The Pulse | Economy | South Asia

India’s COVID–19 Gender Blind Spot

India’s women stand to lose from the country‘s COVID–19 policies in many ways.

Bansari Kamdar
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India’s COVID–19 Gender Blind Spot
Credit: AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.

The second most populous country in the world, India, has been under a nationwide lockdown since March 24, 2020 – one it intends to continue till May 3, 2020. At the time of writing, there have been a total of 27,890 confirmed cases and 882 deaths from the pandemic in India. While most agree that the lockdown was necessary to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the problem remains in how it was implemented.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s eager and abrupt lockdown policy came with many blind spots – putting the country’s most vulnerable at a disproportionately greater risk than others. According to The Print, nearly 200 people, largely migrant workers, have died during the lockdown due exhaustion, hunger, denial of medical care, suicide, and even vigilante killings.

Women, who make up around half the nation’s population, also remained largely absent from the government’s COVID-19 policy, to the extent that the government had to be reminded that feminine hygiene products like sanitary napkins were essential items during the lockdown.

A Rise in Domestic Violence

There has been an uptick of intimate partner violence (IPV) cases around the globe associated with lockdown policies, from the United States and United Kingdom to France, China, and India. In their eagerness to flatten the curve and limit the spread of coronavirus, government-instituted lockdowns may be endangering the lives of women, particularly in the absence of policies to check and balance against the rising violence against women.

In India, a woman is subjected to an act of domestic violence every 4.4 minutes, according to the Crime in India Report 2018 by the Indian National Crime Research Bureau (NCRB). One in three women will experience intimate partner violence in their lifetimes. There is already an uptick in these cases, with the National Commission for Women (NCW) in India registering 587 cases between March 23 and April 16, up from 396 cases between February 27 and March 22, reports Al Jazeera.

In response, the NCW has also recently launched a WhatsApp number making it easier for women to ask for help, alongside a helpline and email option.

Past research has shown that domestic violence cases rise significantly as mobility restrictions foster more tension and strain in the household over security, health, and job losses. State governments in India have been encouraging women to report violence and India’s Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani asked the states to ensure that women’s helplines are functioning. However, this may not be enough.

IPV cases are often gravely underreported. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) of 2015-2016, less than 1 percent of the victims of domestic abuse sought help. Women’s limited mobility and lack of access to helplines and the internet could greatly limit this reporting. Only 29 percent of Indian women have access to the internet, according to a recent UNICEF report.

In New York City, while calls to domestic violence helplines dropped, organizations helping women find emergency shelter observed a steep increase with one showing a 35 percent increase in calls from women looking for shelter. However, shelters for victims of abuse in India remain unsafe and inadequate.

There is a dire need for a policy, like the one in France, where the government provides abuse victims with a place to stay away from their abusers. Additionally, reaching these women in distress has to be constituted as an “essential service” in India.

India’s Falling Female Labor Force Participation Rate

Women face increased financial instability in times of crisis. According to a report by Bain & Company and Google, women were already the worst hit by India’s unemployment crisis. While the overall Indian unemployment rate was at 7 percent before the lockdown, it was already as high as 18 percent for women.

As the pandemic worsens India’s unemployment problem, women will often be the first to let go when firms start cutting costs given cultural norms devaluing women’s work and also because women are less likely to work in sectors where telecommuting is possible.

According to the Indian government’s Periodic Labor Force Survey (PLFS) of 2017-18 by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), only one of four women aged 15 years and above are working or seeking work. India has one of the lowest female labor participation rates in the world and it has been falling over the past decade. The World Economic Forum ranks India the fifth lowest (149th) on its Global Gender Gap Report on economic participation and opportunity metric, trailed only by Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq.

In response to the crisis, the Indian government has announced cash transfers of 500 rupees ($6.50) to the women who have a Jan Dhan account over the course of the next three months, but that may be inadequate as many lose their jobs and economic mobility.

Furthermore, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), 81 percent of Indian women work in the informal economy. The informal sector, which makes up a majority of the Indian economy, is the worst hit by the coronavirus-imposed economic slowdown and requires targeted economic policies, government bailouts, and support measures. The economic costs of the lockdown may be disproportionately borne by women in the end.

The Additional Burden of Care

One of the primary reasons that women leave the workforce or do not enter it in the first place is their unpaid caregiving responsibilities at home. Longstanding patriarchal social norms and cultural expectations have put the burden of caring for children, the elderly, and the household on Indian women.

In India, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), women perform nearly 6 hours of unpaid work each day, while men spend a paltry 52 minutes. This burden is likely to increase amid the lockdown as Indian men continue to not help in the household.

Not only does the burden of unpaid work limit women’s economic mobility and time, there are also dangerous consequences to women neglecting them. Nearly 41 percent of participants in a survey by OXFAM India stated that it was acceptable to beat a woman if she failed to prepare a meal for the men in the family and one in three thought that it was acceptable to beat women who failed to care for children or left a dependent unattended.

Girls Education and Nutrition 

According to a recent statement by the Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, the gross educational enrollment of girls is higher than boys in India. However, their mean years of schooling remain almost half that of boys, with girls getting 4.7 years of schooling in comparison to 8.2 years of schooling for boys. Girls are spending nearly half as many years in school as boys. With the economic downturn, girls’ education could be even less prioritized.

Nearly 96 percent of children in rural India are studying in government-run schools that provide cooked mid-day meals to children. With the schools shut down till May, children’s education is likely to suffer, along with an increase in malnourishment. The situation will worsen for girls as they are more dependent on the mid-day meal programs given the gendered nature of nutrition provision in households with limited resources

The Way Forward

These are just a few examples of how pandemics often heighten gender inequities and affect men and women differently. Disasters expose and intensify the systemic and structural cracks in the current system and lockdown has shown that gender-blind policies could worsen these issues and leave women and girls more vulnerable than ever.

As the lockdown begins to be lifted or partially lifted around the country, India urgently needs gender-sensitive policies addressing the increasing violence against women, the widening gender disparities in labor force participation, rising school dropouts and malnutrition among girls, and women’s disproportionate unpaid work and caregiving responsibilities.