The coronavirus pandemic has cut across all sections of society, but while we are all facing the same storm, the boats we sail in are different. The hierarchies of class, caste and gender significantly determine the nature of challenges each of us face. In India, the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequities, including with regard to gender. The year 2020, marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, was intended to be ground-breaking for gender equality. Instead, with the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic even the limited gains made in the past decades are at risk of being rolled back.
The pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems which are in turn amplifying the impacts of the pandemic. Across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection, the impacts of COVID-19 are exacerbated for women and girls simply by virtue of their sex.
On this Women’s Day, we need to ponder for fetching a much stronger gender lens needs to be built into the Covid-19 response so that we don’t lose hard won gains made in regard to women’s rights and well-being in education, health and empowerment.
The statements are not just opinion, but the data supporting the fact are grim. Around 51 per cent girls out of 320 million covid-hit school-going children were forced to leave their education to take care of domestic chores and sibling cares. Being a victim to continuous nutrient supply biasness, 3.3 per cent of infected women died of the pandemic compared to 2.9 per cent of men. In a survey by Action Aid Association, for informal workers in India, it is estimated that 79 per cent women were unemployed during mid-May 20 and around 51.6 per cent reported no wages.
Adding to the already disheartening numbers, as per new data released by UN Women and the United Nations Development Programme, an estimated 87 million women and girls were found living in extreme poverty in India in 2020, and this number is expected to increase to around 100 million by 2021. Adding up to this, the National Commission of Women recorded all-time high cases in domestic violence in past 10 years with around 1,477 domestic violence complaints.
These numbers are alarming and if this trend holds true, we are looking at a huge setback to women’s empowerment in India and the world that in turn will affect the health and prosperity of societies as a whole. With more and more data coming out, social injustice towards women has become quite apparent and hence need for women empowerment has also become a relevant necessity as we cannot dream of being a trillion dollar economy while leaving our 50 per cent potential behind.
There is a daunting challenge before us, but there is also a silver lining on the dark cloud. Just as the theme of this year’s IWD suggests, “Choose to Challenge”, many women leaders are stepping up to the challenge, responding astutely not only to the pandemic but cushioning the resulting fallout for other vulnerable women. We have appalling example that, across the globe, all the six countries that have had the most commendable response to the COVID-19 (Germany, Finland, Denmark, New Zealand, Belgium and Iceland) had one thing in common –female leadership. That’s a proof of potential what women has under her collar.
Women’s participation in planning, designing and implementing policies, programmes and schemes has been lagging. Not merely at the top roles, women should be pushed up at the micro and macro levels with focused and deliberate initiatives to be involved into decision-making roles and build capacity and institutional support.
Meanwhile, women have been capitalising on the new horizons open to them to study and build clear aspirations. Women’s enrolment in higher education institutions is galloping at 4.9% YoY since 2011-12, per AISHE, while men’s enrolment rate has slowed to 2.5%. Women are taking charge in every sphere of the Indian socio-economic fabric. Science and technology fields like biotechnology, life sciences, space and others have many women quietly working away at frontier innovations. The women of ISRO are a more famous example and have been integral to India’s spectacular space successes.
This extends to startups as well, where we see women founders and co-founders of tech startups in almost every field—e-commerce, fintech, artificial intelligence, life sciences, media, education, health, and more.
The corporate ladders in India are also gradually filling up with more women. Corporate India now comprises of 30% women compared to 21% in 2014, per a study by Zinnov-Intel. 40% of the engineering class is now women. As more women graduate with specialized degrees, they are making a space for themselves for suitable jobs so they may join the workforce.
Panchayati Raj has been a sphere where women have come into their own and are implementing far-reaching reforms for their villages. What started as a 33% reservation, subsequently increased to 50%, has now taken a life of its own. Panchayat women are taking ownership of their village’s development and finding new ways of gainfully employing the citizens, making the village self-reliant in energy by instituting solar panels or wind turbines and bringing other women together in SHGs to work towards the betterment of their communities. The number of female Sarpanchs is also on the rise. A similar phenomenon is observed in many areas—the administrative services, the political machinery, entrepreneurial ventures, farming and dairy production, manufacturing, and so on.
Despite the significant social, economic and health challenges that COVID-19 brought, it can also be seen as an opportunity in the COVID-19 response for radical, positive action to redress long-standing inequalities in multiple areas of women’s lives. Although the budget for Mission for Protection and Empowerment of Women has been drastically reduced from ₹ 726 crore to ₹ 48 crore, but in social Services, an increase from last year’s ₹ 695 crore to ₹ 783.82 crore was allocated.
Indian government and different stakeholders of social sectors, including CSR partners, NGOs, civil societies can take this opportunity to plan our response to COVID-19 with a strong gender perspective, proactively building gender expertise into response teams and embedding gender dimensions within response and recovery plans. While there’s still some way to go, there’s no doubt we are today witnessing the rise of the Indian woman. The groundwork is laid. We are hopeful that a conducive environment created towards ensuring SDG5 will amplify their uptake and drive results through public awareness campaigns by demonstrating how tools can improve lives and livelihoods for millions of women around the globe.
Deploying women’s full potential is critical to economic recovery not only for India but for the world. Intentional expansion of fiscal space that recognizes and invests in women’s specific priorities must be central to the design of recovery packages. This will ensure BUILDING BACK BETTER beyond COVID-19, achieving G20 commitments to gender equality, accelerating the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action and achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.