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      Marriage reduces likelihood of urban women’s participation in workforce: Study

      Marriage reduces the likelihood of the participation of urban women in the workforce by 17%, suggests a study examining the determinants of women’s declining participation in the Indian labour force.

      The presence of young children is also associated with lower participation, as women in households with children less than five years of age are less likely to participate in the labour force across rural and urban areas, according to a report ‘Working or Not: What Determines Women’s Labour Force Participation in India?’ by The Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE) at LEAD, a research centre of IFMR Society.

      While educational attainment levels continue to grow, more educated women were unemployed in 2018-19 than 2011-12, it says.

      Women’s participation in India’s labour force has been steadily declining since 1993-94. The study shows that the primary driver behind this decline has come from rural areas, with participation dropping by 24 percentage points since 1993-1994. By contrast, the participation of urban women during this period saw only a marginal decline, from 25% to 22.5%.

      Rural women’s participation declined across all states during 2011-12 and 2018-19. A number of factors explain this phenomenon, including decreasing employment opportunities for women in rural areas.

      The period between 2011 and 2019 has seen the percentage of female labour in the agricultural sector fall from 62% to 54.7%. The percentage of women employed in industrial work during this period also saw a marginal decline, from 19.9% to 19%. Although the same period also saw the share of women workers in the services sector rise significantly, this growth has largely been confined to urban areas.

      Soumya Kapoor Mehta, Head, IWWAGE at LEAD tells DH, Covid-19 has exacerbated the challenge and laid bare the sharp gendered inequalities that continue to persist in India’s labour market.

      “Millions of women, who are largely employed in the informal economy as domestic workers, garment workers, street vendors, and construction workers, have lost their jobs. The female labour force participation rate is estimated to have dropped below 20% now in the wake of the pandemic.”

      The study highlights, as the household’s income levels increase, the likelihood of a woman being in the labour force decreases. It says, however, vocational training of all types raises the probability of labour market participation in both rural and urban areas, with on-the-job training having the highest effect.

      The state’s social sector spending positively influences women’s LFPR across rural and urban areas. As such, the South of India has a higher proportion of women in the workforce than other regions in the country, says the report.

      These findings are drawn from an analysis of household-level data from India’s Periodic Labour Force Surveys (PLFS), covering the years 2017-18 and 2018-19.

      Mehta suggests that in order to have an equitable recovery, women’s unpaid care work must be urgently addressed through investments in childcare and social protection to mothers and care providers.

      “We need to invest in policies and programmes that not only improve women’s labour force participation, but also their overall labour market outcomes by enhancing access to skill development, technical and vocational training programmes, provision of family-friendly policies, provision of safe and convenient transport, and access to better-paid formal jobs or entrepreneurship opportunities,” she says.

      Read the coverage here.

      The number of working women in India has been steadily declining, here’s why

      India has one of the lowest female participation rates in the workforce among the developing countries. The country has seen a steady decline over the past two decades. Women in rural areas all over the country have shown a massive churn, a drop by 24% since 1993-1994, reveals Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE). Women in India’s urban areas saw a marginal decline from 25% to 22.5% during this period.IWWAGE is a grant-holder of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It is a research centre, which aims to facilitate the agenda of women’s economic empowerment.

      The number of working women in India has been steadily declining, here’s why
      IWWAGE

      The report also says that during the period between 2011-2019, 30% of women in rural areas were engaged in low-skilled occupations whereas in urban areas, engagement of women in the service sector has shown a tremendous rise. Also, women employed in industrial work during this period witnessed a marginal decrease from 19.9% to 19%.

      During the period between 2011-2019 in the agricultural sector, the percentage of female labour saw a sharp dip from 62% to 54.7%. Overall 71% of women are engaged in low productive activities, which shows that women continue to take vulnerable and marginal jobs. More than half of it get engaged in self employment but mostly are underpaid helpers or contributing family workers, highlights the report.

      The number of working women in India has been steadily declining, here’s why
      IWWAGE

      The graph shows that during the period between 2018-2019, women who belong to scheduled tribes or Adivasi communities in rural areas participated more in labour workforce than other social groups, followed by scheduled caste or Dalit women. In 2004, women in scheduled tribes registered the highest drop followed by women in scheduled caste and other backward class groups.

      As per IWWAGE, these are some possible reasons for decreasing female labour force participation during the period between 1993-2019 —Participation of women in workforce is related to households with higher incomesThe multivariate analysis highlights this as one of the critical factors which negatively affects the participation of women in both rural and urban areas. As the income of the household increases, the involvement of women in the workforce decreases. Women tend to withdraw from the workforce once the socio-economic status of the household improves.

