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      How women are shaping political fortunes in India

      The results of the recently concluded assembly elections have reaffirmed a phenomenon that has been increasingly discussed across the past few electoral seasons — the importance of women as a voting bloc in India.

      From West Bengal to Kerala, commentators have attributed the Trinamool Congress’s and the Left Democratic Front’s victory to the high turnout among women. The political recognition of women’s power was also evident during the campaign, with most parties making promises to introduce or increase social welfare measures for them. The success of such poll promises has also been noted in Assam.

      This tradition of offering direct benefits to women is not new. Leaders have been known to promise programmes that appeal to women, including, but not limited to, scholarships for girls, reservations for women in government jobs, better safety, subsidised water and electricity, a prohibition on alcohol sale and free bus rides.

      There is a calculated math behind these. When India became independent, the Constituent Assembly agreed on the principle of universal suffrage. However, when electoral poll officers came calling to make independent India’s first electoral rolls, many women chose to be registered as the wife or daughter of someone. Sukumar Sen, the then chief election commissioner, noticed this gap and asked for a cleaning of the electoral rolls, so that women’s rights for suffrage could be identified as distinct from their families, and they could cast their independent ballot. Even so, the participation of women in voting remained limited. In the 1962 Lok Sabha elections, for example, only 47% of women came out to vote as opposed to 62% of men.

      By 2014, this difference had reduced to a mere 1.5 percentage points, with some states such as Bihar and Odisha recording a higher female turnout on voting day than men. By 2019, women’s turnout across India exceeded that of men, largely on account of states such as Assam, Bihar, Odisha, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal where women outvoted men. In West Bengal, in this assembly election, the percentage of women voters crossed the 49% mark, while in Tamil Nadu, more women voted than men.

      Interestingly, more women step out to vote in rural areas. Electoral participation among rural women has risen by nearly 13 percentage points between 1971 and 2014, in contrast to a slight dip in urban female turnout.

      But here is the more fascinating fact. Not only are women stepping out more to vote, their voting preferences are no longer in line with those of their families or communities. Back in the 1990s, gender often intersected with other social markers such as caste or class. There was no significant difference in this trend, even in states where female political leaders were present.

      This has changed. For one, younger women are joining the voter base. They are more educated than their mothers (on average) and do not usually follow the collective decisions of their village or social group to vote for a given candidate or party. In a survey carried out by Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in February 2019, on 5,000 first-time young female voters (between the ages of 18-22), a little more than three out of five women said they would vote without being influenced by their families, 68% believed that women should participate in politics just like men, and 65% rejected the idea that men make better political leaders than women.

      Second, many women voters now believe that their vote matters in electing a new government. Praveen Rai of CSDS analysed voter-behaviour data and found that the perception that their vote matters is a significant predictor for women actually stepping out to vote. Apart from this, “interest in politics” is also an important predictor of women’s degree of participation in voting. This rising interest, more so in rural areas, has been attributed by many studies to the increasing presence of women leaders, who currently comprise nearly half the panchayat leadership positions in India. While they may have risen to such positions due to reservations, such leaders serve as role models for many women.

      Finally, changes in the way the ballot is cast may have also strengthened women’s positions. They may have earlier lost out due to ghost paper ballots that were cast in their names. Frauds that took advantage of the fact that women voters would not traverse long distances or stand in queues are less likely now.

      Political parties are taking cognisance of this changing trend. They recognise that women now vote for parties or candidates who they believe are likely to address issues that concern them.

      Politics aside, for feminists, what is more heartening to see are the shifts recorded in female voter turnout over time, even in traditionally backward states. This, as economists, Mudit Kapoor and Shamika Ravi argue, represents a silent movement towards women’s self-empowerment, one of the rare domains in which we see gender equality in India, more so out of women’s own volition and account, without any effort as such to push for it.

      Having witnessed the role female voters have played in this round of assembly elections, one thing has become clear. They are a voting bloc in their own right, a far cry from the late 19th century, when philosophers such as James Mill argued that women need not have separate voting rights because their interests were in line with their families. This ignites hope that women’s concerns as distinct from men, especially in the light of one of the worst crises in India’s history, might be taken up by political parties.

      Read the article here.

      The increased burden of unpaid work on women during Covid-19

      With the doubling of the Indian economy over the last two decades, the number of working-age women has grown by a quarter. However, there has also been a decline in the female labour force participation rate (FLFPR) from 31.2 per cent in 2011 to 23.3 per cent in 2017.

      A report from the 2019 G20 Osaka summit suggests that India has the largest gender gap in labour force participation among G20 countries, next only to Saudi Arabia. It becomes harder to diagnose the cause of the decline in FLFPR in the Indian context, given that more women are pursuing higher education and fertility rates are declining. One argument advanced for the widening gap in FLFPR is the motherhood penalty women face in terms of their participation in the labour force. Evidence from literature suggests that the burden of unpaid work and childcare is a major constraint for women participating in the workforce.

      It’s all work and no pay for most women in India

      Revealing survey findings

      Just before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the National Statistical Office (NSO) in India conducted its first-ever Time Use Survey between January and December 2019. The unprecedented exercise allowed us to gauge the time disposition of men and women on paid and unpaid activities. The survey results reveal that the burden of unpaid non-UN System of National Accounts (non-SNA) work is shared highly unequally between men and women in India. It finds that men spent merely 2.17 per cent of the total time on non-SNA work as against 20.61 per cent by women. During the period of the survey, women, on average, spent 4.47 hours per day on childcare, elderly care and caring for ill and disabled persons in their household, compared to 0.88 hours per day spent on care activities by men. Among all activities, women spent maximum time — 3.09 hours — on physical care of children, followed by non-physical care activities, such as, feeding, teaching, training, playing with and reading to them.

      Women still do the lion’s share of domestic work, for no pay

      Besides, limited access to care arrangements and social support networks — including that to extended family members — has resulted in increased intensity of women’s care work. Families reported having to make tough decisions about who keeps their paid job and who quits to provide the unpaid care needed at home. Since, at least in the Indian context, women are paid less and have lesser job security than men, there have been multiple stories of women having to sacrifice their careers. This has impacted both, women’s labour force participation as well as their ability to make an income.

      The value of women’s unpaid care work as a percentage of GDP is estimated at 3.1 per cent in India while that of men is 0.4 per cent. Thus, it is critical to align the focus of growth in the economy with women’s unpaid and childcare work because, according to ILO, when welfare states invest in a combination of care policies, the employment-to-population ratios of female unpaid care givers aged 18-54 years tend to be higher than countries investing comparatively less. The Covid-19 crisis must be seen as an opportunity to recognise unpaid and childcare work as work that has real value.

      Gender equality at workplace

      Ways to level the field

      So what can be done? To begin with, in addition to gender-responsive budgeting, the government should be conscious about a ‘care budget’ — investment and expenditure on care of children, elderly and persons with disabilities, as well as that of the household. There should be support for childcare through targeted programmes and initiatives, as well as investment in the childcare sector and in gender-responsive public services and infrastructure.

      In the short term, initiatives like the UN Women’s cash-for-care programme, for women who left the labour market due to increased care responsibilities as a result of Covid-19, can benefit those who were impacted the most. In addition to the government’s effort to provide relief to working mothers, the private sector plays a significant role in addressing the care needs of employees. Employers should enact family-friendly workplace policies, support employees’ childcare needs, and provide gender-neutral family and health-related leaves; this can also help attain business sustainability, productivity, and profitability in the long run. The one caveat here is that such measures would only reach individuals employed in the formal sector, and in an economy like India’s, childcare needs of the self-employed and informal sector workers would still remain unattended to.

      To meet the needs of the economically weaker women in managing increased unpaid work and childcare load, the government should explore providing childcare support to households in the form of childcare allowances, cash transfers or vouchers. This can enable women to receive financial support without being required to work, which is critical in the ongoing crisis.

      Reopening childcare facilities

      Furthermore, there is an urgent need to reopen childcare facilities, including Anganwadi centres (AWC), with safety measures and standards in place, staggered schedules, appropriate technical and financial assistance to personnel, and implementing robust testing and contact tracing through community involvement. This will reduce the hours spent by mothers on unpaid care by sharing their burden.

      As we renew the focus on reopening of childcare centres, this is a golden opportunity to strengthen the government’s programme catered at providing Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). Existing AWCs should be re-equipped to function as quality AWC-cum-Crèches-cum-daycare centres that are expanded as full-day care centres to include care for children, including those under the age of three years, for at least eight hours a day. A re-imagined ICDS system along these lines holds potential to open up women’s opportunities to participate in the labour market and access decent full-time employment.

      Covid-19 also presents an occasion to encourage a lasting shift and instate a culture of fair and equitable division of domestic responsibilities. Gender transformative workshops and media awareness campaigns (e.g. Ariel’s #ShareTheLoad campaign) have potential to increase men’s involvement in household work. Finally, reorganising household care work as a productive, as opposed to an unproductive, activity can change social norms around unpaid work and childcare in the long run.

      The pandemic has aggravated gender inequalities in the labour market like never before. We must recognise that there will be no economic recovery unless we acknowledge the critical role that care plays in the well-being of households, societies, and economies. A strong and conscious gender-responsive policy plan can help us pave the road to ‘build back better’ at a time when women’s work — at home and at work — is crucial yet grossly undervalued.

      Read the coverage here.

      How did India’s Women Enterprises Fare during the COVID-19 Lockdown?

      The pandemic has affected self-employed women (comprising women entrepreneurs, women self-help group members and home-based workers), which include almost 50% of all working women in India, due to disruptions in supply chains. Further, non-payment of past wages and pending arrears have made these women and their households prone to economic shocks. This article draws on findings from research conducted during the lockdown to understand the economic impact on women-owned and led enterprises.

      Much has been discussed about employment and entrepreneurship in the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to nation and statewide lockdowns starting in March 2020. The lockdowns were characterised by several factors that put India’s 6.33 crore micro, small and medium enterprises in jeopardy—closure of mandis and wholesale markets, transport restrictions, disruptions in supply chain and lack of procurement (Tankha 2020). Urban self-employed people were the most affected by the lockdown (Azim Premji University 2020). Enterprises faced a large drop in earnings, low sales and low customer footfall (Mint 2020).

      The lockdowns left an approximate 17 million (Misra and Patel 2021) to 19.3 million women (Abraham et al 2021) unemployed in the immediate aftermath, between March and April 2020. It is noteworthy that the highly impacted sectors such as trading and services are dominated by women. Personal and non-professional services, comprising operators of small-scale enterprises such as tailors, dressmakers, petty shopkeepers, barbers and beauty-parlour owners, as well as domestic helps and part-time workers witnessed relatively high volatility compared to other sectors. The effect of the lockdown was clearly evident as male employment fell by 30% of its pre-lockdown level while female employment fell by 43% (Abraham et al 2021).

