Representational image. (HT Archive) PREMIUM
Representational image. (HT Archive)

Women work more, earn less, and face greater health risks

There is a multi-generational impact of poor nutrition, lack of access to contraceptives, and debt. Making the right investments in women’s issues now could prove transformational in the long-term recovery
By Swetha Totapally and Vineet Bhandari
UPDATED ON JUL 14, 2021 05:05 PM IST

Women tend to be the backbone of society during crises, even as they are also more likely to face the disproportionate impacts of such events. The Covid-19 pandemic is no different. It has severely exacerbated existing gendered barriers, widened India’s gender gap in the workforce, and affected (overwhelmingly female) caregivers and frontline workers.

In October-November 2020, Dalberg conducted one of the largest studies of the socio-economic impacts of Covid-19 on women in low-income households, analysing data from 17,000+ respondents, across 10 Indian states. The study was primarily based on telephonic interviews and triangulated findings, where relevant, with other surveys. The goal was to achieve a holistic understanding of the effects the pandemic had on women’s livelihoods, access to essentials and sanitation, assets and debt, food and nutrition, and time use. We also assessed the role of government social protection programmes and self-help groups (SHGs) in supporting women in low-income households through the pandemic and discovered that some initiatives worked out better than one would have expected.

Women were more affected than men by employment issues. Women made up just 24% of those working before the pandemic, yet accounted for 28% of all those who lost their jobs. They also constitute 43% of those who are yet to recover their paid work. This had knock-on effects on other aspects of their lives.

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One consequence of the loss in incomes for women as well as their households was reduced food supply; women absorbed more of this shock than men did. More than one in ten (an estimated 32 million if extrapolated to the population) women limited their food intake or ran out of food in the week they were surveyed, and a further 10% reported being worried about future food supply.

Women’s health indicators also deteriorated because they could no longer afford contraception and menstrual products. About 16% of women (an estimated 17 million if extrapolated) had to stop using menstrual pads, and more than one in three married women were unable to access contraceptives.

Indian women already do almost three times more unpaid work than Indian men (nearly 6.5 hours a day), and our survey showed a 47% increase in unpaid labour for women, and a 41% increase in unpaid care work for women. At the same time (and perhaps, in part, because of the increase in unpaid work), far fewer women than men reported an increase in rest during the pandemic.

Women from historically marginalised groups (Muslims, migrants, single/separated/divorced), were more affected than the average woman. The variance is across the board, with 20 percentage points (pp) more single, separated/divorced women having limited food or running out of food; three to six pp more women from households with monthly incomes less than 10,000 facing nutritional challenges; and Muslim women losing 13 pp more of their income.

Concerning as these figures are, conditions on the ground are likely to worsen for those women (such as transgender individuals and women unreachable via telephones) who fell outside of the restrictions of our data-gathering.

However, one in three women said that government welfare schemes and SHGs had played an important role in helping them navigate the pandemic, comparable to the commonly cited family support. Specifically, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, and the public distribution system (PDS) supported 12 million, 100 million, and 180 million women respectively during the crisis. The SHG network served as a reliable borrowing channel for both its members and women in the community.

While the government’s role in entitlements has been invaluable to women in low-income families that were able to access them, there is a need for broader conversations around universalising, deepening, and extending them support. Here are three proposals.

One, deepen PDS to be more focused on nutrition and bring back pulses to the initiative as was the case last year. Think about expanding PDS beyond food as it’s a far-reaching delivery channel. For instance, women’s access to menstrual pads could be revolutionised in this fashion for the short term, improving reach considerably. Bundling free menstrual hygiene products with PDS would relax women’s dependence on income for these essentials.

Optimally, this would go hand-in-hand with national-, state- and district-level awareness drives around menstrual health and hygiene. The government can also build upon and accelerate its existing efforts through Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) workers, Mission Parivar Vikas, and other schemes to strategically focus on contraceptive usage.

Two, launch drives to enlist women on MGNREGS job cards and increase the total number of person-days to meet women’s demand for job opportunities. Strengthen the resilience of SHGs by focusing on their economic recovery and market linkages via the existing Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana – National Rural Livelihoods Mission. SHGs could also provide technical and managerial training to help women develop the skills needed to run small businesses digitally.

Three, focus on the inclusion of single, divorced/separated women in the One Nation One Ration Card rollout, and build social assistance programmes for informal workers, specifically domestic workers and casual labourers.

There is a multi-generational impact of poor nutrition, lack of access to contraceptives, and debt. Making the right investments in women’s issues now could prove transformational in the long-term recovery and health of our economy and society.

Swetha Totapally is a partner and Vineet Bhandari is an associate partner at Dalberg Advisors. Both work on gender, technology and government programmes

The views expressed are personal

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