The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been far-reaching and devastating, from adversely affecting people’s daily lives to massive economic consequences. These effects are even more detrimental for communities that are already marginalised and underprivileged. In this piece, Ananya HS highlights the additional pressure and unfavourable circumstances that women are going through as a result of the pandemic, while suggesting policy measures that may help improve these conditions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked significant havoc on communities across the globe, as evidenced by the alarming costs incurred both as a result of the ever-increasing statistics, as well as the far-reaching economic fallout. There is a need, however, to look beyond this general impact, and focus on the often-ignored effects on vulnerable and marginalised communities. Global pandemics in the past have largely contributed to the deepening of pre-existing gender inequalities in various ways. In this piece, the focus will be on examining the gendered impact of the pandemic in India while putting forth policy suggestions that could be adopted to bring positive change.

Evidence from reports indicates that the economic and productive lives of women will be affected differently and disproportionately in comparison to that of men. Women across the globe earn less, have less savings and are in less secure jobs, mostly in the informal sector in the case of developing countries like India. Projections seem to indicate that a prolonged plunge in women’s incomes and labour force participation is likely in the near future. Women who are working from home are now on a “double double shift” – trying to keep up with their jobs along with the daily responsibilities of caregiving and tackling housework. Women also form a majority of the service workforce across the globe, in sectors like retail, tourism, and hospitality, which are among the most acutely affected. The economic shock caused by the oncoming global recession will therefore be particularly difficult for women to deal with, given the wide range of structural barriers that exist.

Voluntary unemployment and taking extended breaks from their careers are some of the options available to women in these circumstances. While this is especially true for women who cannot access work remotely, it also becomes true in the case of overburdening as a result of household chores. The female teachers and doctors that were interviewed put in an average of 71 hours of paid and unpaid work in a week – significantly higher than the contribution of men. In India, women are also often forced to choose between subjecting themselves to voluntary harm at the workplace and keeping their jobs. A majority of the frontline healthcare workers and manual scavengers are women and Dalit women, respectively, putting them at risk of disease and infection.

The extended lockdown imposed initially, and shorter ones subsequently imposed in the worst affected areas, has led to schools and day-care centres shutting down, and house-helps going on leave. As a consequence, there has been an exponential increase in the unpaid caregiving and household duties for women. While social media campaigns paint a rosy picture of men pitching in to share the workload, statistics suggest otherwise. As primary caregivers, women could be responsible for these tasks until as late as the development of the vaccine. With hospitals and nursing support largely becoming inaccessible, the burden of elderly care has also been cast upon women.

The problem of the “shadow pandemic” – increasing violence against women and girls is one of the other adverse consequences of this period. This increase has been attributed to concerns around security, health, and money creating tensions in the household, exacerbated by the cramped living conditions of lockdown. Coupled with the economic stress of losing income, avenues for escape from abusive situations are also limited for women. Three out of four house-helps that were interviewed faced reductions in their income as a result of households refusing to pay them during the lockdown months. Two of them also revealed that their husbands, who were daily wage labourers, had lost their jobs, resorted to alcoholism and were frequently violent towards these women in their drunken state. Imposition of lockdown and travel restrictions has also reduced access to reproductive and sexual healthcare facilities for women, which become more essential in times like this, thereby necessitating a reallocation of resources.

The Government of India, in May 2020, announced a INR 20 lakh crore stimulus package for COVID relief, with the objective of making India “self-reliant”. The package contains noteworthy positive reliefs for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, the power sector, contract extension schemes, employee provident fund relaxations, tax reliefs, and other general ease of doing business measures. The general reliefs provided do not assist women significantly, and specific measures to help alleviate the problems being faced by women are absent from the measures declared. This is deeply problematic, since women’s careers have already been established as the bigger casualty of the economic slowdown in India.

Several policy measures can and ought to be introduced to counteract the negative economic impact of the pandemic on women. For this purpose, as aptly guided by Katharine Bartlett in her piece on feminist legal methods, it is imperative to ask women questions to gauge how differently women are affected by certain events, and work towards ensuring fairer outcomes through policy. The consultative process in the formation of policies should also include substantial female representation in order to adequately address their problems. Gender budgeting is then the next important step. The government must ensure that sectors which have a large proportion of female workers have easy access to credit, loans, and subsidies so as to be able to retain the workforce. Any social protection scheme that is floated by the government should necessarily factor in existing biases. Financing for female entrepreneurs and means to promote self-employment among women must be made available. Granting tax incentives to entities hiring more women could also be an effective long-term relief measure. Further, putting in place policies that would popularise the concept of parental leaves for either parent, in order to assist in sharing caregiving duties, would be a welcome step.

In this vein, it is also important to formulate innovative ways to recognise and monetise unpaid work put in by women. Communities from around the world are rallying up to persevere against the fallout of the pandemic. To show solidarity in working towards a more gender-equal society is to work for greater prosperity and sustainability. Developing flexible policy tools to address the socio-economic problems that women are currently facing would, therefore, be a step in the right direction.