      While the impact of COVID-19 was disproportionate, recovery has also been skewed in favour of men. With men’s employment levels recovering by August 2020, in comparison to women for whom the likelihood of being employed was 9.5 percentage points lower than men when compared to the pre-pandemic period (Deshpande 2020). In fact, women were eight times more likely to have lost their jobs as compared to men, after controlling for factors like caste, religion, age, level of education, employment arrangement, industry, and state of residence. Self-employment may have served as a “cushion” for those who lost jobs—both in the formal and informal sector (World Bank 2020). Self-employed people were more likely to report “no effect” of COVID-19 on the state of their employment, ahead of temporary-employed and casual wage workers (Abraham et al 2021). Of those who had formal or informal jobs before the pandemic, about 20% shifted to self-employment (World Bank 2020). As a result of this unprecedented pattern of employment transitions, the overall composition of employment in India shifted noticeably.

      Women-led enterprises in rural areas, in contrast, have been known to be resilient during economic shocks in the past. However, what India witnessed in terms of long-drawn lockdown was unprecedented, and little is known about the impact of a complete closure, especially when women are faced with the burden of increased unpaid care work and limited cash reserves at a household and enterprise level.

      Looking at the financial scenario of enterprises during the pandemic, more (72%) women-led enterprises reported cash shortages than male-led (53%) enterprises (Buteau and Chandrasekhar 2020). More women entrepreneurs (69%) reported postponing loan repayments as compared to men (50%). However, two studies (Buteau and Chandrasekhar 2020; Chawla et al 2020) found that women were also more confident of full recovery of their businesses than men. In fact, they showed signs of adapting to changes brought by the pandemic, with more than 54% having already made a “business shift” like adding new products and services. Another 24% planned a business shift by the end of 2020 (Sunil 2020).

      Notwithstanding this optimism, and even as the economy recovers and enterprises get back on track, women entrepreneurs are facing several challenges. Women’s domestic workload has increased, thereby increasing their share of unpaid work (Salla 2020). Over 70% of women entrepreneurs reported increased household conflicts, compared with 53% of male respondents (Buteau and Chandrasekhar 2020). Women are also less likely to know about any government relief packages (76% as compared to 54% for men).  Moreover, several support services for entrepreneurs have shifted online, cutting access to those entrepreneurs who are not financially and digitally literate, skills that are found to be wanting among women.

      Survey of Women-based MSME Entrepreneurs

      Between the months of April and May 2020, the Government of India had announced four phases of lockdown to control the COVID-19 pandemic. Phase 1 (the very first of a series of lockdowns) lasted approximately three weeks (until mid-April) and was a national top-down approach with strict protocols to contain the movement of people, freight operations and daily businesses. Most businesses across a spectrum of scale and size reported closures/non-activity during this phase and its extension into Phase 2 (Kapoor et al 2020). Subsequent lockdowns were localised and offered more lenient protocols aimed at preparing the economy for gradual reopening. By the beginning of June, formal unlock processes were initiated nationally.

      In an effort to examine the impact of COVID-19 on women-led MSME enterprises, we conducted a study over a duration of approximately six weeks (8 June–18 July 2020). The study involved a survey of over 2,083 non-agricultural enterprises across four states: Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha. Specifically, the survey reached rural women entrepreneurs in the intervening period when the first of the unlock measures was announced in June 2020 followed by Phase 2 in July 2020. Small women-led enterprises for the purpose of this survey were defined as enterprises which are run from an establishment or from individual households, fall in the micro category of MSMEs and have women registered as owners. We employed a stratified random sampling approach to study our population of interest. MSMEs were classified according to the nature of operations (refer to Table 1).

      Table 1: Number of Enterprises Surveyed According to Nature of Operations

      StateProductionServiceTradingTotal
      Bihar64      (14.68)148

      (17.85)

      299

      (36.55)

      511

      (24.53)

      Chattisgarh144
      (33.03)
      214
      (25.81)
      175
      (21.39)
      533
      (25.59)
      Madhya Pradesh103
      (23.62)
      279
      (33.66)
      136
      (16.63)
      518
      (24.87)
      Odisha125
      (28.67)
      188
      (22.68)
      208
      (25.43)
      521
      (25.01)
      Total436
      (100.00)
      829
      (100.00)
      818
      100.00
      2,083
      100.00

      Note: Figures in parenthesis are percentages.

      Our findings highlight some of the financial and social distresses faced by these entrepreneurs at an individual, household and enterprise level. We acknowledge that our study has the limitations of a phone survey conducted during the lockdown. First, our study suffers from potential selection bias and positively skewed income and closure variables since entrepreneurs with lower household-level stress, or better business performance are likely to respond to survey calls. Additionally, not all information could be triangulated since the information was self-reported. Second, the survey was conducted at a time of peak stress across families and hence the responses on questions regarding time use and stress levels, even among those who consented to the survey, are likely to be over-reported. We also acknowledge that the pandemic may be a contributing factor to business outcomes, but cannot be attributed as the sole reason for business performance. With this caveat, we would also like to clarify that the intent of the survey was to capture market sentiment among women entrepreneurs while understanding the household dynamics at play.

      Figure 1: Summary of the Study Findings.
      Source: Authors’ own calculations.

      Eighty-percent Revenue Drop in Three Out of Four States

      Revenues of most businesses reduced significantly during the lockdown months, with median revenue for April being reported as zero across businesses.1 Given the survey was fielded as soon as unlock guidelines were announced, there was an improvement in revenues with most businesses reporting a median revenue of ₹800 between June and July. This however was still 72.5% lower than the median revenue reported for February (₹3,000), which has been assumed as a proxy for pre-COVID-19 income levels (Figure 2).

      Three out of four states reported over 80% drops in revenues. With supply chains disrupted, production units saw the largest decline in revenue, with most reporting zero revenue for April, May, and June. Trading enterprises seemed to fare much better than others—they did not report zero incomes for any of the months. This can perhaps be attributed to most trading enterprises being kirana stores in our sample, which by virtue of their nature fall under the essential commodities category and were thus exempted from some of the lockdown guidelines.
      At the time of our survey, most businesses had sufficient cash reserves and revenue to last them approximately 29 days, given their monthly business expenditures at the time.

      Figure 2: Monthly Revenue—Pre and Post COVID-19
      Source: Authors’ own calculations.

      Women-led Enterprises and Closures

      One of the unintended and adverse consequences of the lockdown was business closures. In our entire sample of 2,083 women-led enterprises, for most businesses the operations were only partially interrupted (44.6%) or temporarily closed (36.0%), our study found that 10.9% of women-led businesses had permanently closed down during the initial lockdown itself (April-May 2020).2 As the lockdown restrictions slowly began to ease in June-July, the permanent closures marginally increased to 11.5% of the sample.

      Nearly 46% businesses that were permanently closed had no intention of starting another business, 27.8% of businesses were unsure, and 26.4% were affirmative in their intentions of starting a new business (refer to Figure 3). It was alarming that almost one in two permanently closed enterprises reported no intention of starting a new venture in the foreseeable future (refer to Figure 3).
      This is of relevance because it depicts the potential impact market shocks (in this case induced by a pandemic) on further marginalising women’s representation in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. With limited social capital and sudden disruption in business operations, business outlook was severely affected. Promisingly, however, of those permanently closed enterprises that wished to begin a business again (nearly one in two), most anticipated starting a new business within a week (23%), signalling market optimism among some (refer to Figure 4).

      Figure 3: Future Outlook of Permanently Closed Businesses
      Source: Authors’ own calculations.

      Figure 4: Timelines for Starting New Ventures Given by Permanently Closed Enterprises
      Source: Authors’ own calculations.

      Increased Time and Care Burden Resulting in De-prioritisation of Business

      Undoubtedly, the impact of this pandemic was disproportionately higher for women than their male counterparts, both within the household, and outside of it in an enterprise setting. Wenham et al (2020) state that worldwide closures to control the spread of the coronavirus might have had a compounding impact on women’s physical and psychological health, as they bore additional caretaking responsibilities in addition to doing other household chores, with little to no support from male members of the family.

      Our survey finds that while women were spending less time on their businesses, they had perhaps internalised social norms regarding unpaid work and caregiving responsibilities (refer to Figure 6). Despite women reporting a decrease3 in time spent on their own entrepreneurial efforts, most women felt that the time they spent on taking care of family members, running a household, or time spent on assisting their spouse’s business had in no way changed and in fact, it had stayed the same. Others felt that the time spent on household work (43%) and unpaid work (38%) had only increased during the pandemic (refer to Figure 5). This is further corroborated by questions on stress levels, where women entrepreneurs consistently reported moderate to extremely high levels of stress regarding household responsibilities, staying locked in and household expenses (refer to Figure 7).

      Another consequence of lesser time spent by women on their own businesses was the de-prioritisation of their own businesses within the household: for 48.4%, their business was the primary source of income for the household, but post COVID-19, the numbers went down to 36.2%.

      Figure 5: Time Spent on Non-Business Activities: Household and Unpaid Work
      Source: Authors’ own calculations.

      Figure 6: Time Spent on Business Activities
      Source: Authors’ own calculations.

      Figure 7: Stress Related to Non-business Responsibilities
      Source: Authors’ own calculations.

      Low Risk Appetite and Business Recovery 

      Most of our respondents (65.6%) had no loan obligations at the time of the survey, signalling a low-risk appetite. This is corroborated by the fact that 80% of surveyed women entrepreneurs did not take enterprise related loans even during the lockdown, which was marred by limited cash reserves and low market demand. Even among loan takers, formal channels4 (42.5%) remained the preferred source, followed by informal channels,5 before seeking support from friends and family.

      Over three-fourths of the respondents dipped into personal savings (46.3%) and business cash reserves (41.9%) to financially cope. This can be possibly explained by two reasons: either most women-led businesses seeking financial assistance were unable to access emergency credit/loan facilities or unwilling to approach channels of credit that were tied to debt. Given that most businesses chose to dip into their own savings and did not use loans as a means to financially cope/support their businesses, it comes as an interesting find when women businesses were asked what form of support they would find most helpful. One out of every two women or 47.6% responded that availability of new funds would perhaps be the most helpful support that would help them achieve their pre-COVID-19 level of operations.

      Although the two findings appear to be contradictory, they reveal, almost unambiguously, credit preferences of small women-led businesses. A clear use of own savings, not using loans and higher awareness (and use) of schemes related to cash reserves reveals that there is a clear preference for non-debt forms of monetary assistance. Shocks to the system perhaps make women entrepreneurs more risk averse (Byder et al 2019) to opt for financial resources that involve debt payments, instead choosing to carefully opt for financial sources that circumvent debt traps. Moreover, the loans available either offer a small ticket size if non-collateralised, or women may not have the required assets for securing a loan.

      With poor social networks, and low self-efficacy affecting risk preferences (Koellinger et al 2011), this finding is pertinent as it brings to light the importance of government aid through direct cash transfers and short-term interest free loans among other low-risk financial products. It also indicates a ready market for innovative micro-insurance and flexible loan products for helping small women-led businesses tide over difficult times and hit the reset button.

      Resurvey of Women with Permanently Closed Businesses 

      We acknowledge that our survey was undertaken at a time when businesses were just beginning to reopen and faced an extraordinary crisis, and hence several questions on Likert-scales or psychometric parameters were avoided. In view of these limitations, we revisited enterprises that reported permanent closure (that is, 239 enterprises) during our survey in June–July 2020, and re-surveyed 205 enterprises in November 2020 to understand how they were faring after the ease of COVID-19 restrictions.

