and mental well-being of women, social security, and leveraging some amount of protection from violence and violation, this comes as a very grim foreboding.
This is not all. Driven back into the confines of their homes, women are now bound by overwhelming household chores and duties towards the family. Caring for children and the aged, cooking and cleaning, as well as work-from-home for those who are employed, together are affecting the mental and physical health of women.
Not only this, but trends also indicate a slower pace of vaccination among women. Their traditional role as caregivers has them deferring their own needs. Many also don’t have access to the resources needed to avail vaccination, such as mobile phones and transport facilities.
As per the UNDP Report, by the end of 2021, there will be 120 extremely poor women for every 100 poor men in 2021, a ratio that is expected to worsen to 129 women per 100 poor women in 2030. It is stated that at the current pace, it will take India another 37 years to close the gender poverty gap among individuals of ages 25 to 34.
On the whole, inequalities being faced by women are deep-seated and multifarious. Support for businesswomen and female workers in the informal sectors is necessary now more than ever before. Adequate compensation measures need to be put in place for paid as well as unpaid work.
Less than a quarter of women in India are in the labor force, which is among the poorest rates in the world, and they earn 35% lower on average than men. Intersectionality of injustice and socio-economic disadvantage is a very real phenomenon and it is about time the state realized this. If immediate and direct interventions are not taken on a priority basis to reverse the setbacks from the pandemic, there are chances that women in India will not be able to recover from this blow for a very long time.