      The number of working women in India has been steadily declining, here’s why
      IWWAGE

      Women after getting married or with small kids tend to participate less in the workforceThe IWWAGE report further reveals that getting married reduces the likelihood of women’s participation in the workforce by 17%, especially for those who have small kids below the age of five years in both rural and urban areas. A trend from 1993 also suggests that women in both urban and rural areas have been contributing more in household duties which often goes undervalued, overlooked and underreported.

      U-shaped relationship between female labour force participation rate and educationWomen’s education is one of the major determinants in the labour force participation rate. The analysis shows that women with no or primary education work more than those with secondary or higher education. Women with high degrees are 12% more likely to engage in the labour force in urban areas.Vocational training in both rural and urban areas have a higher possibility of labour market participation. Job training in urban areas, too, has a higher impact on women’s labour market participation .

      Read the coverage at Business Insider here.

      Higher household income, lower education levels determinants of women’s labour force participation: Report

      Higher household income and lower education levels are determinants of women’s labour force participation, a report said on Friday.The findings are part of ‘Working or Not: What Determines Women’s Labour Force Participation in India?’ — a research paper, released by ‘The Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE)’. These findings are drawn from an analysis of household-level data from India’s Periodic Labour Force Surveys (PLFS), covering the years 2017-18 and 2018-19, said IWWAGE, an initiative of LEAD at Krea University.

      The initiative is aimed at building on existing research and generate new evidence to inform and facilitate the agenda of women’s economic empowerment. The analysis also looks at long-term trends using the National Sample Survey Organization’s (NSSO) Employment-Unemployment Surveys (EUS), covering the years 1993-94 and 2011-12.

      Women’s participation in India’s labour force has been steadily declining since 1993-94 and India has one of the lowest female labour force participation rates among developing countries. Despite decades of policies and programmes aimed at addressing this issue, the figure has remained consistently low, it said.The study shows that the primary driver behind this decline has come from rural areas, with participation dropping by 24 percentage points since 1993-1994. By contrast, the participation of urban women during this period saw only a marginal decline, from 25 percent to 22.5 per cent.”A multivariate analysis of the odds of a woman working in 2018-19 enables determination of several critical factors that significantly affect women’s participation in the labour force. The first is that higher household incomes are negatively linked to the labour force participation of women in both urban and rural areas. As the household’s income levels increase, the likelihood of a woman being in the labour force decreases,” it said.A similar relationship has been noted between women’s labour force participation rate (LFPR) and the household head’s education, suggesting that women withdraw from the labour force once the household’s socioeconomic status improves. Women’s own education is also a major determinant of their labour force participation rate, the study said women with no or primary education work more than those with higher secondary schooling, a woman with a graduate and higher degree has more than a 12 per cent chance of being in the labour force in urban areas.Similarly, vocational training of all types raises the probability of labour market participation in both rural and urban areas, with on the job training having the highest effect. Besides, for urban women, marriage reduces the likelihood of their participation in the workforce by 17 per cent. The presence of young children is also associated with lower participation, as women in households with children less than five years of age are less likely to participate in the labour force across rural and urban areas, the IWWAGE report said.

      Read more at in this coverage at Economic Times.

      What’s keeping women away from the workforce? A new study finds out

      The Covid-19 pandemic has been terrible for women in the economy.

      As per data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), the overall labour force in India shrank by 1.1 million in April to 424.6 million, compared to 425.8 million in March, taking the labour force participation to 39.98 percent and increasing the unemployment rate to 8 percent.

      If we specifically study the female labour force participation (FLFP) in India, it’s been showing a downward trend since 1993-94, with the country ranking low among other developing countries. The pandemic has only exacerbated these concerns, with more women falling out of or not participating in the workforce.

      A study released on May 21 by the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE) examines the various factors behind the declining number of women in the workforce, while spelling out policy measures that will help improve their economic participation.

      Titled ‘Working or Not: What Determines Women’s Labour Force Participation in India?’, the research paper shows how FLFP has dropped by about 24 percentage points in rural areas, from 52.1 percent in 1993-94 to 28.3 percent in 2018-19. The participation in urban areas, while showing a marginal decline, continues to be stagnant: From 25 percent in 1993-94 to 22.5 percent in 2018-19. This is way below the global average of 45 percent. The FLFP rate is estimated to have dropped below 20percent now in the wake of the pandemic, Soumya Kapoor Mehta, head, IWWAGE, tells Forbes India. IWWAGE is a non-profit initiative of LEAD [Leveraging Evidence for Access and Development] at Krea University.