      With government efforts to ease mobility restrictions, and with markets slowly returning to normalcy, many of our respondents have resumed business operations. Around 73% women who had thought to have permanently closed their businesses have reported commencing business activity with a majority of them (97%) resuming the same business as before. This proportion was higher among women running individual-led enterprises and trading enterprises.

      The key factors that were pivotal6 in restarting a business were an increase in demand due to festivities (60%), a prolonged period of closure with limited means for household income (44%), easing of lockdown restrictions (41%) and an increase in general demand (39%). While this is positive news, most of these decisions were a result of necessity and do not necessarily signal business outlook or keenness to grow one’s business. It is also important to note that only 1% of the respondents reported that they restarted their business because of the support received from government schemes.

      When asked about the source of motivation to reopen or start their business, 19% cited that they took the decision themselves, 20% cited they had to open to either handle the household expenses or to improve their family’s financial situation. Fifteen percent were primarily motivated by a rise in demand and/or customers getting back, including those during the festive/wedding season and 1% did so because of motivation received by their self-help group (SHG) members.

      In terms of external help, 17% responded they received some help from their SHG, 1% received help from banks, 2% received help from friends or relatives while a significant 68% reported they received no help whatsoever.

      Around 55% of the businesses reopened within two months of ease of lockdown restrictions (1 July onwards). While the businesses have shown resilience and have restarted operations, around 58% of women reported that although there has been an increase in their income since the last time we spoke to them, business activity has not reached previous year levels. Eighty-three percent reported that business level was lower compared to last season. This comparison to the previous year’s sales was to account for the festival of Diwali, which also marks the peak sale season for most businesses.

      Conclusion: Interventions and Support Needed 

      Special measures were announced in the COVID-19 stimulus package for the MSME sector in May 2020. The government had announced a broad-spectrum of support in the form of collateral-free automatic loans (with moratoriums), credit-guarantee scheme,7 subordinated debts for promoters, equity support through mother–daughter funds, changing the definitions of MSME to be more inclusive of slightly larger firms, promoting e-market linkages (due to the inability to have trade fairs given the pandemic) and even banning foreign tenders for government procurement8 to promote and support local Indian businesses. The RBI too offered its support by strengthening financial institutions9 that lent to these enterprises and infused much needed capital into the cash-strapped sector10 (Borpuzari 2020).

      Promisingly, many of these COVID-19 measures have been taken forward into the budget of 2021 and have been expanded to better support the MSME sector. The allocation of the budget this year towards the MSME sector itself has been doubled from last year (to ₹15,700 crores) and a lion’s share11 is allocated to one scheme that the government initiated during the COVID-19 pandemic—the GECL (the Guarantee Emergency Credit Line)12 (Khan 2021). This scheme aimed at reassuring risk-averse banks (or member-lending institutions) to restart lending to these stressed businesses with a 100% credit guarantee.

      These measures are a welcome step to support businesses; however, there have been concerns of neglect of micro enterprises, given that many of these measures can only be availed by businesses of a certain size, scale, and agency (Ghosh 2020; Sharma 2020). More specifically, small businesses in the unorganised sector, perhaps the most in need of assistance at a time like this, may not have the resources or skills to avail the benefits of these schemes.

      This year some of the schemes that have seen a budgetary cut have supported the small, rural and traditional enterprises. Schemes that fall under the development of Khadi, Village and Coir industry have seen a 40% drop in outlay, the Scheme for Fund for Regeneration of Traditional Industries has seen a drop of ₹63.42 crore year on year and the ASPIRE scheme (for promotion of Innovation, Rural Industries and Entrepreneurship) has also seen its allocation halved (Khan 2021). Although it does make sense to reallocate the budget to the GECL given that the beneficiaries of the credit guarantee scheme are far greater than these schemes (MSME Annual Report 2020: 7) it does leave room for thought to retrace the vast map of the medium, small and micro enterprises landscape in India, the position of women entrepreneurs in it and where does it leave them.

      As per the 73rd round of the National Sample Survey (2015–16), overall women make up 20% of the total MSME landscape and 99% of the MSME enterprises are in the micro category.13 Within the MSME landscape, women make up 20% of the micro enterprises, and only 5% and less than 3% of small and medium enterprises respectively (MSME Annual Report 2020: 295, Table 2.4). The extent of unregistered businesses is also generally agreed to be above the 90% mark, as per various sources (Pandey and Pillai 2020; Mehrotra and Giri 2019). This is in fact also corroborated by our study, where over 81% of women businesses were unregistered.

      This brings us back to the agency problem of women-led businesses. Many women entrepreneurs may find themselves unable to actually avail the benefits of these schemes and/or may not find these schemes designed to aid them. Our study found that while awareness of any COVID-19-related government (state or central) scheme stood at 96.3%, the actual application/availing of these schemes was only 35.9%. In fact, the schemes that most women were aware of and availed of were the ones related to direct cash transfers. Many women (53.7%) did take advantage of support from SHGs and financial assistance in the form of loans from SHGs was the most sought out form of support from SHGs (42.6%),14 which shows that women are perhaps tapping into the micro ecosystem to support their businesses. Perhaps there is merit in a greater need to study, understand and design financial instruments that specifically cater to the needs and risk-appetite of women entrepreneurs, most of whom fall in the micro-unregistered sector.

      The intersectionality of gender and entrepreneurship has received much attention in recent years, but there has been less progress when it comes to offering solutions with a gender lens. As markets return to normalcy, and the economy inches towards growth and recovery, it is important to acknowledge this gender dividend and the social and economic potential they hold the key to.

      Read the coverage in EPW.

      Women’s Leadership in COVID-19 Response: Self-help Groups of the National Rural Livelihoods Mission Show the Way

      During COVID-19, it was recognised that the far-flung network of National Rural Livelihood Mission’s women’s self-help groups, spanning the length and breadth of the country, could be leveraged to ensure prevention and containment of the virus in rural areas. Women’s SHGs and their federated structures harbour tremendous potential because of the social capital and solidarity networks they possess. This article presents insights from a study and summarises good practices, strategies and innovations that were spearheaded by SHGs amidst the pandemic. Findings from the report provide early lessons from ground-level action taken and recommendations for strengthening women’s leadership to respond to crises.

      The world over the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown has not been gender-neutral (Gates 2020). Women have faced severe economic and health impacts, shouldered the disproportionate burden of unpaid work and remained more vulnerable to gender-based violence (UN 2020). Nevertheless, amidst the grim reality that the pandemic may reverse hard fought gains in women’s empowerment and gender equality, a beacon of hope and inspiration was provided by the unsung women who have been leading from the front in COVID-19 response. This has been best exemplified in rural India, where inspiring stories of resilience and innovation emerged of women’s self-help groups (SHGs) of the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) supporting COVID-19 relief efforts.

      Launched in 2011, the National Rural Livelihood Mission, renamed as Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana National Rural Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NRLM)1 in 2015, is India’s largest government programme working exclusively with rural women. Operating in 6,318 blocks and 686 districts in 28 states and six union territories of India (MoRD 2021), NRLM’s approach centres on building strong institutional platforms of the poor, organising 10 to 20 women members into SHGs, which are turned into primary and secondary level federations. The programme aimed at reducing poverty by providing access to gainful self-employment and skilled wage employment opportunities, operates at a massive scale, comprising membership of 7.14 crore rural women mobilised into 66 lakh SHGs (MoRD 2020).

      During COVID-19, it was recognised that this far-flung network of NRLM’s women’s SHGs, spanning the length and breadth of the country, could be leveraged to ensure prevention and containment of the virus in rural areas. Women’s SHGs and their federated structures harbour tremendous potential because of the social capital and solidarity networks they possess. Since SHG members belong to the same milieu, they live among and remain closely connected with communities, enjoy their trust and have invaluable local knowledge, including who constitutes the most marginalised socio-economic groups and individuals. In part because of these attributes, women’s SHGs emerged as pivotal actors in COVID-19 crisis management, remaining well-placed to reach the last mile, drawing on their interpersonal ties to support communities and acting as a “conduit for providing relief to the most vulnerable” (Kejrewal 2020).

      Lessons from Crisis Response 

      With the objective of recognising and visualising the work that women’s SHGs undertook as part of COVID-19 response, and highlighting their indispensable economic and social contribution, the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE) completed a report, “Community and Institutional Response to COVID-19 in India: Role of Women’s Self-Help Groups and National Rural Livelihoods Mission” (Tankha 2020b). Based on secondary data sources,2 the report summarises good practices, strategies and innovations that were spearheaded by SHGs amidst the pandemic. This article, based on the findings of the above report, outlines early lessons from ground-level action taken, indicating the importance of the following key characteristics of crisis response, as well as challenges and opportunities for the way ahead.

      Women as barefoot responders: The NRLM has trained and deployed more than 3 lakh community resource persons (CRPs) (MoF 2021: 359), who are considered the “pillars” of the programme, and who spearhead the doorstep delivery model, providing services on a range of themes for communities (MoRD 2019). Sustained and intensive rounds of capacity building and nurturing of these women CRPs meant that at the time of COVID-19, these cadres were at the forefront of crisis response. This is best demonstrated by the cadre of NRLM’s business correspondent sakhis, who provided doorstep access to financial services during the lockdown and facilitated access to cash transfers under the national COVID-19 relief package. Between 25 March and 31 July 2020, around 6,934 business correspondent sakhis from 14 states conducted 83.63 lakh transactions under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY) amounting to ₹1,845 crore, and transferred ₹30,957 crore under the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) to 20.65 crore women account holders during April, May and June 2020 (Sinha 2020).

      NRLM also conducted large-scale online training on risk communication for prevention of spread of COVID-19 with the support of its staff, to its ready cadres of capacitated CRPs, who in turn were expected to relay awareness generation to the lowest tiers of SHG members and communities in villages. This cascading approach was at the core of being able to target rural communities for preventive health information and behaviour change communication on COVID-19. NRLM reports suggest that over 5 lakh community resource persons, cadres and community workers and more than 5 crore SHG members were trained in this streamlined fashion (MoRD 2020: 54–5).

      Decentralised response and context-specific solutions: Heightened by mobility restrictions, the pandemic brought to the fore the need for localised response and for trusting communities to act to implement the best solutions. Kerala provided the leading example of this, with its Kudumbashree network of women’s groups working in close partnership with tiers of local self government and local actors such as health workers, volunteers and the police to engineer a decentralised and participatory response (Isaac 2020). Of their own accord, SHG members also displayed ingenuity and resourcefulness to tackle COVID-19. For raising awareness on the virus, women used creative outlets and digital media, such as wall writings in Chhattisgarh (PTI 2020), rangolis in Uttar Pradesh, WhatsApp groups in Kerala, voice messages in Bihar (PIB 2020a) and community-operated vehicles with a loudspeaker in Assam. Other out-of-the-box SHG-led innovations included the construction of locally made bamboo pole hand-wash facilities promoting safe hand hygiene in Nagaland and a boat-operated floating supermarket delivering supplies to households in the backwaters of Kerala (Paul 2020).

