The COVID-19 Economic Crash Could Set Indian Women Back Decades

They’ve been disproportionately affected by job losses, and now new jobs may first go to men.

A woman waits to cross a street in New Delhi on Aug. 1.
A woman waits to cross a street in New Delhi on Aug. 1. Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

A year ago, Punita Dhawan, 32, opened a tailoring shop in New Delhi’s middle-class colony of Lajpat Nagar in a rented garage. The neighborhood aunties soon began to take notice of the entrepreneur’s creativity, and she became their unofficial stylist. Word spread, and Dhawan’s roster of clients gradually grew to include ladies from the adjoining residential areas as well. The successful businesswoman started to make plans to launch her own boutique soon.

Her plans came crashing down on March 24, when India announced a strict COVID-19 lockdown confining 1.4 billion people to their homes. The restrictions on travel and business meant Dhawan couldn’t operate her existing shop, let alone expand. Her clients disappeared, as have her meager savings.

Babita Sharma, 35, has a similar story. In 2018, she started working for a salon in Mumbai after relocating there from northern Uttar Pradesh with her parents in the same year. The closure of Sharma’s thriving salon due to COVID-19 drove her family to return to their native village, where they now eke out a living through farming.

“Life is tough for a woman,” Sharma told me in July. “I went to a big city to fulfill my dreams. I even put my marriage on hold to take care of my aging parents. But now I’m jobless, and we have to survive selling vegetables, which grow on our tiny patch of land. The future is so uncertain.”

Millions of Indian women like Dhawan and Sharma are finding their lives upended due to the pandemic. Added together, their poignant stories of individual loss make clear that the raging virus has further entrenched gender inequities in a country where women already face a wide gap in employment, wages, and education.

In the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Index, which uses pre-pandemic data, India ranks 112th of 153 countries in offering equal opportunities to women and men. In particular, women often don’t have the same access to health care and education as their male counterparts. Even before the pandemic, less than a quarter of women in India were in the labor force, putting India among the bottom 10 countries in the world in terms of women’s workforce participation. They also earn 35 percent less on average than men. (The global average is 16 percent.) Meanwhile, women are slightly under half of India’s population but they contribute only 18 percent to its economic output.

The pandemic will make these metrics far worse. Small and growing businesses (SGBs) have been one of the hardest-hit segments during the pandemic. According to a report in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the COVID-19 crisis is especially threatening SGBs in low-income nations. In fact, the report adds, nearly 40 percent of SGBs in emerging markets are staring at potential failure in the next half of the year.

These developments will have a disproportionate impact on women. According to India’s sixth economic census, published in 2016, 13.8 percent of business establishments in India are owned by women, a majority of which are microenterprises and self-financed. Many of these women-led businesses are found in sectors like tourism, education, and beauty, which have been ravaged by the COVID-19 lockdowns.

Already, at least 4 in 10 women in India have lost their jobs during the pandemic, according to the latest data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy’s Consumer Pyramids Household Survey. In other words, between March and April, an estimated 17 million women were rendered jobless, in both the formal and informal sectors.

“Women have been grievously impacted by the slashing of informal sector jobs,” Kavita Krishnan, the secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, a pan-India women’s advocacy group, told me in July. And the effects will last a long time. “Most of them are employed in the informal sector, where revival has been tardy,” Krishnan continued, so the pandemic “will have long-term and irreversible ramifications on their lives and livelihoods. The pandemic is already putting extra burden on women in terms of added domestic responsibilities, child care demands, and a looming recession. The threat of them getting squeezed out of the productive economy is very real.”

According to Ranjana Kumari, the director of the Centre for Social Research, a New Delhi-based women’s rights group, the problem is all the worse because “the gender lens is completely missing from policymaking, economic initiatives, or infrastructure development. None of these crucial areas have women at their core.” Around the world, policies and public health efforts have not taken the gendered implications of the illness and the changing social organization into account. A gendered approach, Kumari added, would facilitate a more inclusive workforce with better representation of women, higher salaries, better jobs, and maternity leave, to name a few.

Even now that India’s lockdown is being lifted, Kumari noted, not all women will be getting their jobs back—many of those jobs are simply gone, and many others will go to out-of-work men first. Those who do get back in the workforce may have to compromise with inferior work or lesser salaries. Already under the 2005 Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which has served as the government’s flagship scheme for distributing work to the poor, women aren’t getting good jobs. They’re only getting the work men won’t take, she added.

The decline in women in the workforce will be a huge loss for India. According to some estimates, if workforce participation of women rose, India could potentially increase its 2025 GDP by $700 billion. There would be social gains, too. Women who are employed may enjoy greater respect and bargaining power within their families, which positively affects their own and their household’s well-being. More money is available for higher education of children, health care, elder care, and retirement.

Thus by neglecting women, India is missing an opportunity to help its economy both recover from this pandemic and improve in the future. In April, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called for pandemic responses around the world to focus on women. “With women’s interests and rights front and centre,” he wrote, “we can get through this pandemic faster, and build more equal and resilient communities and societies that benefit everyone.”

If not, millions of women like Dhawan and Sharma will continue to teeter on the edge.

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based editor and journalist.

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