      The findings of the study are drawn from an analysis of household-level data from India’s Periodic Labour Force Surveys (PLFS), and is among the few research papers to analyse the most recent PLFS data for 2018-19 that was released last year. It also assesses long-term employment trends using the National Sample Survey Organisation’s (NSSO) Employment-Unemployment Surveys (EUS), covering the years 1993-94 and 2011-12.

      “Female labour force participation is volatile across age groups, from 15 to 59 years, both in rural and urban areas and across sectors,” says Ruchika Chaudhary, senior research fellow, IWWAGE, who is the lead author of the report. She maps out the extent to which key factors influence whether or not a woman takes up employment. “Quantifying this problem is really important, otherwise we won’t get to know the magnitude. What prompted us to undertake this research was to understand what really drives women’s labour force participation, factors like education levels, social and cultural norms, access to policies, childcare and other supportive infrastructure, demand for female labour etc.”

      The study also finds how social groups influence FLFP, with employment opportunities for women belonging to Scheduled Tribes (ST), Scheduled Caste (SC) and Other Backward Classes (OBC) in rural and urban areas being affected due to factors such as labour market discrimination, skill mismatch, lack of adequate jobs, and employer bias against women from marginalised sections of the society. “The relationship between FLFP and these factors is not a straightforward one, and we have attempted to disentangle the impact of each of them,” Chaudhary says.

      The study highlights a U-shaped relationship between female labour force participation rate and education. While women with no primary education work more than those with higher secondary schooling [since they are usually part of households with high economic distress], a woman with a graduate degree has a 12 percent more chance of being employed in urban areas. Vocational training of all types raises the probability of FLFP in both rural and urban areas, with on-the-job training having the highest impact. It also notes that as household income levels increase, the likelihood of a woman being in the labour force decreases.

      Mehta explains that while unpaid care work done by women happens more or less simultaneously along with their jobs in rural areas, the burden is more in urban areas, particularly post-pandemic. This could be attributed to nuclearisation of families, early marriages [study finds that marriage reduces the likelihood of women’s workforce participation by 17 percent in urban areas], involvement of the household in taking a decision whether a woman should work or not, and other factors like husband’s income, wealth etc, she says. “There is also an oversupply of educated women but not enough attention is given to creating commensurate jobs for them.” The absence of good quality, formal jobs results in a majority of women being engaged in unpaid or informal employment, the study states.

      According to Mehta, women in urban areas typically get absorbed in industries like construction, tourism, HR etc, and the supply of jobs in those sectors has been hit by Covid-19. “Care duties are also increasing at home. So many women have been forced to give up their jobs right now,” she says, explaining that close to 70 percent women prefer to have regular jobs that are part-time and flexible, and this is becoming possible to some extent due to the emergence of gig and Work from Home (WFH) models during the pandemic.

      Chaudhary points to a World Bank estimation that if we create these flexible jobs for women that take into account prohibitive domestic duties and other issues women face, the FLFP rate would increase by almost 20 percentage points. “We need a set of public policies that recognise, reduce and redistribute unpaid care work in the form of money, services and time,” she says. This points to creating relevant care infrastructure and facilities, apart from policy regulations that facilitate access to skill development and better paid formal jobs, entrepreneurship opportunities, safe and convenient travel / mobility options, affordable child care and maternity benefits etc. “We need to figure out how to create more space for women in the emerging gig economy, and build unconventional labour markets and work systems that encourage more participation.”

      According to Chaudhary, we also need to invest in robust systems to collect gender disaggregated data, and adopt innovations that allow gathering more information through abridged versions of time-use surveys. “Investing in gender-responsive economic recovery, through policies, schemes and budgets that adopt a gender lens, is the need of the hour,” she says.

      Read the coverage in Forbes here.

      IWWAGE Study Highlights Reasons For Declining Female Labour Force Participation In India

      The Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE) at LEAD today released a research paper, ‘Working or Not: What Determines Women’s Labour Force Participation in India?’ examining the determinants of women’s declining participation in the Indian labour force.

      These findings are drawn from an analysis of household-level data from India’s Periodic Labour Force Surveys (PLFS), covering the years 2017-18 and 2018-19 and is among the few research papers to analyse the PLFS data for 2018-19. The analysis also looks at long-term trends using the National Sample Survey Organization’s (NSSO) Employment-Unemployment Surveys (EUS), covering the years 1993-94 and 2011-12.