      Adapting skills and repurposing activities to meet crisis demands: At the height of the crisis, when regular supply chains were disrupted and most other stakeholders were facing an economic slump, the SHGs rose to the challenge of manufacturing essential commodities and providing services for meeting emergency needs. Across states, the SHG women showed initiative and enterprise, pivoting their skills and engaging in the large-scale production of masks, sanitisers, hand wash and protective gear and activating community kitchens. The NRLM data indicates that 2.96 lakh SHG women from 58,581 SHGs across 29 states produced 22.54 crore face masks, 13,662 women across 17 states produced 4.8 lakh litre of sanitiser and 1,790 women across 10 states produced 1.02 lakh litre of handwash (DAY-NRLM 2020). Community kitchens managed by members of women’s SHGs provided cheap and nutritious food to the most vulnerable in Kerala, Odisha, Jharkhand (Mukhya Mantri Didi Kitchens and Dal Bhaat Kendras), Bihar (Didi Ki Rasois) and Uttar Pradesh (Prerna Canteens).

      A defining example of how SHG members repurposed their livelihoods was in Assam, where women who make Gamusa (cotton cloth having cultural significance) in large quantities in anticipation of its market demand during the Assamese festival of Rongali Bihu instead used this Gamusa material to make masks (Hazarika 2020). Innovations from selected states also show how SHG members were able to evolve with the times, branding and diversifying crisis-related products by using superior raw materials and local designs. For instance, masks were made of handspun khadi in Uttar Pradesh, of Pochampally fabric in Telangana, depicted famous Madhubani paintings in Bihar, and were branded and marketed under the name “Asomi” by the Assam State Rural Livelihoods Mission (Hazarika 2020).

      Essential services and gender-based violence: The extraordinary circumstances of the lockdown put into the spotlight concerns of gender-based violence and women’s health and well-being. Responding to these intensified needs, focused support was provided to communities in locations where projects are being conducted by the NRLM with technical resource agencies. In particular, under the IWWAGE-supported SWAYAM3 project, community-managed Gender Resource Centres (GRCs) were established, with the aim of helping women voice their concerns, access rights and entitlements and grievance redressal in case of violence. In Madhya Pradesh, a physical Lok Adhikar Kendra (gender justice centre) was established in Karhal and Sheopur blocks of Sheopur district with the support of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) ANANDI, while in Odisha, NGO partner Project Concern International launched a telephone-based gender facilitation centre providing tele-counselling services. In Bihar, Odisha and Chhattisgarh, under the Swabhimaan Project being undertaken in association with UNICEF and ROSHNI Centre for Women Collectives Led Social Action (CWCSAA), SHG women supported front-line health workers in the delivery of antenatal and postnatal care and provided micronutrient supplementation for malnourished pregnant and lactating mothers (PIB 2020b). In selected pockets of Odisha, cases were reported of SHG women going door to door to identify pregnant and lactating mothers and children in need of immunisation (Salve 2020).

      Additionally, to ensure supply of essential commodities for women and children during the lockdown, the SHG women undertook the distribution of sanitary napkins (Asmita Plus) in Maharashtra, and Kudumbashree-operated units of Amrutham Nutrimix powder (health supplements for infants and children) remained operational in all districts of Kerala (Tankha 2020b).

      Voluntary social action: Driven by a sense of wanting to serve their community in times of crisis, the SHG members also showed empathy and concern for the most vulnerable sections. They assisted in distributing benefits of government programmes such as food rations under the Public Distribution System and Take Home Rations (THR) under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme (PIB 2020b). Bank sakhis helped manage rush and ensured social distancing of customers at banks (PIB 2020c). In selected locations, SHG members provided catering services for public hospitals and the quarantined as in Bihar and Kerala and extended doorstep delivery of dry rations and essentials, including to Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs), destitute and bedridden in Jharkhand, women-headed households in Maharashtra and disabled persons, elderly, and widows in Madhya Pradesh (MoRD 2020). Voluntary donations (in kind and cash) were also made by SHG members in selected instances—distributing masks free of cost, donating farm produce for the most vulnerable and making monetary donations to COVID-19 relief funds (Tankha 2020b).

      Challenges

      While SHG members took the lead in crisis-related production and service delivery, there remain gaps in the knowledge on the extent of economic benefits or remuneration women received from these activities, and whether this provided them respite, especially when most other household income sources were hit. While motivated by a sense of altruism to serve their communities, more research is needed on the individual toll taken on SHG women’s health and bodily integrity from engaging at the front lines, and how this was reconciled with the increasing burden of domestic chores and care responsibilities of children, sick and elderly, induced by the lockdown. The functioning of SHGs too was impacted, with groups being restricted from conducting regular in-person meetings of members in the initial phases of the lockdown, and with challenges remaining for group survival from depletion of savings and difficulties in accumulation of new savings by members (Siwach et al 2020).

      A recent evaluation of the National Rural Livelihoods Project (NRLP),4 conducted prior to COVID-19, revealed that the programme showed no significant impacts on women’s household decision-making and bargaining power (Kochar et al 2020). With an external shock like COVID-19, gender inequalities for women and girls within the household—in access to and consumption of entitlements such as food and nutrition, human development inputs such as education, control over resources and access to opportunities, including paid work opportunities with the return of male migrants to native villages—shall likely intensify in the challenging times ahead (Tankha 2020a).

      Within NRLM, and even before the pandemic, inequalities afflict the SHG ecosystem, for example, inequalities in capacities of community resource persons and office bearers/members; in solidarity of groups based on their maturity, duration and nature of facilitation; in access and equitable use of NRLM funds across members; and in access to and ownership of assets, including financial, property and digital assets of members. In the long run, these inequalities—among members and among groups—may widen, further impacting access to credit, information, skills, opportunities, entitlements and institutional actors, posing challenges for both intra-group cohesion and group sustainability.

      Way Ahead

      In the union budget for 2021-22, the NRLM received ₹13,678 crore, an increase from ₹9,210 crore in 2020-21 (CBGA 2021: 55), representing the sharpest hike of 48% in this year’s budget vis-à-vis the last year, of all programmes under the purview of the Ministry of Rural Development (Chatterji 2021). With this increased budgetary provision, the NRLM faces a landmark opportunity to pursue an inclusive road map for recovery, with gender equality at the core, to support and rebuild the lives of the same women SHG members that were a lifeline for communities across the nation during COVID-19.

      Decision-making and agenda setting by women: COVID-19 demonstrated that the SHG members can serve as promising role models for navigating crisis management of their own communities. Learning from this, during the recovery phase, it would be critical to centre-stage the voices and priorities of women and communities in charting the way forward, allowing them to articulate needs most relevant to them. As a start, this could mean promoting women’s participation in nationwide decentralised planning processes such as the preparation of the Village Poverty Reduction Plan (VPRP) and the Gram Panchayat Development Plan (GPDP), which the NRLM has initiated. Bringing women to the fore in community planning harbours potential for a bottom-up agenda setting process, with women engaging in decision-making in local governance and building rapport with local actors and institutions for demanding due rights and entitlements. Importantly, there remains the need to broad-base capacities and leadership of all members of women’s SHGs (not only community resource persons), towards developing women’s collectives as sustainable, inclusive, democratic, self-managed and self-governing community institutions over the long run.

      Revival strategies for women’s economic empowerment: The crisis showcased the agility of the SHGs to jump into action and contribute to the quick and timely production of crisis-relevant goods and community services. Immense possibilities emerge from sustaining the momentum of the enterprise demonstrated, to increase its scale and benefits for women, including by according formal recognition to the SHGs for performing essential services and providing them institutional support. For instance, public procurement by national or state governments of SHG products would be an important strategy going forward, guaranteeing markets and minimum prices for goods, while securing livelihood prospects. Further, by partaking in growing opportunities to meet needs of the crisis and fulfil market demands, the SHG members showed dynamism, which harbours possibilities for claiming diversified livelihood opportunities for women, including in higher-order farm and non-farm value chains, in processing, post-production and marketing roles, in non-traditional and non-gender conforming skills and trades, and in the service sector (Tankha 2020b).

      In the wake of possible depletion of savings, adverse impact on steady income sources for households and the alarming decline in women’s labour force participation aggravated by COVID-19, now more than ever it would make sense to leverage and strengthen group-based strategies for livelihoods promotion— pooling scarce resources and labour of individuals and aggregating produce and products using cluster-based approaches, for both farm and non-farm livelihoods. This would include supporting and formalising women-owned and women-led producer collectives and enterprises besides ensuring that women are provided with necessary ecosystem inputs and support such as access to finance, working capital, financial and digital literacy, skills and mentorship. A critical strategy for ensuring lasting economic security for women would be to facilitate access to and ownership of assets or productive resources in women’s name.

      Convergence and partnerships: It is imperative to recognise that while the women’s SHGs were at the forefront of the crisis response, an institutional impetus would be essential for recovery, through the forging of higher-order and institutional collaborations by the NRLM and State Rural Livelihoods Missions (SRLMs). A range of partnerships would be needed. First, convergence of the NRLM with other government programmes would be a critical strategy. On the one hand, this would ensure women and girls’ access to social protection, rights and entitlements such as food, health, nutrition, maternity, childcare services, and doorstep access to water, sanitation, fuel and fodder to alleviate the disproportionate burden of unpaid work performed by them. On the other hand, it would ensure job creation for the SHG women in paid public employment opportunities, including in community-based childcare and healthcare, while ensuring decent wages. Second, in order to protect women’s livelihoods, there is a need for strengthening institutional tie-ups with financial, market and government actors for both input and marketing support. Third, in order to guarantee women’s health, safety, bodily integrity and well-being, convergence and collaborations could be forged by the SRLMs with other ministries, departments, with the NRLM sub-programmes and verticals and with civil society organisations and women’s organisations. As an example, this would mean linking women with grievance redressal services for gender-based violence, through forums such as GRCs, alternative dispute resolution (ADR) mechanisms, local legal authorities, psychosocial support and counselling, local bodies such as State Commission for Women and mechanisms such as the Nirbhaya Fund under the Department of Women and Child Development. Last, engaging with community stakeholders and institutions such as Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs), traditional village institutions and faith and religious leaders would also be necessary, to address community-held adverse social norms and intra-household gender-discriminatory behaviours.

      Gender-responsive programming in the NRLM: Though the NRLM is a livelihoods programme at its core, the pandemic taught us that women’s needs cannot be compartmentalised—any threat to the health, safety, security and well-being of women will undoubtedly negatively impact women’s participation in livelihoods and her household economic security. Taking cognisance of the interconnectedness of women’s lived realities, it becomes imperative that a large-scale women’s programme such as the NRLM not neglect basic needs related to freedom from gender-based violence, need for childcare services, maternal and child health and social protection. If the NRLM seeks to truly address the nature of multidimensional poverty, gender-intentional efforts would be needed, as well as mainstreaming of a comprehensive gender-responsive framework across its budgets, design, implementation and monitoring (Tankha 2014). The COVID-19 crisis has also made apparent the need for an intersectional approach to deal with its aftermath, recognising some groups and individuals may have been more severely impacted. Targeted strategies would be needed for the most marginalised, including components such as grants, asset transfers or engaging women as the NRLM CRPs or in government programmes. Finally, better and more robust data and monitoring systems would help in identifying the most vulnerable groups in need of the NRLM support. This would help in tracking disbursement, rotation and ensure an equitable use of funds across members.

      Read the coverage in EPW.

