Women the biggest losers

20 Apr 2020

Gender-based consequences of Coronavirus make it imperative for both the administration and social networks to ensure that the pandemic does not negate the gains of gender equality

Opinion: Anupma Mehta

Even after the conclusion of the first phase of the three-week nationwide lockdown imposed by the Government and its further extension up to May 3 to curb the spread of Coronavirus signs are emerging that the virus is not going away anytime soon. This is grim news for the country from both the health and economic perspective especially for the female population which is likely to suffer on multiple fronts due to the spread of the virus and the resultant need for the people to stay indoors.

The first category of affected women are healthcare staff including nurses Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) and anganwadi workers who have been holding the fort against the disease all across the country. A Government of India report of 2015 revealed that 88.9 per cent of the support and ancillary staff among health workers primarily nurses midwives and ASHAs are female. This is corroborated by earlier data from the 68th round of the National Sample Survey on the “Employment and Unemployment Situation in India” (July 2011 to June 2012). With hospitals facing an influx of Coronavirus patients and given the need for active contact tracing of positive cases these workers have become frontline warriors in times of crisis.The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that globally too women comprise a majority of the healthcare staff accounting for 70 per cent of the total in 107 countries including India. The COVID-19 outbreak is a physical and emotional nightmare for many healthcare workers. Eleanor Holroyd currently Professor at New Zealand’s Auckland University of Technology recounts her interactions with student nurses when she was professor of nursing at the Chinese University of Hong Kong during the SARS epidemic in 2003. A large section of these nurses experienced confusion anxiety and stress from the long days of caring for patients and seeing many of their colleagues too contracting the disease in the process. “There’s the idea that if there’s a gap in the health system the nurses will fill it. Their duty is to be ever-present and visible offering empathy and care… Add that to a sick child or husband or parent and the very uncertain nature of an epidemic it can be hard [for the nurse] to hold on” says Holroyd.

The crisis is also likely to affect women disproportionately because of the already declining female labour force participation (FLFP) rate in India which according to the Economic Survey of India of 2017-18 fell from 36 per cent in 2005-06 to 24 per cent in 2015-16. The India Human Development Survey (IHDS) conducted in two waves in 2004-05 and 2011-12 too reported a fall in the FLFP from 31.12 per cent in 2005 to 24.77 per cent in 2012. The IHDS is a multi-topic survey jointly conducted by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and the University of Maryland covering 41554 households in 1503 villages and 971 urban neighbourhoods across India. This survey also suggests that the decline in FLFP could be due to the lack of demand for female labour rather than that of labour supply. The paucity of demand for women workers could be reinforced in the coming months after the real impact of the Coronavirus becomes apparent in various sectors of the Indian economy.

Another category of women likely to be impacted by the pandemic are salaried workers many of whom are currently working-from-home but could eventually face the prospect of lay-offs and pay cuts once their employers return to the normal work routine in a recessionary economy. The temporary or permanent closure of many businesses is likely to have a severe adverse impact on a range of professions dominated by women such as flight attendants tour operators sales assistants and frontline hotel staff and cleaners.

Academics who have studied past pandemics including Ebola Zika SARS swine flu and bird flu report their deep and persistent effects on gender equality. According to Julia Smith a health policy researcher at the Simon Fraser University Vancouver Canada these outbreaks affected everyone’s incomes but “men’s income returned to what they had made pre-outbreak faster than women’s income.” This outcome is compounded by the already-existing wage discrimination in many sectors. For example in the healthcare sector overall women reportedly earn 11 per cent less than their male counterparts. Anganwadi and ASHA workers receive salaries in the range of merely Rs 3000-4500 per month which is even below the minimum wage without any additional benefits like pension and maternity leave. These women may not lose their jobs but any decline in their family incomes due to the pandemic will make them an equal part of the economic crisis looming ahead.

Even women who are out of the workforce and traditionally stay at home are facing a huge challenge emanating from the lockdown with their already extensive care-giving duties multiplying even further due to the reverse migration of household service providers like maids cooks and nannies to their native villages. A 2015 survey by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development found that an Indian woman does far more “unpaid work” almost six hours per day on an average than her peers in most other countries. The corresponding figure for men is just 52 minutes per day.

In fact as per an Oxfam report titled “Mind the Gap” released in March 2019 Indian women do the most unpaid care and domestic work in any country barring Kazakhstan largely because patriarchal norms which dictate tasks such as cooking cleaning looking after children and the elderly and fetching water and firewood have to be performed by women alone.

Data for the first wave of IHDS also highlights the domestic drudgery for women especially in rural areas. The survey found that women in India’s villages were spending an average of 240 minutes per week collecting firewood and 66 minutes per day fetching water as compared to much lower corresponding figures of 136 minutes per week and 29 minutes per day respectively spent by men in the household.

Last but not the least is the issue of domestic abuse the incidence of which is believed to go up exponentially in any kind of crisis especially the current one that mandates people to practise social isolation and stay at home for sustained periods. What is worse in a lockdown situation women in violent relationships are unable to seek help as the perpetrators of the violence are always around whereas those who can help the victims are inaccessible.

The US the UK and China have witnessed a significant rise in domestic violence since the advent of the Coronavirus. In India the National Commission for Women (NCW) reported double the usual number of domestic abuse cases since the imposition of the lockdown. According to the NCW Chairperson Rekha Sharma a total of 257 complaints related to various offences against women were received during the period March 24 to April 1 out of which 69 complaints were related to domestic violence. The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has in fact urged Governments “to make the prevention and redress of the horrifying [domestic] violence against women a key part of their national response plans for COVID-19.”

These gender-based consequences of Coronavirus make it imperative for both the administration and social networks to ensure that the pandemic does not negate the gains of gender equality achieved over the past few decades. Diah Saminarsih Senior Adviser on Gender and Youth to the WHO Director-General avers that tackling this issue will be top priority in the WHO’s forthcoming study on the connections between gender and COVID-19. It remains to be seen how well women will be able to ride out the Corona storm.

The writer Anupma Mehta is Consultant Editor at the National Council of Applied Economic Research. Views expressed in this article are personal.

Published in: The Pioneer , April 20, 2020