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      Why society owes Asha workers a debt

      The unsung heroes of the response to the Covid-19 pandemic have most definitely been the millions of frontline women workers, especially Accredited Social Health Activists (Ashas) who have been working tirelessly at the community level. They have engaged in numerous activities, ranging from door-to-door surveys, contact-tracing, awareness campaigns and ensuring quarantine/isolation. This is in addition to their regular roles, ranging from accompanying pregnant women to health centres, keeping track of immunisations, making home visits for new- born care and following up on tuberculosis patients.

      Recently, these workers have been in the news for their strikes, demanding better payment, regularisation, access to personal protective equipment and free health care. Who are these women and are their protests, in the midst of the pandemic, justified?

      Currently, there are about a million Asha workers who have been crucial in the efforts to decentralise health care and strengthen the primary health system. Their contribution to the increase in institutional deliveries, immunisations and decline in maternal and infant mortality has been widely noted. While each Asha worker can easily spend six to eight hours working in a day, she is not paid a regular monthly salary.

      Instead, the central government has an incentive-based system in which, at the end of the month, each Asha worker is paid based on the basis of the tasks she has completed on a pro-rata basis. Following protests, recently the incentives were revised such that each worker can earn at least Rs 2,000 per month. Some other tasks that Asha workers undertake such as conducting awareness campaigns are not listed as activities they are given incentives for, but they still do so as a commitment to the community. In contrast, the minimum wage for unskilled workers suggested by a government- appointed expert committee in 2019 is Rs 9,750 a month.

      The story of almost 1.4 million anganwadi workers is no different. Although they do get a fixed monthly pay, they are treated as voluntary workers who receive an honorarium and not a salary. While the central government contributes Rs 4,500 per month towards their pay, a number of states top this up with additional amounts though these are low. Just as the Ashas, the anganwadi workers play an essential role. They are responsible for nutrition services, including distribution of supplementary nutrition, growth monitoring and nutrition counselling along with providing pre-school education.

      For the additional work that Asha workers are now doing due to Covid-19, they have been promised an incentive of Rs 1,000 per month. However, reports from most states are that they have not received this yet.

      Further, reports suggest that, in many places, Asha and anganwadi workers work without any protective equipment such as masks or gloves while going door-to-door for surveys and other tasks, and in the process, are getting infected with the virus. Moreover, in many places, these workers face stigma from the community, with people not allowing them to enter their homes and abusing them when they try to collect personal details related to travel.

      The way frontline women workers in our country are treated also points to the gendered nature of work itself. Many of the tasks that these women perform are perceived to be an extension of the care roles that they play within the household. The unequal distribution of care work within the family and the subsequent undervaluation of such work is extended to the community and the State.

      Expanding better opportunities with decent wages for frontline workers could also contribute to the revival of the rural economy by putting wages into the hands of many, and take us closer to achieving our health and nutrition goals. This is important at a time when employment opportunities for educated rural women are so few.

      Dipa Sinha is an assistant professor at Ambedkar University, Delhi. This article is based on her recent study of frontline workers commissioned by IWWAGE, a research initiative of LEAD at KREA University The views expressed are personal.

      The article has been published in HT and can be accessed  here.

      Moving the needle from subsistence to growth for home-based businesses

      This article presents insights from a study on understanding the state of market access and enterprise readiness among women entrepreneurs in the handicrafts and handlooms sectors. The study was conducted across Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan.

      Within a 45-minute ride from Jaipur, lies a small village Chomu. Dotted with countless independent looms and community workshops operated by women, the village is a vivid representation of rural India’s cottage industry.  Workshops set up by private companies and Self-Help Groups (SHGs) become places for skill training and a source of livelihood for these homepreneurs. This practice has enabled craft clusters to develop organically in small pockets across Rajasthan.

      Rajasthan is not the only state with a thriving cottage sector. Small pockets like Chomu can be found all across India. Tamil Nadu is one such example and leads the way in the handloom sector. Tamil Nadu Corporation for Development of Women under the Ministry of Rural Development plays an instrumental role in capacity building and streamlining efforts of home-based entrepreneurs.