      Overcoming Precarity: How Informal Women Workers Coped During COVID-19

      The COVID-19 pandemic and successive lockdowns worsened the working conditions for women in the informal economy, resulting in loss of jobs, food insecurity, and reverse migration from cities to rural areas, more often than not along with their families. This article presents findings from an evaluation and looks at how informal women workers, such as domestic workers, beedi rollers and agricultural workers, fared in the states of Jharkhand and West Bengal during the pandemic. It looks at the impact of collectivisation efforts through SEWA’s programme to assuage the socio-economic challenges that emerged for these informal women workers.  

      The dominant narrative surrounding informal workers has not changed much for several decades—they remain marginalised, lack basic social protection and continue to live in precarity. Globally, six out of 10 workers are in the informal economy (ILO 2020).

      Among developing and emerging economies, India’s informal sector is among the largest. It is estimated that informal workers make up nearly 90% of India’s labour force, and among women who work, more than 90% work in the informal economy (Bonnet et al 2019). They earn less than men on average, have inadequate access to markets, formal sources of credit, and have limited bargaining power to improve their working conditions and earnings. In India, these women belong primarily to socially disadvantaged castes and communities, which exacerbates inequities and pushes them towards a high risk of poverty.

      In general, the informal sector comprises a diverse set of economic activities, enterprises, and jobs that are not regulated. Informal employment could be of various kinds—wage employment in informal establishments and households, self-employment, unpaid contribution to family work or informal wage employment in formal establishments (for example, front-line health and nutrition workers who are part of the Integrated Child Development Services [ICDS] scheme).

      The situation of these informal workers is precarious because they are not adequately protected by the state or their employers. They work with low and fluctuating incomes, in difficult working conditions and lack legal protection. Several forms of employment in the informal sector, such as beedi rolling or construction work, are prone to workplace injuries and illnesses, and often workers do not receive adequate health coverage from their employers or even safety kits to prevent injuries.

      With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, estimates released by the International Labour Organization (ILO) show that in the absence of any income support measures, informal economy workers across the world witnessed a decline of 60% in their wages in the first month of the lockdown (ILO 2020).

      The COVID-19 pandemic and successive lockdowns particularly worsened the working conditions for women in the informal economy, resulting in loss of jobs, food insecurity, and reverse migration from cities to rural areas, more often than not along with their families. With no support for childcare and limited social protection, women who worked in the informal economy bore a disproportionate burden of the pandemic.

      While the union and state governments in India have started several initiatives to address the vulnerability of those in the informal economy, such as the Unorganized Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008, Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970, and workers’ welfare boards, very often informal workers are unaware or do not avail of these benefits due to information asymmetries and lack of proper documentation.

      Evidence from India and other contexts shows that the working poor in the informal economy, particularly women, need to organise themselves to overcome the structural disadvantages they face. In this regard, the Self-employed Women’s Association (SEWA) has a long-standing history in India of promoting collectivisation efforts of informal workers by organising them into trade unions that can act as platforms for advocating their rights and entitlements. It is through these unionising efforts that members are able to exercise their collective bargaining powers and claim their rights from the government and their employers.

      SEWA also believes in nurturing grassroots leadership by building the capacity of local women and girls and encouraging them to take up the mantle of change. This is translated into their widely known network of aagewans or grassroot leaders. The aagewans are considered to be forerunners in the process of advocating for rights and entitlements of informal women workers, amplifying voices of members, and leading discussions with key decision makers for various trades and forms of informal work.

      Data Collection during the Pandemic

      In 2020, SEWA approached the Initiative of What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE) at LEAD to conduct an evaluation of its long running programme of working with women in the informal economy in West Bengal and Jharkhand. Within these states, the evaluation was carried out in four districts, including Malda, Murshidabad, Hazaribagh and Ranchi, where SEWA had implemented its programme.

      The programme aims to improve women’s access to, and understanding of, basic services such as health, sanitation, and other community infrastructure, as well as their ability to demand local accountability. Since the timing of the study overlapped with the COVID-19 related lockdowns, the objective was also to understand the impact of the economic lockdown on informal women workers. Subsequently, IWWAGE conducted phone interviews in July–August 2020 with over 1,500 members, women grassroots mobilisers and adolescent girls in the two states to unpack the impact of SEWA’s collectivisation approach on the livelihoods of these women (who were mostly engaged in the beedi rolling, construction and agriculture sectors), their well-being, agency, financial and health-related outcomes and also the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19. In addition to the phone survey, the study also comprised key informant interviews with local government officials, political representatives, frontline health workers and beedi company representatives.

      Table 1: Survey Response across Each State

      StateDistrictNumber of Respondents
      JharkhandHazaribagh144
      JharkhandRanchi215
      West BengalMalda287
      West BengalMurshidabad816
      Total1,462

       

      Economic Impact of the Lockdown on Informal Women Workers

      Both West Bengal and Jharkhand have significant proportions of their population engaged in the informal sector. In West Bengal, the relative size of the sector is estimated to be 84.19%  while for Jharkhand it is 73.88% (MOSPI 2007).

      Even within our sample, the women were engaged in various forms of informal work and trades which were primarily beedi rolling, agriculture, street vending, domestic and construction work. The majority of the sample in West Bengal comprised women who were engaged in rolling beedis and selling them to middlemen or Mahajans, who then sold them to beedi companies. In comparison, SEWA’s footprints in Jharkhand were fairly new with an emphasis on securing the socio-economic rights of street vendors, domestic workers, and farmers, who were the largest represented group in the study sample. Overall, most informal women workers included in the study were members of SEWA for an average of three years.

      Figure 1: Primary Occupation of Women Workers in Jharkhand and West Bengal
      Source: Authors’ own calculations based on primary data collected

      In order to understand the economic profile of women workers, the phone survey asked them about the primary source of income in their households. Seventy-one percent of respondents reported relying mainly on casual labour and daily work. Although at the outset, they were apprehensive of disclosing the extent of their own income loss, most women indicated that they had encountered challenges that affected their livelihoods and work, at least in the initial months of the lockdown.

      In the case of beedi workers, 71% of the women in the sample reported that their contractor or employer had either stopped, or was giving significantly fewer orders for rolling beedis. Domestic workers spoke of being denied payments or facing salary cuts, with around 33% lost jobs. This was also the case with construction workers among whom a significant number stated experiencing a complete halt in work as construction sites shut down during the lockdown months. These trends were particularly of concern in Jharkhand, where more than 80% of the state’s labour force is in the unorganised sector as agricultural wage labour, construction labour or as domestic workers (Government of Jharkhand 2016). Interviews with construction workers in the state revealed that the lockdown had severely impacted their ability to return to their job sites. Several women construction workers interviewed for the study reported not being registered for the building and other construction workers welfare board cards, which meant that they would not have had access to relief packages that they would have been eligible for. Hence, they were consequently more vulnerable to economic and health related shocks.

      For women agricultural workers, the study found that 57% of them were unable to visit their fields due to the strict lockdown measures that were enforced, thus disrupting the supply chains. Fifty percent of agricultural workers also reported that their access to local markets and agricultural inputs was significantly hindered.

      During our key informant interviews with local government officials and village panchayat members, job losses, wage cuts and the influx of returning migrants were challenges identified for both states. Data on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) showed that demand for work under the scheme (primarily by men) was almost 71% more in July 2020 compared to July 2019. This would have further hindered women’s ability to seek jobs under the programme due to the return of male migrant workers (MGNREGA 2020).

      In addition to the direct loss of income and impact on mobility, the study assessed SEWA members’ access to and awareness about relief schemes and public provisions. It was found that although 88% of the sample had received COVID-19 related health advisory, only 64% were aware of the schemes the government was offering as a part of COVID-19 relief packages.

      While only 14% of the sample reported facing problems while accessing their local ration shops. A higher proportion of 31% on the other hand, indicated that they had difficulty in availing local health services. The issue of access to ration shops and relief measures was more acute in Jharkhand which had a higher proportion of migrant workers. Here, many people had not received relief measures, while several were unaware of the entitlements that they were eligible for. In Lalgola, a district of West Bengal, food insecurity was also cited as a challenge despite efforts of local leaders and SEWA to provide ration to families.

      One of the more humble findings of the study was the role played by aagewans, grassroot leaders, under the aegis of SEWA, who offered last-mile connectivity to members adversely affected by the pandemic. A separate questionnaire had been administered for them to understand their outreach efforts as well as the challenges associated with the same. Most of the aagewans interviewed for the study shared that they could not meet members regularly and therefore were unable to pass on information about the relevant schemes enacted on account of the pandemic. It also impacted their ability to assist women and girls in an event of domestic violence, which saw an upsurge during the lockdown. Yet, the aagewans proactively assisted ASHA and anganwadi workers in their health surveillance and monitoring efforts and played an important role in the outreach to SEWA members, which was cited by several stakeholders during our interviews with them. This corroborates findings from another SEWA study on the importance of the aagewan network and the role they played to facilitate the delivery of programmes and relief work during the pandemic (Sen and Atkins 2020).

      In West Bengal, SEWA also works towards building the capacities of adolescent girls as future leaders and advancing their rights, aspirations and knowledge on key issues such as health and hygiene. During the lockdown months, while almost all SEWA members reported no change in the average time spent on household work, the same was not true for the adolescent girls in West Bengal. Half of the surveyed girls, most of whom were enrolled in schools, had, in fact, experienced an increase in the hours spent on household work. For most of them, their schools had not provided any support like conducting classes on phones or the television.

      Moving Informal Women Workers Away From Precarity

      The pandemic and the subsequent lockdown measures have worsened the economic, social and mental well-being of informal workers. Relative poverty for informal workers and their families could increase by 34 percentage points globally (ILO 2020). Women who are already at the bottom of the informal economy hierarchy have borne the brunt of this economic crisis. In the study, when asked about what they needed the most support with, at a time when their socio-economic well-being was affected, a majority of respondents reported that finding a job was a top priority for them. This was not surprising given the reported loss in wages and income since the onset of the lockdowns.

      Almost 55% of the world’s population, or more than 4 billion people, are not, or are only partially covered, by social protection (Otobe 2017). Overwhelmingly, several women in Jharkhand and West Bengal also stated that they needed support with accessing benefits and schemes offered by the government. During stakeholder interviews in West Bengal, a government official cited the important role that SEWA played in enrolling women and their household members for the Samajik Suraksha Yojana (social security scheme for unorganised workers). They emphasised that beneficiaries often do not know how to navigate the process, or are unable to fill up the forms, and do not know whom to approach.

      Since the onset of the pandemic aagewans played an important role in the communities by tracking, tracing and identifying community members and returning migrants, providing access to ration and food supplies, and being a critical part in the delivery of health and relief measures in their communities. However, it emerged that they could also play a role going forward in strengthening local health governance and health service delivery systems, particularly in times when being local, they were best placed to extend their outreach to their communities. By strengthening the cadre of aagewans and establishing their credibility within communities, these local leaders can become a critical part of the referral networks and provide the support needed by women and girls to access and avail services at local health centres and hospitals.

      When assessing other impacts of SEWA’s interventions, a critical trend that was observed was that SEWA members who attended meetings frequently (once a month or once in two or three months), regardless of how long they had been SEWA members, had more positive outcomes. At a time when social security and income support for informal workers remains a challenge, these group meetings offer women the platform to voice their concerns, collectively advocate for their rights, and feel a sense of solidarity. Evidence from the study also suggested that members who were frequently attending these group meetings (around health or financial literacy) offered by SEWA were far more aware of their labour rights, and were more confident in negotiating for wages and their entitlements with their employers. Emphasising to women that they need to attend training more regularly is key.

