India’s fall in ranking stems largely from an old crisis: The exit of women from paid work. Since 2011-12, 25 million women, roughly Shanghai’s population, have quit the workforce. If you go back to 2004-05, it’s 47 million. (ANI)
India’s fall in ranking stems largely from an old crisis: The exit of women from paid work. Since 2011-12, 25 million women, roughly Shanghai’s population, have quit the workforce. If you go back to 2004-05, it’s 47 million. (ANI)

On the gender test, India fails — yet again

A wake-up call to first set up a national-level task force to study the pandemic’s impact on gender and, next, to suggest possible remedies. The blunt truth is India cannot afford to mutely witness any further erosion in gender rights.
PUBLISHED ON APR 02, 2021 07:43 PM IST

Whichever way you look at it, India’s 28-point tumble to land at 140 out of 156 countries in the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) gender gap ranking is a fail mark.

WEF looks at incontrovertible data on four parameters — education, health, economic opportunity and political empowerment — to reach its conclusions. Within South Asia, only two countries — Pakistan at 153 and Afghanistan at the bottom of the list at 156 — have done worse than us.

India’s fall in ranking stems largely from an old crisis: The exit of women from paid work. Since 2011-12, 25 million women, roughly Shanghai’s population, have quit the workforce. If you go back to 2004-05, it’s 47 million.

There are a number of reasons why women are quitting paid work. In a nutshell, it is to do with society’s definition of “women’s work”, which is to cook, clean and care for children and the elderly, an unpaid job that increased manifold during the pandemic. Obviously, the more time women spend on unpaid care work, the less they have for paid work.

While job loss has hit everyone, data from the Centre of Monitoring Indian Economy tell us that it hit women hardest. In February 2021, female labour force participation shrunk by 9%; for men, it is 1.8%, says economist Mitali Nikore. The worst-hit are urban women where labour force contraction is 32% for the same month, the highest since the start of the pandemic, she says.

Sure, other factors have contributed to our fall in rankings. The persistence of low political participation by women; the reduction of the number of women ministers; our ongoing sex ratio-at-birth problem. But, for the first time, the pandemic and its impact on job loss have brought India’s crisis of female employment into the public domain.

The WEF report does not look into data from areas such as domestic violence that reportedly shot up during lockdown. It has not considered the impact of the gender digital divide where girls were shut out of online classes because they didn’t have access to smartphones. It did not see how this led to a surge in child marriage in states such as Rajasthan. It has not counted the numbers of women unable to access contraceptive and other health services and the impact of this on unwanted pregnancies and their health.

And, yet, limited as it is, one can only hope that the ranking will serve as a wake-up call to government and policymakers. A wake-up call to first set up a national-level task force to study the pandemic’s impact on gender and, next, to suggest possible remedies. The blunt truth is India cannot afford to mutely witness any further erosion in gender rights.

To do nothing is to wait for upwards of a century to close the gender gap, warns WEF. We simply cannot afford that wait.

Namita Bhandare writes on genderThe views expressed are personal

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