      Women’s participation in India’s labour force has been steadily declining since 1993-94 and India has one of the lowest female labour force participation rates among developing countries. Despite decades of policies and programmes aimed at addressing this issue, the figure has remained consistently low. The study shows that the primary driver behind this decline has come from rural areas, with participation dropping by 24 percentage points since 1993-1994. By contrast, the participation of urban women during this period saw only a marginal decline, from 25 percent to 22.5 percent.

      The gender disparity in the workforce is evident across the country, with even the better-performing regions displaying a colossal gap when compared to male workforce participation across both urban and rural areas. While many factors influence these statistics, a number of trends have stood out.

      Demographic and regional trends

      As previously highlighted, the precipitous drop in the employment levels of rural women has been a major factor contributing to the decline of India’s female labour force participation rate (FLFPR). Rural women’s participation declined across all states during 2011-12 and 2018-19. A number of factors explain this phenomenon, including decreasing employment opportunities for women in rural areas.

      The NSSO’s data (1993-94 and 2011-12) also highlights that this decline is not limited to young women workers and that women’s participation has decreased substantially across all age-cohorts.

      This is especially true of those aged between 25 and 59, including India’s young women – the demographic dividend that is expected to join and remain in the workforce.

      Overall, the long-term trends from 1993 onwards suggest that women across both urban and rural areas have been increasingly contributing to domestic duties. Although these activities have large economic benefits not only for the households, but also the economy, this work often goes overlooked, undervalued and underreported.

      Social identities and labour force participation

      The female rural labour market has always been distinguished by the high participation levels of women from Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) communities. Across rural areas, these two demographic groups typically comprise the major share of the female labour force. In particular, women from ST or Adivasi communities show the highest participation rates among all social groups, closely followed by SC or Dalit women. This is attributed to generally high household poverty levels among these categories, and higher mobility and fewer restrictions on working, particularly for occupations that require manual labour.

      Although a decline in labour force participation has been witnessed across all social groups since 2004, the highest drop has been registered for ST women, followed by SC groups and Other Backwards Classes (OBC) in rural areas. This trend has carried over into urban areas as well, with ST women once again experiencing the highest decline in this period. These changes stem from factors such as labour market discrimination, skill mismatch, lack of adequate jobs, and employer bias against women from marginalized sections of the society.

      Sectoral employment trends

      The period between 2011 and 2019 has seen the percentage of female labour in the agricultural sector fall from 62 percent to 54.7 percent. The percentage of women employed in industrial work during this period also saw a marginal decline, from 19.9 percent to 19 percent. Although the same period also saw the share of women workers in the services sector rise significantly, this growth has largely been confined to urban areas.

      Thirty percent of women in rural India are performing low-skilled occupations, compared to 19 per cent in urban areas. Within the agricultural sector, over 71 percent of women are engaged in low productive activities.

      The occupational structure of women’s workforce shows that most women continue to undertake marginal and vulnerable jobs, and that more than half work as self-employed. Of those who are engaged in self-employment, most are unpaid helpers and contributing family workers.

      Determinants of women’s labour force participation
      A multivariate analysis of the odds of a woman working in 2018-19 enables determination of several critical factors that significantly affect women’s participation in the labour force. The first is that higher household incomes are negatively linked to the labour force participation of women in both urban and rural areas. As the household’s income levels increase, the likelihood of a woman being in the labour force decreases. A similar relationship has been noted between women’s LFPR and the household head’s education, suggesting that women withdraw from the labour force once the household’s socioeconomic status improves.

      Women’s own education is a major determinant of their labour force participation rate. There is a clear U-shaped relationship between female labour force participation rate and education. While women with no or primary education work more than those with higher secondary schooling, a woman with a graduate and higher degree has more than a 12 percent chance of being in the labour force in urban areas. Similarly, vocational training of all types raises the probability of labour market participation in both rural and urban areas, with on the job training having the highest effect.

      For urban women, marriage reduces the likelihood of their participation in the workforce by 17 percent. The presence of young children is also associated with lower participation, as women in households with children less than five years of age are less likely to participate in the labour force across rural and urban areas.

      The state’s social sector spending positively influences women’s LFPR across rural and urban areas. As such, the South of India has a higher proportion of women in the workforce than other regions in the country. Finally, social group and religion also play a dominant role in determining women’s paid work participation in India. Both are important correlates of female labour force participation, with SC/ST women and Hindu women being more active in the labour market than Muslim and upper-caste women.

      Read the coverage in BW 

      Coverage in The Free Press Journal 

      Coverage in OutlookIndia.com

      Coverage in Yahoo News.

      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.