      The Manufacturing sector is the second highest contributor to the Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) for both Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu. According to WIEGO, 23% of non-agricultural workers in India are home-based entrepreneurs, of which an overwhelming 67% are women. To understand the barriers faced by this vast and diverse segment of women-led home based businesses (HBB), we conducted a mixed methods study which explored market access and enterprise readiness of 800 women entrepreneurs across Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu in the handloom and handicraft sectors. This article highlights the ecosystem and market constraints faced by women led HBBs in the cottage industry.

      Dual burden dictates choices 

      Women entrepreneurs are often marriage migrants and are likely to move with their husbands. They work from their home premises or workshops on adjacent grounds and shuttle between domestic care duties and their business. Home-based work is rooted in the social preference for married women to work from home so that they can take care of their household responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning, fetching water, looking after their children and so on.

      On the flipside, working from home without formal or standard employment contracts reduces their means to assert their rights as entrepreneurs under labour laws. Only 37.4% women in our study had businesses registered under their own name, which suggests that a significant majority of businesses remain outside the purview of formal labour laws, rendering them invisible.  Organisations such as SEWA Bharat and other bunkar sansthas (weaver collectives) are playing an important role in enabling women engaged in informal enterprises. Mobility and time limitations along with the dual burden of balancing business and caregiving priorities determine women’s preferences for working from their homes and linking with aggregators. Our  study found that women are able to dedicate only 5.8 hours a day on average to their home-based business, which is intermittently interrupted by 6.6 hours of unpaid caregiving work.

      The sectoral landscape in Rajasthan is dominated by private players and SHGs, whose business models align with women entrepreneurs’ need for flexibility in the workplace. Affiliation with contractual companies reduces monetary burden/investment, time, and effort of procuring raw materials and selling products. On the other hand, in Tamil Nadu the state acts as a key enabler and facilitator for homepreneurs engaged in the  handloom and handicraft sectors. The state government is the nodal agency overseeing the Cooperative Societies that help weavers organise themselves and facilitate  optimal market outcomes.

      Weak bargaining power 

      Individual artisans who are classified  by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) as own-account entrepreneurs are expected to bear the risk and cost of production and scout for potential markets independently as per their work arrangements. Own-account entrepreneurs are concentrated in the handicraft sector since the sector has not been equally capitalised by market players in comparison to the handloom sector in both states. Typically, own- account entrepreneurs have low bargaining power in both procurement and selling activities (Women, Gender and Work, V2, ILO (2017)).These women are in charge of the entire supply chain from buying raw materials to selling it in the market.

      The second category is piece-rate entrepreneurs who work with aggregators and private companies. These companies promote  doorstep entrepreneurship by providing all raw materials and taking finished products from their home premises. According to NSSO, piece-rate entrepreneurs are ‘subcontracted workers’, who are not classified as ‘employees’ within the standard employment relations or rights and are clubbed with  Own-Account enterprises (OAEs) under self-employment. Such a classification results in loss of access to associated rights and makes OAEs invisible.

      70% of  women entrepreneurs in our  study were associated with aggregators and private companies. These overarching institutions monetised on the artisanal and weaving skills of these entrepreneurs and drew a larger portion of profits. However, entrepreneurs indicated a strong preference to work with aggregators, since these institutions enable  access to regular supply of raw materials and a market for finished products. This restricts and binds the women homepreneurs to a single operator and limits their scalability.  Women lose bargaining powers and this leads them to be a price-taker.

      Respondents in our study however did not mind losing the bargaining power, and spoke in terms of respect and gratitude for the contractor for providing them work. Rather than negotiating for better profit margins, they rely on requesting the contractors for more work. The contractors themselves are marginal players in long and opaque supply chains with little power –their strength lies in remaining competitive and offering the cheapest options for products in the market. They have limited information about where their product would be sold, and no means to hold the retailer accountable (IndiaSpend, 2020).

      Closed communication channels

      90% of entrepreneurs surveyed in Rajasthan and over 60% of those interviewed in Tamil Nadu worked in a closed communication channel by running piece-rate businesses associated with SHGs/ aggregators. Only 5% of the 800 surveyed women tried to diversify their customer base once they adopted a piece-rate business model. While working with aggregators or private companies has enabled consistent market access for their finished products, the associated closed communication channel with it led to a loss in independent decision-making, market access and sector awareness. We found that the uptake of government schemes like MUDRA loans, which is targeted towards women entrepreneurs was as low as 3.5% in our sample. Heavy reliance on aggregators for business related communication and an absence of an alternative source of information is one of the reasons for a low uptake of schemes.

