With COVID-19 fading from television screens and policy debates, India’s attention must turn to the major economic downturn the pandemic has caused, and especially its impact on women, Kaveri Mishra writes.
Indian women, as they were at the pandemic’s height, are again at the forefront of an existential struggle.
Since its outbreak in 2020, women in India have faced the worst of the pandemic. Women are overrepresented in health care work across the world, especially in low-paid work. The gender wage gap in the Indian health care system is 34 per cent, notably higher than the worldwide number of 28 per cent.
On top of this, women were subjected to higher rates of unemployment and deeper poverty when the pandemic hit. Indian women working in rural areas in the informal sector made up 80 per cent of job losses in March and April 2020, and many of these women have little hope of returning to work.
Women’s participation dropped considerably to 16.1 per cent in 2020, the lowest among the major economies, with much of these losses, around 62 per cent, coming from women above the age of 30. This indicates these women were unlikely to be leaving the work force for education and are less likely to return.
This must be a wake-up call.
Along with economic problems come complications. Indian women are also facing a sexual and reproductive health crisis. With limited access to health care, social stigma and taboos attached to abortion and contraception in many communities, at least 1.3 million women in India lost access to abortion procedures and contraceptives to prevent pregnancy between January and June 2020.
This was estimated to have resulted in one million additional unsafe abortions in the country and 650,000 further unintended pregnancies. Hundreds of thousands of women were forced to go through unintended or unsafe pregnancies that took a massive toll on their mental and physical health.
Women are constantly facing these kinds of hardships and challenges, but two years on from its outbreak, it is becoming clear just how much the COVID-19 pandemic increased the burden on women.
This is before even considering the toll of the virus itself. With the country’s death toll in the millions, many Indian women died, and many faced the death of family members.
Many of these deaths came during a second wave that overwhelmed a healthcare system staffed mostly by women. Many families lost their sole breadwinners, pushing them to the brink of poverty. With inadequate economic support from the government, they were left in the lurch.
Many women were facing the challenge of looking for jobs to take care of families, some without access to banking, or the experience and education to tackle such a situation.
The Indian government set up a COVID-19 support fund to help families that lost their only or highest-earning member to cope with the hardship, with compensation designed to help women to start a new life with employment training.
This amounted to a few thousand Australian dollars in one-time financial assistance, but the government must do more to help the women of India recover from the shocks of COVID-19 with training, welfare, and education programs.
These women need both domestic and international help if they are to live with dignity.
Back in 2020, the World Bank projected that the COVID-19 pandemic will drive more than 12 million Indians to extreme poverty, but with the Delta variant having a massive impact on the country, reality has been even worse than those estimates.
The COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated economic inequalities by affecting women disproportionately, and had effects that will long outlast the pandemic itself. In 2020, extreme poverty rose for the first time in over two decades, and inequality is set to continue to rise too. The crisis has disproportionately affected the less-educated and informally employed, who in India are mostly women.
It is vital for international agencies, non-governmental organisations, and above all the Indian government to come together and build a strong policy framework that tackles these issues. India’s women need initiatives that work toward gender equity.
Better health services for women and children, social security schemes, policies to provide employment opportunities, entrepreneurial training, and more accessible education are all places policymakers can start so that they can help India recover from the pandemic’s shocks in a gender-inclusive way. If they do, millions more Indian women will have a chance at a better life.