The pandemic has completely upended the world as we know it. That has often been catalogued by way of lives lost, active cases and the destruction to the economy. But its gendered impact has not received the attention it deserved. An ILO report published earlier in December has revealed that challenges of the pandemic and work from home issues have thrown women’s lives off-gear completely. The loss in women’s jobs has been proportionally much higher than men. Data from 55 high and middle-income countries, says 29.4 million women aged 25+ lost their jobs between Q4 2019 and Q2 2020. Slightly fewer men lost theirs (29.2 million), but as far fewer women were in the workforce, women’s proportional loss has been far more.
The pandemic has not been the reason for this inequity. It has only pulled off the covers and revealed the truth starkly. In India too, the gendered impact of COVID-19, its disproportionate damage to lives and aspirations of women and girls has emerged unfailingly, in every survey. The Population Foundation of India’s Policy brief in July 2020, clearly outlined how, as in epidemics in the past, Indian women’s vulnerability has increased. Apart from resulting in the loss of their livelihoods, there was more risk of violence due to increased stress, the disruption of social and protective networks, and decreased access to services. Efforts to contain outbreaks diverted resources from routine health services including pre-and post-natal health care and contraceptives, and exacerbated already limited access to sexual and reproductive health services.
As 2020 ends and 2021 beckons, it is the right time for a thorough re-examination of our approach to women and girls, their dreams, needs and their aspirations. The deadly disruption to our lives in the year gone by must be recognised and used to not only break the mould but also reimagine it, which will enable our women and girls to break free from the shackles of unpaid work, domestic violence, oppression and the dark shadow of patriarchy which deters their self-confidence.
Instead, 2021 should be the year when we begin to shatter patriarchal and regressive social norms. It is time that women are encouraged to participate in the task of nation-building and recognised for the work they already do, in keeping our world afloat.
70% of the health workforce globally comprises women. In India too, there are one million ASHAs (Accredited Social Health Activists), 0.9 million ANMs (Auxiliary Nurse Midwives) and 1.4 million nutrition workers termed Anganwadi workers, which adds up to over three million (3.3 million) frontline workers who are women. The response to COVID-19 and the fightback has been silently led by women, their contribution is hiding in plain sight.
Looking ahead, we need to think of proposals to redress the specific problems women face. First of all, there is a need to ensure, in concrete terms, that tackling gender-based violence becomes a formal part of India’s public-health response. Secondly, India needs to ensure that all frontline health workers, mostly women, get fair and sustainable wages with adequate social security. Thirdly, in the post-pandemic world, we must ensure that girls do not drop out of school and get bonded into early marriages which distort their life paths.
Girls and women need to be supported to be able to make choices and participate in all decisions, personal, financial, domestic, of the community and national, as equals. It will not be easy, but nothing that fundamentally alters the world is.
COVID-19 has no doubt, brought a huge crisis upon us. But the silver lining is that it has shone the light on fundamental gender inequities in our system. We must use the momentum to recover from this in a way that leads to rebuild and repair, in a way which spells hope and new possibilities for our women.
It must do this to make it possible for them to live their dreams and also to bring their vast untapped potential into the service of larger developmental goals of India – our future. Happy New Year.
The author is Executive Director, Population Foundation of India