It is Time to Address COVID-19’s Disproportionate Impact on India’s Women

Policies crafted with women specifically in mind could change and fundamentally improve the development prospects of India.
Policies crafted with women specifically in mind could change and fundamentally improve the development prospects of India.

By Prabhjot R. Khan, Mitali Nikore

As India works to recover from the pandemic, women should be at the heart of its strategy to ensure actions improve Indian women’s lives and foster widespread societal benefits.

Public health considerations have placed countries worldwide in the difficult position of making a trade-off between saving lives and saving livelihoods. In India, the world’s second-most populous country, a national lockdown was imposed in March 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and phased re-openings began in July 2020. The country’s gross domestic product contracted by 23.9% year on year in the first quarter of 2020-21 (April – June), with manufacturing, construction and services such as trade, hotels, and transportation contracting in the range of 40%-50%.

Despite being a universal crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women, emerging evidence indicates. Globally, women’s employment is 19% more at risk than men, and the gender poverty gap is expected to worsen well into 2030. The Ebola epidemic showed that women are likely to remain in prolonged unemployment or exit the labor force. In India, where women’s labor force participation declined in 2017/2018 to its lowest level in the last five decades, preliminary evidence shows five key factors impeding progress toward gender equity in the wake of COVID-19.

First, women are facing massive job and income losses. Between March and April 2020, 15.4 million women lost their jobs, or 37% of the female workforce, versus 28% of men. The labor force shrank by 10.5% for women versus 2% for men between October 2019 and October 2020. Women-owned small businesses, which largely operate in consumer-facing sectors such as textiles, food processing and handicrafts, witnessed a sharp demand shock, with revival being slow. In the informal sectors, anecdotal evidence points toward men being preferred for re-employment as the economy opens.

Second, women face additional mobility restrictions. Even before COVID-19, only 54% of women were allowed to go to a nearby market alone. Only 48% could visit places outside their village or community by themselves, according to the National Family and Health Survey conducted in 2015-16. With COVID-19, women now require strong reasons to leave home, inhibiting their ability to work, run businesses, study, or even avail health care services and government aid.

Third, women are witnessing an increase in domestic work. On average, women spent five hours per day on unpaid household and caregiving work compared to  30 minutes for men, according to a time use survey conducted in 2019. As school closures continue and families remain at home during COVID-19, women’s care work has increased by almost 30%.

Fourth, the digital gender divide has worsened inequity in access to education, health and work opportunities. In India, 63% of adult women own a mobile phone (compared to 79% of adult men), but only 21% use mobile internet (compared to 42% of adult men). Women are systematically denied access to technology, with phone use governed by male relatives. With online classes, telemedicine, and work from home becoming the norm, women are at risk of getting left behind, unable to acquire the skills required to participate in a digital economy.

Fifth, women are experiencing the shadow pandemic of domestic violence. Social isolation and mandatory confinement with potential abusers increase the risk of domestic violence. A 2020 found a 131% increase in domestic violence complaints in May 2020 in the districts that saw the strictest lockdown measures relative to other districts.

Bringing policies that directly benefit women into the mainstream
could change the narrative of India’s development
while improving women’s lives.

Recognizing these challenges, the government and its partners took several social protection measures, notably direct cash transfers, which have directly benefited women. Over 200 million female account holders received monthly cash payments from April to June 2020. Free grains, such as rice, were given to 800 million ration cardholders, and about 75 million households received at least one free gas cylinder.

Collateral-free lending limits increased from INR1 million to INR2 million ($13,000 to $26,000) to benefit 6.3 million women-organized self-help groups. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Program employed about 108 million persons between April – October 2020, providing one-third reservation for women workers.

As India unlocks and seeks to build back better, it must continue to keep women at the heart of its post-COVID-19 economic recovery strategy. In the immediate term, gender-sensitive relief measures can be expanded, such as widening cash transfers for vulnerable women and providing incentives for the retention of women workers through wage subsidies and increased investments.

In the medium term, central, state, and local governments should improve sex-disaggregated data collection to devise targeted policies for women, while applying gender budgeting tools to ensure sustained financing for women-focused programs. ADB is supporting this effort with a technical assistance program. Governments should also involve more women in decision making – and design and implementation – of socio-economic programs and disaster relief.