      In terms of financial inclusion, the study highlighted that while a majority of women workers had a bank account, less than 40% reported having a Jan Dhan account. Those who did, said the account was primarily used for the monthly cash transfers of ₹500 during the lockdown. Here, efforts could be made to encourage more women to enrol for Jan Dhan accounts since the government has been using them for direct benefit transfers and providing cash support to affected households.

      As a result of the social distancing norms that were enforced to reduce the spread of  COVID-19, SEWA, like other organisations, developed strategies to engage its member base remotely and offered digital solutions to organise meetings and provide other key interventions. While a significant proportion of the surveyed sample owned phones, the study was unable to reach out to the original population envisaged due to bad connectivity, particularly in remote areas of Jharkhand. A move to digitisation, therefore, should be carefully considered within this context, as inequities exist in phone and internet access.

      Conclusions

      The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed the life trajectories of millions of informal workers across India. Those hoping to transition out of poverty prior to the pandemic have now had to respond to the immediate health and economic shocks that they suffered. Collectivisation holds the promise for transforming socio-economic rights of informal workers, particularly women workers who are further marginalised within the informal economy. It can serve as a platform for not only availing the rights and entitlements that they are eligible for, but also for advocating and demanding additional state support in matters of social security, labour rights and community-level infrastructure. This, in the wake of a pandemic or any other external shock, can strengthen the response and reduce vulnerability at the individual, household and community level.

      Read the coverage in EPW.

      High Risk without Recognition: Challenges Faced by Female Front-line Workers

      An already overburdened, understaffed and under-resourced health system faced severe repercussions in the wake of the pandemic. Those at the forefront of health and nutrition service delivery at the community level are struggling due to increased work burden and low compensation received, particularly since most of them are not formally recognised as workers. In this article, we discuss the conditions of work of front-line women workers, especially accredited social health activists, anganwadi workers and their supervisors (Integrated Child Development Services supervisors, auxiliary nurse/midwife and ASHA facilitators) in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on interviews conducted with workers in Telangana and Bihar, we highlight how women front-line workers were overworked and underpaid even before the pandemic and continue to remain so even after.

      The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a unique opportunity to highlight the working conditions of the vast reserve of women front-line workers employed under various government schemes in India. Such workers play a critical role in the government’s efforts towards improving human development outcomes. Globally, this role has been recognised as being crucial for better implementation and outreach of health services to the population. However, most women engaged in front-line public services in India are considered volunteers and not full-time government employees. Instead of monthly salaries, they are paid honoraria or provided task-based incentives (which are often below minimum wages).

      During the novel coronavirus pandemic, the prominence of such all women cadres has assumed new proportions. Since the beginning of the nationwide lockdown to curb the health crisis in March 2020, these female workers have undertaken a broad range of tasks. This includes conducting surveys, making door-to-door visits, assisting with contact tracing, testing and spreading awareness. Needless to say, they have contributed not only towards curbing the spread of the infection but also in helping people to access treatment in both urban and rural areas.

      In this article, we discuss the conditions of work of front-line women workers, especially accredited social health activists1 (ASHAs), anganwadi workers2 (AWWs) and their supervisors (Integrated Child Development Services [ICDS] supervisors, auxiliary nurse/midwife [ANMs] and ASHA facilitators) in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on interviews conducted with workers in Telangana and Bihar, we highlight how women front-line workers were overworked and underpaid even before the pandemic and continue to remain so even after.

      The article is based on background data from government department websites, data from a (phone) survey conducted between July–August 2020 with 375 women front-line workers in Bihar and Telangana (details in Table 1) and in-depth interviews conducted with front-line workers between May–August 2020. Given the constraints imposed by the pandemic, the sampling was not randomised rather based on the availability of respondents’ contact information and willingness to respond to phone interviews. Therefore, the data are not representative of either the department, the cadre or even the state. However, they are valuable in highlighting the conditions of work of these front-line workers as well as giving an idea of how their roles were affected because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the findings are also validated by a number of newspaper reports, and other primary surveys that have been conducted with these workers (Rao and Tewari 2020; Srinivasan et al 2020).

      Table 1: Number of Respondents by Designation

      DesignationBiharTelanganaTotal
      ANM161329
      ASHA worker541367
      Anganwadi worker101110211
      Asha facilitator808
      ICDS supervisor45752
      Nurse (in PHC)088
      Total224151375

      Our findings show that even during the pandemic, while the workers were given additional responsibilities, few were given protective gear or transport facilities. In fact, it was seen that the workers closer to the ground were the ones who got least support. The higher-level staff who were regular employees were able to demand better facilities in terms of personal protective equipment (PPE) as well as transport arrangements. This broadly translates to little acknowledgment of the crucial work they participate in. This is clearly reflected in the multiple strike calls given by ASHA workers from local to national levels, during 2020 alone, demanding better conditions of work (Dayashankar 2020; Times of India 2020).

      While there were common themes in terms of work conditions found in both the states, there were also differences in certain aspects, with a relatively better situation in Telangana. The health and nutrition outcomes in Telangana are also much better than in Bihar, and so is the overall standard of living and education levels. Telangana also has better conditions of work and a significantly higher female labour force participation rate compared to Bihar. Based on this study, the authors comment on how women, as well as the community, perceived their roles and the status that they enjoyed, and how these perceptions varied by state. The starkest contrast between the experiences of women front-line workers across both states lies in the pay scales that apply to them, as seen above, with honoraria-based workers in Bihar getting paid almost half of what is paid in Telangana. As a result, women in both states had differing views on the importance of the work they did. Anganwadi teachers (AWTs) in Telangana identify themselves as teachers and value their contribution to society. Even ASHA workers who are paid a base salary consider themselves regular government workers.  There was also a difference in the way women perceived the opportunities available to them across the two states. Therefore, the responses of the women also need to be interpreted with reference to their contexts.

      Pre-COVID-19: Overworked and Underpaid

      Despite their voluntary worker status, the multiple roles and responsibilities that ASHAs and AWWs are given often amounts to a full day’s work. Previous literature especially in relation to anganwadi workers have also pointed this out (Dasgupta et al 2012; John et al 2020). This is also seen in their official job descriptions in both states. AWWs’ tasks, both in Telangana and Bihar, ranged from conducting regular health surveys of families, maintaining files and records, running the anganwadi centres to spreading awareness on health, nutrition, family planning, and child growth and development. They are responsible for keeping track of immunisation of children as well as providing preschool education. These workers are further responsible for the implementation of schemes related to adolescent girls.

      On the health front, ASHA workers play a key role in the healthcare apparatus as links between public healthcare delivery systems and the community they serve. According to the National Health Mission guidelines, their principal tasks involve creating awareness and providing information to communities on matters of nutrition, sanitation, hygiene, family planning and existing public health services.They are involved in counselling women and their families on birth preparedness, breastfeeding, immunisation of infants, health and contraception. ASHAs also accompany pregnant women and children requiring treatment to the nearest health facility (such as a primary health centre [PHC], community health centre or first referral unit). Like with the AWWs, their job description keeps expanding to include more tasks. During the interviews, almost all of them spoke of the multiple tasks that they have to do on a daily basis. None of them perceived it as “voluntary” work that could be done based on how much time they had, rather as duties that any regular employee has to perform.

      Other than the regular defined tasks, ASHAs and AWWs routinely have to take on other work (from other government departments) beyond the scope of their roles. For example, one of the ASHAs in Telangana mentioned that recently during the rainy season, to prevent spread of dengue and malaria, they had to go fishing and put those fish in wells or in any unused water where larvae are more. Surveys, electoral lists and health campaigns are also delegated to them depending on government requirements.

      The burden of work on these women is not something that would qualify as being part time or voluntary (Jain et al 2020). Our survey also showed that many worked on average six hours or more a day before the COVID-19 pandemic (refer to Table 2). Even among ASHA workers who are incentivised on a case-by-case basis, more than a quarter had a full working day, and a further 46% said that on an average they worked four to six hours a day. It is therefore clear that even for women working as ASHAs it is not possible for them to work elsewhere for an income, such as agriculture or non-agriculture labour while doing this job. Ninety percent of AWWs also worked more than four hours a day, with around 60% saying they worked more than seven hours a day.

      Table 2: Average Working Hours in a Day (% of Total Respondents)

      DesignationLess than 4 hours4–6 hours7–8 hoursMore than 8 hours
      ANM0096.63.5
      ASHA worker26.946.325.41.5
      Anganwadi worker10.429.458.31.9
      Asha facilitator255012.512.5
      ICDS supervisor5.840.4503.9
      Nurse12.512.5750
      Total12.331.753.62.4

       

      Data on vacancies in supervisory positions in both ICDS and health also show that inadequate staff is a huge problem restricting the ability of those who are present to actually provide any supportive supervision. As of July 2020, the number of vacancies in supervisory positions for ICDS stand at 46.3% in Bihar and 41.3% in Telangana.4

      Despite being overworked, women in these roles are also overwhelmingly underpaid. Owing to their “honorarium” based employment status, their monthly income in Bihar ends up being even less the wages of unskilled manual labourers under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in the state.5 In the case of ASHAs, the initial design of the programme itself was such that they were paid incentives for different tasks undertaken by them with no fixed wage component. However, over the years with the number of tasks being given to ASHA workers, they have begun to organise themselves and demand recognition as employees. The Indian government recently increased the incentive package for ASHA workers in such a manner, where it states that each ASHA worker will get at least ₹2,000 per month (PIB 2018). Some states have also started giving a fixed component to ASHA workers. In Telangana, for instance, ASHAs are paid a wage of ₹6,000 a month. In Bihar, on the other hand, ASHAs in the state have no fixed wage component and earn purely on the basis of incentives. Further, the new incentives have not yet been implemented in Bihar. Therefore, the disruption in immunisation services and difficulty in accessing health centres during the lockdown actually meant a significant decrease in incomes despite more work.

      Even in the case of AWWs, there is a lot of variation in what they get paid in different states. In 2018, the central government nominally increased its contribution for AWW honorarium to ₹4,500 from ₹3,000 per month. States top this up from their own budgets. Bihar pays an additional ₹750 per month while in Telangana they get ₹6,000 more as the state contribution. Their salary in Telangana of ₹10,500 a month is much higher. Even though it is still less than what a regular employee in the government would get, this definitely adds to their self-worth.

      Needless to say, income levels also reflect in the women’s perception of their work, self-worth and standing in their community. In the case of AWWs, the government has consistently argued that they are not employees and are “honorary” workers and therefore the laws related to minimum wages and other labour rights do not apply to them. This argument also was withheld by the Supreme Court in a case filed by the Karnataka AWWs union (PIB 2014). To make matters worse, they have to cope with delays in payment, poor infrastructure and transport and so on. The survey found that only 45% of the respondents in Bihar had been paid in the last two months, and for the rest their salaries had been delayed for over two months. In Telangana, the salaries were more regular.