      Resistance to switch to alternative payment methods like use of mobile wallets was observed across the board. 98% business related payments were made in cash on a weekly or monthly basis. Merely 0.2% of the surveyed entrepreneurs used an online platform to communicate business related information to customers.

      Suman who works on looms with Jaipur Rugs in Tigariya village is hesitant to conduct business on online platforms and says:

      “If you can put a face on the customer I can sell my products. I like to sell my rugs to people who I know. I have been working with the company for two decades and I am comfortable dealing with them since I know they mean well for me. ” 

      Often, women are compelled to involve their children to complete their orders on time during festival seasons such as Navratri or Diwali. Work is plenty and even friends and neighbors are called in to help for a share of the earnings. For the aggregator or retailer, the cost of production remains the same but for the home-based workers, incomes are further depleted despite the long working hours.

      Tool for Measuring  Market Readiness 

      Gauging business readiness in the informal sector is the key to enable policy support in terms of identifying best practices, creating market linkages, and targeting skilling initiatives as it directly links to enterprise performance. Based on insights from the study, we have developed a diagnostic tool –‘Women Business Readiness Scorecard’ to identify barriers faced by women entrepreneurs and target policy and program interventions better.  The tool consists of four sub- indices- agency, market readiness, product readiness and legal & regulatory readiness.

      Based on the entrepreneur profiles that emerged from our primary dataset,  we have identified three customer archetypes or personas of women engaged in home-based businesses:  millennial entrepreneurs, striving entrepreneurs, and latent entrepreneurs. These personas are based on the age, entrepreneurial and risk-taking abilities of entrepreneurs.

      Jayamani from Coimbatore is an example of a  striving entrepreneur:

      “Jayamani  has been weaving Kovai cotton-silk (Korapattu) for 30 years now and gets raw materials from and sells back finished sarees only to the Weavers Cooperative Society. She is capable of weaving more but is limited by demand/orders she received from the Cooperative. Jayamani feels she has financial constraints that stop  her from expanding her business.”

      Restrictions on freedom of movement have significant effects on the likelihood of women becoming ‘high aspiration entrepreneurs.’  It is essential to look beyond adopting a single approach to identify enterprises with growth potential. The Business Readiness Scorecard for Women, developed by IWWAGE and LEAD at Krea University, is a step in this direction.

      The informal nature of home-based businesses in handloom and handicraft sectors makes it possible for contracting companies to reduce their costs. These sectors provide women alternative livelihood opportunities that confirm with existing social and cultural norms. The companies lower  overheads and limit the market accessibility of the entrepreneurs. Our hope is that the Women Business Readiness Scorecard and the entrepreneur archetypes that emerged from our study will provide policymakers and practitioners a framework for targeting enterprise development initiatives.

      Ria Dutta is a Research Associate with LEAD at Krea University. 

      85% Women feel flexibility and autonomy are the most attractive features in gig economy

      Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE), an initiative of LEAD at Krea University, today announced the release of a report titled ‘India’s Emerging Gig Economy: The Future of Work for Women Workers’. The study looks into women’s experiences of the ‘on-demand’ gig and platform economy in India. The study is funded by The Asia Foundation, a non-profit international development organization committed to improving lives across 18 countries in Asia.

      This report identifies the various forms of employer-employee relations that have surfaced through this emerging model of work; mediated through aggregator companies, such as Urban Company which this study explored in-depth. Such companies primarily provide services through internet-enabled mobile applications and bring together similar service providers (who are not identified as ‘workers’, but as partners/independent contractors) on a single platform to perform specific ‘gigs’. It explores the gender dynamics in the gig economy, especially in the context of emerging opportunities in pink-collar work. This pilot study explored the biggest such service platform in India: Urban Company. Researchers surveyed 88 women service providers in Delhi and Mumbai and carried out Focus Group Discussions (FGDs), and Key Informant Interviews (KIIs) with academics, experts, as well as the company representatives.

