It didn't take too long for the COVID-19 pandemic to head towards an economic and labour market crisis. Very early into the lockdowns and the restrictions enforced across the world, several estimates were made on the impending job losses and dip in labour income globally.
In India, it was estimated that around 130 million jobs would be lost and the employment loss would be accompanied by growing inequality, depletion of family savings, and food insecurity within households. But who among the vulnerable are the most vulnerable?
Experience shows that the populations most affected by the economic downturn during health crises are the the young people, the gender minorities, women, ‘unprotected workers’ (like the self-employed) and migrant workers, among others.
The crisis has several gendered implications for India’s labour market. In a situation where women’s labour force participation is already at a low 20 percent compared to 55 percent for men, it is estimated that women’s loss in employment is around 23 percent.
This is mainly because women in India tend to find work in sectors that are already characterized by informality, lack of protection and overall precarity.
Breaks in supply chains — both in production of goods and services, as well as in market demand — have rendered all enterprises more vulnerable, taking them to the verge of collapse.
Women-Led Business More Likely to Shut In COVID World
Women-owned enterprises constitute roughly 14 percent of all Indian business establishments and are mostly micro-enterprises and self-financed. There is, sadly, growing global evidence that women-led businesses are two times more likely to permanently shut their operations in the current crisis.
Some surveys also point towards the growing unpaid work burden for women, be it care work, be it in water and fodder collection or in bearing the responsibility for the entire family’s food needs in times of destitution.
Despite best efforts to credit Rs 500 to the Jan Dhan accounts of over 4 crore women as lockdown relief from early April, by the end of June, 40 percent of those women did not receive funds due to dormancy of their accounts and the remoteness of the rural locations where they live in.
The cash crunch and job loss has made employment guarantee schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) the only opportunity for wage earning.
The demand for MGNREGA work has been so high that many thousands of workers in states like Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have already completed their 100 guaranteed days of work this year, of whom more than half have been women.
Ensure Front-line Women Workers Have Access to Resources
Yet through the COVID crisis, it’s women who have been at the forefront of the response — whether as front-line health workers or as leaders of Self-Help Groups (SHGs). Moving forward, it is critical to ensure that these grassroots champions continue to have access to resources and opportunities to lead us all back to resilience.
The government has already taken steps towards alleviating the economic shock brought about by the pandemic. Applying a gender lens and further expanding opportunities for wage security, and prioritizing support for women’s enterprises and collective enterprises, can help hasten the economic recovery.
To start with, MGNREGA offers high potential to not only generate wage employment and local assets, but also helps address women’s unpaid work, particularly in water and fodder collection.
States can further boost jobs for women by operating all-women work sites similar to efforts undertaken in Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.
States such as Bihar, Kerala, Odisha, and West Bengal have demonstrated how convergence with other flagship programs like Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and the integration of SHGs and Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) can help with demand generation and building community assets.
While most of these initiatives are in rural areas, Jharkhand and Odisha have modelled wage employment programs in urban areas. Sharing of good practices and lessons across states can help in scaling these efforts.
Secondly, while policy responses and stimulus packages, such as the use of Community Investment Fund (CIF) and Vulnerability Reduction Fund (VRF) under the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM), have offered support to rural women’s groups, a clearer roadmap on how this support can strengthen the entrepreneurship ecosystem more broadly, including in urban areas, would be helpful.
Practitioners and experts have recommended that women-led enterprises, which often operate at the margins, could hugely benefit from targeted re-capitalization packages to revive cash liquidity, ensure payroll support, and provide working capital for continuing production.
There has been impressive work done by women’s collectives, particularly by rural SHGs under NRLM, in re-purposing their businesses to produce Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), sanitizers, etc. in response to the COVID crisis.
At a time where businesses are on the verge of shutdown, the government is best placed to accelerate job creation and ensure assured markets for these enterprises through public procurement.
Kerala and Odisha have already leveraged women’s collectives in setting up community kitchens and producing take-home-ration (THR). Telangana has explored integrating ICDS infrastructure for providing childcare facilities under MGNREGA. Kerala’s experience with Kudumbasree groups highlights the importance of a long-term and holistic approach of the economic and social development agenda going hand-in-hand to create resilient community institutions.
We can all learn from these diverse experiences and continue center-staging women’s voices and leadership to ‘build back better’.
(Subhalakshmi Nandi is the Gender Lead and Saachi Bhalla is the Gender and Nutrition Specialist, at the India Country Office of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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