      Post-COVID-19: Amplified Impact on an Already Overburdened System

      The onset of the pandemic increased the burden of work especially on ASHAs manifold and they had to face greater logistical hardships relating to transport, infrastructure and payment. The additional responsibilities related to the pandemic that these front-line workers were given included awareness campaigns, surveys, home delivery of supplementary nutrition and other services, making quarantine arrangements for returning migrants and arranging for relief measures (such as public distribution system rations) to reach beneficiaries. With anganwadi centers closed, AWWs had to home-deliver supplementary nutrition and also check on high risk pregnancy cases every day. Additionally, during the lockdown they, along with ASHA and ANM, were responsible for doing door-to-door surveys and spreading awareness on wearing masks and washing hands.

      During COVID-19, ASHAs were supposed to get an incentive of ₹1,000 per month for the additional amount of work that they were having to do. None of the respondents in either of the states had received this additional payment at the time of the survey and interviews (July–August 2020). While in Bihar there were massive delays in payments, in Telangana they were receiving their regular wages on time but AWTs were faced with a 10% cut in salary due to COVID-19. In Bihar, the ASHAs were given ₹200 a day for door-to-door survey, but there was a limit imposed that the survey had to be completed in three days even though it actually took longer.

      When asked about her additional work, Ankita, an ASHA worker from Samastipur, said, “we had to conduct this survey in our wards only and daily go for 4-5 days to see where who has come from, whether anyone has a cold is coughing or sneezing, who has come from outside among them or whose having breathing difficulty and these signs we had to check in the houses we had to cover; we had to ask questions and fill the forms that had come from the block office.” Owing to pressure from government officials, they often worked over time.

      The pandemic also entailed a greater burden of domestic work. According to one respondent, “we used to leave the house in the morning at 8 am since there were a lot of house visits to do and we would do all the work and return around 5-5.30pm in the evening on those days. We never stopped for any breaks, just stood and finished the work as fast as we could or we would not be able to fill the forms if we did not make it to the houses,” she said. Needless to say, her day included waking up early in order to complete all her household chores. Her three children and husband were all home during this period and she was required to wash clothes, cook lunch and dinner for them before leaving for the day’s work and then again return to complete the remaining work. Among the phone survey respondents, 42% (44% in Bihar and 40% in Telangana) felt that they had more work than usual (refer to Table 3).

      Table 3: Responses Comparing Work Post-COVID-19 With Pre-COVID-19 Scenario (% of Total Respondents)

      ResponseBihar
      (N=224)
      Telangana
      (N=151)
        Total
      (N=375)
      More than usual43.839.742.1
      Same as usual15.24728
      Less than usual41.113.229.9
      Total100100100

      Note: N is the total number of respondents.

      Even among those who said that the quantum of work did not increase, there was a greater pressure during this period given the overall environment of the spread of the infection in which they had to continue working being constantly in touch with a large number of people. At the same time the workers also talked about the difficulties they faced in doing their regular tasks. In Bihar, for instance, ASHA workers talked about being unable to take people to the PHCs due to the lack of public transport.

      The imposition of a strict lockdown accompanied a strict halt in all local transport services. Local trains, buses, autos and all other forms of transport were unavailable. Most married AWWs, ASHAs and ANMs (in both states) we spoke to looked for support from their husbands for mobility during this period, to travel for meetings, taking patients to the PHC and so on. Transportation was a huge problem for single women like Balamma, who works as an anganwadi supervisor. She says, “Buses were not there. I faced a lot of problems. But they told us that we have to definitely go to villages. It is the Collector’s order. I am a single woman (vontara mahila). I do not have any male companions. I do not have a husband or father to take me and drop. If there is a vehicle/bus, we will go in it. When it’s not there, how should we travel?”

      Many also faced additional pressure from their households to stop doing this work as it is seen to be too risky with few benefits. Rajita, who is an ASHA worker from Telangana, gave her entire earnings to her husband and had no access to cash. Until June 2020, she was not given a single mask and she used to do surveys by tying her handkerchief over her face. Her family was against her working during this (pandemic) time. She recalls, “My mother-in-law used to ask me to not go again and again. But when there is a job, we must do all this! So, I used to just go. They got angry with me and didn’t buy me a mask or sanitiser!”

      Community members were also hostile towards these health workers owing to the fears of being forcefully quarantined in government facilities. People often stopped them from entering their homes and made them stand outside while answering their questions for fear that they may infect them. Murdeshwari (an ANM from Telangana) recalls, “People did not even give us a glass of water! They said that, if we come close to you or give you water, we might get it. They locked their door, and used to talk from a distance. But this is our profession! If we get it, we can still deal with it. But they should not get it from us. At first, I felt bad, but then it became normal.”

      Preeti, an ICDS supervisor from Bihar, adds that despite taking so much risk during the pandemic, the government still refuses to recognise their value and pay them better. She says, “on one hand the government wants to empower women and on the other not pay them. Under the Women and Child Development programme you have given a woman work but that woman is malnourished and not getting paid. During this lockdown, so many women bought their rations with interest from shops. How will they manage their houses? And their families are objecting to their leaving the house during the lockdown and will not even give them any money, then who will see to their problems?” In Bihar and Telangana, workers were paid ₹200 per day with a three-day limit to undertake ward-wise surveys of the population. This at a time when most incentive-based ASHA work was stopped, thereby reducing their income.

      Access to Protective Gear or Support

      Despite the higher risk of contracting COVID-19, front-line workers had limited or no access to basic PPE, such as masks, gloves and hand sanitisers, let alone visors and scrubs. While a large proportion of the phone-survey respondents reported that they had received protective gear (refer to Table 4), the qualitative interviews revealed that this distribution was a one-time supply. Furthermore, the gear provided was not of a good quality, because of which workers had to make their own arrangements.

      Table 4: Received any Protective Gear (% of Total Respondents)

      DesignationBihar (N=224)Telangana (N=151)
      ANM10085
      ASHA worker8554
      Anganwadi worker8665
      Asha facilitator50NA
      ICDS supervisor8229
      NursesNA100

      Note: N is the total number of respondents.

      According to Malti, an ANM, “what they gave only functions for 4 hours! We buy and wear our own masks! They gave in March of 2020 but only about 10 of each. That is not enough and we bought from outside. Even the sanitisers they gave us were about 200ML! That is not enough so we bought more personally.” Sonia (AWW, Vaishali) also mentioned that neither AWWs nor AWHs in their area were given any masks, gloves or sanitisers from the CDPO office. She resorted to covering her face with cotton cloth material from her house.

      The poor conditions of work pre-COVID-19 were only further exacerbated post the pandemic. While there is a huge scope of improvement on both states, Telangana was relatively better when compared to Bihar on many counts.

      Conclusions

      Many of these women workers have spent years demanding recognition as government employees performing crucial full-time jobs as front-line health workers. However, their demands have been ignored so far, except for in some states such as Telangana where there has been a broad-based increase in honorariums. However, the view that these women, who implement India’s health and nutrition goals at the grassroots level, are merely honorary volunteers instead of actual workers remain strongly entrenched.

      The central role that these workers have been playing in the COVID-19 pandemic could become an opportunity for recognition of their work and initiate a process where their work conditions are improved. Expanding better opportunities with decent wages for front-line workers is not only necessary for acknowledging their rights as workers, but could also contribute to the revival of the rural economy by putting wages into the hands of many, and take us closer to achieving our health and nutrition goals. This is especially important in the current context where employment opportunities for educated rural women are so few.

      Given the declining female labour force participation, the government’s recognition of front-line workers and their contribution to human development is an urgent requirement. AWWs and ASHAs (alongside supervisors and ANMs) deliver services crucial to the health and well-being of the population. The chronic lack of attention to their working conditions only serves to weaken policy outcomes, women’s empowerment and community development over all.

      Read the coverage in EPW.

      जेंडर संवाद का मकसद राज्यों से जमीनी स्तर की आवाजों को सुनना और उनके अनुभवों को जानना भी है

      नई दिल्ली (New Delhi) . ग्रामीण विकास मंत्रालय द्वारा आज जेंडर संवाद कार्यक्रम का शुभारंभ किया गया. यह कार्यक्रम साझे तौर पर दीनदयाल अंत्योदय योजना-राष्ट्रीय ग्रामीण आजीविका मिशन (डीएवाई-एनआरएलएम) और ‘महिलाओं और लड़कियों को अर्थव्यवस्था में सशक्त बनाने के लिए जरूरी कदम’ (आईडब्ल्यूडब्ल्यूएजीई) के तहत की जा रही कोशिशों का हिस्सा है. यह प्रयास देश भर में डीएवाई-एनआरएलएम के तहत जेंडर आधारित प्रयासों से लैंगिक जागरूकता उत्पन्न करने, बेहतरीन प्रथाओं को जानने और राज्यों से जमीनी स्तर की आवाजों को सुनने के मकसद से किया जा रहा है.

        जानिए मंगलवार का राशिफल

      – जेंडर संवाद से राज्यों को निम्न अवसर प्रदान होंगे-

      •उन सर्वोत्तम प्रथाओं/पहलों को समझने का मौका जिनका उपयोग अन्य राज्य महिलाओं की एजेंसी को बेहतर बनाने के लिए कर रहे हैं (जैसे भूमि अधिकारों के लिए महिलाओं की पहुंच को आसान बनाना, किसान उत्पादक संगठनों (एफपीओ) में उनका दखल, खाद्य, पोषण, स्वास्थ्य, पानी और स्वच्छता (एफएनएचडब्ल्यू) में सर्वोत्तम प्रथाएँ, सार्वजनिक सेवा वितरण के लिए मजबूत संस्थानों की स्थापना में और महिलाओं के भीतर कमजोर समूहों को समस्याओं के निवारण प्रदान करने के लिए इस्तेमाल की जा रही अच्छी प्रथाओं को जानने का मौका.

        राजस्‍थान में कोरोना की पहली लहर में जान गंवाने वालो की अस्थियां को विसर्जन का इंतजार

      •वैश्विक स्तर पर जेंडर आधारित उठाए जा रहे कदमों को समझना.

      •विशेषज्ञों और अन्य सहयोगियों से इस पर बातचीत और सलाह कि जेंडर संबंधी मुद्दों को कैसे सुलझाया जाएऔर इसे लागू करने में बाधाओं का कैसे दूर किया जाए.

      •देश-विदेश में जेंडर आधारित बेहतरीन संसाधन सामग्री को एक जगह पर लाने में सहयोग प्रदान करना.

        राजस्‍थान में कोरोना डर से दिन जंगलों में, रात घरो में गुजार रहे ग्रामीण

      •जेंडर आधारित मुद्दों पर ध्यान देने की जरूरत को समझते हुए इसे राज्य ग्रामीण आजीविका मिशन और राष्ट्रीय ग्रामीण आजीविका मिशन का हिस्सा बनाया जाए.

      Undoing Unpaid Work: Tackling Time Poverty is Key to Address Gender Inequality

      A recent announcement from a political party in Tamil Nadu has pushed forward frequently halted debates around recognizing women’s unpaid work. The party promises to pay housewives a monthly wage to recognize and support their household work. This announcement has come at a crucial juncture as the world adapts to a ‘new normal’, unfortunately the burden of this new normal is falling disproportionately on women in different ways. These unprecedented times precipitated by the COVID19 crisis have unfolded new layers of the gendered dimensions of unpaid care work. It has deepened pre-existing gender inequalities, increased women’s economic and social insecurity, domestic violence, unpaid care work, and also disconnected them from availing institutional and social support (UN Women 2020). Due to the closure of schools and families at home, women’s care work increased by 30% during COVID19 (Khan and Nikore 2020). The pandemic has shown that women bear the brunt of ‘disproportionately divided domestic duties’ which points to the larger issue of the gendered nature of unpaid work.

      The arrangement of social structures, patriarchal system, and prevalent gender norms expect women to perform certain roles which tend to confine their choices and actions. It gives rise to complex forms of invisible gender inequalities. Gendered dimensions of housework portray the existence of such inequalities. Women are subjected to ‘dual burdens’ of household work and work performed for income-generating activities. Household work is unpaid and unrecognized and is classified as ‘unproductive work’ and no equation calculates its direct or indirect value to the economic system. Women face time deficiency for meeting their personal requirements and it is termed as ‘time poverty’ in a simpler way and is often linked to the ‘crises of care’ (Fraser, 2016). Spending long hours in unpaid housework have large implications in women’s lives which go beyond any monetary value. Women’s engagement in unpaid work constitutes to be one of the main reasons for their economic and social disempowerment. (UN Women 2018). The burden of housework and the varied demands of caring activities at the household levels restrict women’s ability to participate in work outside the home (Deshpande and Kabeer 2019).  Every day, an average Indian female spends 5 hours per day in unpaid domestic work, compared to 1.5 hours by a male (NSS Time Use in India, 2019). The same report shows that 82.1 percent of women in rural India spend their time in unpaid domestic services for household members against 27.7 percent of men. Moreover, as per Jal Shakti’s Jal Jivan Mission’s Dashboard (March 2021), only 36.54% of the rural households have Functional Household Tap Connections which means that the majority of the households have to collect water from a public facility or any other water body in the village and women are more likely to be assigned with this responsibility. Less than 45% of households use clean fuel for cooking in five states as per NFHS5 (Phase1) which means that these households use traditional ways of cooking that is time-consuming and mostly women are engaged in this.

      Therefore, women in rural India might face acute levels of time poverty due to multiple factors of deprivation that leave them with little time to devote to their personal well-being. Oxfam’s India Inequality Report 2020 highlighted that societal norms in rural areas do not allow women to ask men to share the burden of housework. In an article on time poverty, it is argued that “most people who are time-poor are also income-poor” and they do not have the individual choice to choose their time demands (Ghosh and Jayati 2020 p.2). It is primarily linked with their economic disadvantage which does not allow them to pay for outsourcing their housework and caring responsibilities to a third person. Moreover, in rural areas – lack of infrastructure facilities, poor availability and accessibility of goods and services, scarce public transport, and dependence on subsistence economy signify greater levels of hardship for women to complete their day-to-day activities and ultimately adding to their time poverty.

      Time poverty puts stress on women’s wellbeing which goes beyond income-based poverty. Moreover, programs and interventions for women might not capture the gendered nature of time poverty when addressing women’s concerns due to the unavailability of Time Use Statistics. The inability to capture time poverty would mean that underlying factors that place women in a disadvantaged position get neglected when addressing their problems. For example, a program that aims to enhance girls learning outcomes in a government school might not take into consideration the fact that girls spend long hours engaged in housework which means they have less time available for study after school timings and ultimately impacts their learning outcomes. As per a report by UNICEF, globally girls between the ages of 5 and 14 years spend 40 percent more time, or 160 million more hours a day than boys on unpaid household chores and collecting water and firewood (UNCF 2016), Similarly, efforts to improve the political participation of women at the Panchayat level might completely neglect time deficiency as an underlying cause for lower participation of women in Gram Sabha meetings. The evidence suggests that tackling time poverty constitutes an important area of intervention to address gender inequality in rural India. For this purpose, a 4Rs Strategy is envisaged as a guiding framework to design and implement interventions in rural areas for tackling time poverty. That strategy states:

      Redefine: Redefining the roles that women perform. It will require bringing a behavioral change in the men and community towards perceiving women’s roles and responsibilities and also transforming the social structures that are gender-biased.

      Redesign: Redesigning the policies and frameworks that aim for gender equality. Also redesigning surveys that are well equipped to capture time poverty in women’s daily life. This will help in better availability of time use data that can extensively support the redesign and implementation of gender interventions.

      Remunerate: Remunerating equally by bridging the wage gap so that women are encouraged to take part in economic activities.

      Resource: Creation and access to basic infrastructure facilities and services in rural areas that can reduce women’s time in completing their day-to-day activities (collecting firewood, fetching water from a distant source, etc.). Advocating for Gender responsive care policies, puts the state at the centre of care provisioning, giving it the responsibility for framing policies that recognise and represent women and their needs in decision making arenas. There is also a potential of creating a cadre of women as a human resource through Self Help Groups who are well equipped with the knowledge, awareness and mechanism to respond to women’s demands and necessities.

      Making the ‘4Rs Strategy’ a reality would require political, individual and collective actions. Governments must take efforts beyond promises for bringing the system level transformation in addressing time poverty and gender inequality. It will also require the contribution of the grass-root organizations, policy think tanks, research and gender experts on multiple fronts. At the same time it is important to involve men in the conversation, build gender perspectives bottom up and work together to create a more equal post pandemic world.

      References:

      Deshpande A., and Kabeer N., 2019. “(In)Visibility, Care and Cultural Barriers: The Size and Shape of Women’s Work in India,”Working Papers 10, Ashoka University, Department of Economics.

      Ghosh, Jayati. “Time Poverty Is Making Indian Women Lose More Money than Ever.”ThePrint,3Oct.2020. Available from https://theprint.in/pageturner/excerpt/time-poverty-is-making-indian-women-lose-more-money-than- ever/515811/

      https://ejalshakti.gov.in/jjmreport/JJMIndia.aspx

      Khan R. P.,and Nikore M., 2020 “It Is Time to Address COVID-19’s Disproportionate Impact on India’s Women.” Asian Development Bank, 1 Mar. 2020.

      “Nancy Fraser, Contradictions of Capital and Care, NLR 100, July–August 2016.” New Left Review, 1 Aug. 2016.

      NFHS5 (Phase1), National Family Health Survey, India

      NSS REPORT: TIME USE IN INDIA- 2019 (JANUARY – DECEMBER 2019). 29 Sept. 2020.

      United Nations Children’s Fund, Harnessing the Power of Data for Girls: Taking stock and looking ahead to 2030, UNICEF, New York, 2016

      UN Women (2018). Promoting Women’s Economic Empowerment: Recognizing and Investing in the Care Economy.

      1. 2020. The impact of COVID-19 on women. Policy Brief. New York: United Nations
      Gender Samvaad event launched

      Gender Samvaad event, a joint attempt between DAY-NRLM and the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE) to create a common platform to share experiences emerging from this effort, was organised today by the Ministry of Rural Development, Govt. of India. The attempt is to generate greater awareness on gender related interventions under DAY-NRLM across the country and best practices, with a focus on hearing voices from the states and the field.

      Gender Samvaad provides states with opportunities to:

      • Understand best practices/initiatives that other states have been undertaking to improve women’s agency (e.g. facilitating women’s access to land rights, their engagement in farmer producer organizations (FPOs), best practices around Food, Nutrition, Health and Water and Sanitation (FNHW), in establishing strong institutions for public service delivery, and in protecting and providing redress to vulnerable groups within women (e.g. to victims of witch hunting));
      • Understand gender interventions globally;
      • Engage with experts and other colleagues on suggestions regarding how to handle issues/implementation barriers;
      • Contribute to creation of a ‘gender repository’ with resource materials on best practices for gender interventions across the country/other countries; and
      • Build advocacy around the need to focus on gender issues across SRLMs and the NRLM.

      The event was launched today by Nagendra Nath Sinha, Secretary, Rural Development as part of the ongoing Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav. The online launch event brought together a distinguished panel of experts, including senior officials of the Ministry of Rural Development. In addition, voices of women from the field, who shared their experiences on how gender mainstreaming efforts within the DAY-NRLM have helped enhance their agency were also included. A compendium of case studies presenting inspiring stories of SHG members was also released at the event.

      With over 60 million women mobilised to be part of one of India’s largest livelihoods programme, the Deendayal Antayodaya Yojana-National Rural Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NRLM) holds great promise for advancing women’s socio-economic empowerment by organising them into self-help groups (SHGs) and federations of the rural poor. Not only are these platforms facilitating financial opportunities and livelihood support services for women, but they have also become an extended arm of governance to demand accountability from and build linkages with mainstream institutions.

      In 2016, DAY-NRLM laid out a gender operational strategy to mainstream gender issues within its federated architecture, with a focus on training and capacity building of staff, cadres and institutions on gender issues. This was coupled with the establishment of institutional platforms (e.g. social action committees and gender resource centres) at the field level, so women could approach them for their grievances and to claim their rights and entitlements. Read the coverage here.

      Gender Samvaad’s focus is on hearing voices from the states and the field

      Gender Samvaad event, a joint attempt between DAY-NRLM and the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE) to create a common platform to share experiences emerging from this effort, was organised today by the Ministry of Rural Development, Govt. of India. The attempt is to generate greater awareness on gender related interventions under DAY-NRLM across the country and best practices, with a focus on hearing voices from the states and the field.

      Gender Samvaad provides states with opportunities to:

      • Understand best practices/initiatives that other states have been undertaking to improve women’s agency (e.g. facilitating women’s access to land rights, their engagement in farmer producer organizations (FPOs), best practices around Food, Nutrition, Health and Water and Sanitation (FNHW), in establishing strong institutions for public service delivery, and in protecting and providing redress to vulnerable groups within women (e.g. to victims of witch hunting));
      • Understand gender interventions globally;
      • Engage with experts and other colleagues on suggestions regarding how to handle issues/implementation barriers;
      • Contribute to creation of a ‘gender repository’ with resource materials on best practices for gender interventions across the country/other countries; and
      • Build advocacy around the need to focus on gender issues across SRLMs and the NRLM.

      The event was launched today by Nagendra Nath Sinha, Secretary, Rural Development as part of the ongoing Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav. The online launch event brought together a distinguished panel of experts, including senior officials of the Ministry of Rural Development. In addition, voices of women from the field, who shared their experiences on how gender mainstreaming efforts within the DAY-NRLM have helped enhance their agency were also included. A compendium of case studies presenting inspiring stories of SHG members was also released at the event.

      With over 60 million women mobilised to be part of one of India’s largest livelihoods programme, the Deendayal Antayodaya Yojana-National Rural Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NRLM) holds great promise for advancing women’s socio-economic empowerment by organising them into self-help groups (SHGs) and federations of the rural poor. Not only are these platforms facilitating financial opportunities and livelihood support services for women, but they have also become an extended arm of governance to demand accountability from and build linkages with mainstream institutions.

      In 2016, DAY-NRLM laid out a gender operational strategy to mainstream gender issues within its federated architecture, with a focus on training and capacity building of staff, cadres and institutions on gender issues. This was coupled with the establishment of institutional platforms (e.g. social action committees and gender resource centres) at the field level, so women could approach them for their grievances and to claim their rights and entitlements.

      Read the press note by Ministry of Rural Development.