      Some of the key findings from this report include:

      Flexibility is the most attractive feature

      85% of the Urban Company’s service partners said they wanted a level of flexibility and this platform allows them to work in ways that would otherwise be impossible. Almost 80 percent of the women were found to be married, and around half of them have young children. Women with young children find the platform economy particularly attractive, as this offers the flexibility to manage the work-family balance.

      Increased autonomy and enhanced status of women

      60% of surveyed women indicated that they are the main earning member in the family. This has altered their status in their families. They reported that they received more respect from members of their families and now participate in the decision-making process. This analysis yielded a crucial insight that a women’s increased economic capabilities substantially improve their agency, and overall empowerment.

      Average income was higher than other forms of employment available to them

      Survey findings suggest that women’s average daily earnings are Rs. 1,552, which depends on the number of tasks performed. These women earn significantly higher as compared to a salon job (where average monthly income ranges between Rs. 8,000 – Rs. 10,000, and a relatively long average working day of 10 hours or so). 57% women reported that they service less than three calls per day and 42% of respondents’ service between three to five calls each day (with multiple tasks in each call). This is reflective of the fact that most women are bound by their unpaid work responsibilities and can only dedicate a part of their day to paid employment.

      Lack of adequate social protection

      In the platform economy model, while the aggregator companies operate in the formal sector, they enrol the service providers or professionals onto their platform as ‘self-employed’ and not as ‘employees’, and thereby exclude them from several forms of social protections and non-wage benefits, and also makes it difficult to bring them under adequate labour protections. 81% workers were dissatisfied due to the lack of maternity benefits and 63% were dissatisfied with no incentive or increment system.

      New dimension to informal economy

      The gig economy is not just an extension of previous forms of labour market precarity; it is a reshaping of the spatialities (economic geographies) and temporalities of work through enablers. This makes it challenging for workers to build effective and lasting structural power and secures the power of platforms as key intermediaries between supply and demand of labour. All these factors are ushering in a new dimension to ‘informalisation’.

      Access to smartphones and digital literacy are key to participation

      Owning a smartphone is an essential requirement for securing access to digital platforms; especially on-demand platforms. However, as per ‘The Mobile Gender Gap’ report of 2019, 59 per cent women own mobiles, as compared to 80 per cent% men in India. The percentage of women internet users is a meagre 16 per cent, as compared to 36 per cent men internet users (GSMA report, 2019). Additionally, women who are digitally illiterate are automatically barred from participation. This underlines the importance of addressing the gender gap in digital access and literacy.

      The study offers valuable insights and offers key recommendations on the working structure and measures towards ensuring access to decent work and social protection for these workers in a sector that is growing rapidly.

      Commenting on the report, Soumya Kapoor Mehta, Head, IWWAGE said “As more and more women are joining and engaging in the gig/platform economy, it becomes imperative to understand the extent and magnitude of this sector in terms of women’s employment, and study the working conditions in these jobs.  We hope that the findings of this report can inform policymakers and gig economy platforms to design policies and incentives that can enable more women to benefit from this form of employment.”

      Sharing her thoughts on the report, Nandita Baruah, India Country Representative, The Asia Foundation stated “The gig platforms have created space for women to explore employment options, that are unencumbered by employer-employee power dynamics, have the flexibility of time, and offer greater financial returns compared to tied employment contracts in the same sector.  The gig ecosystem is going to be a major driver for employment, and it is important to ensure that it is adequately responsive to women’s workforce participation. This report injects the necessary critical lens required to have a more holistic understanding on the future of gig-work with a definitive gender and equity lens.”

      This article was published in CNBC 18 and you can access the article here.

      Do Indian women hold up half the sky? A historical perspective

      Writing a historical perspective on how Indian women and their work has fared since the country gained its Independence nearly 73 years ago is hard. In the clamour of how COVID-19 has impacted women adversely, be it through the precipitous decline in women’s employment more so than men after the lockdown, or the dangerous vocabulary of the ‘shadow pandemic’ of domestic violence (one which we believe existed for long, and cannot be qualified as “shadow”)—it is easy to forget the turns that Indian women and their movements have navigated in nearly three-quarters of a century.

      In 1947, accounts of women being raped and tortured even as the Indian sub-continent recovered from a visceral partition writ large. Female writers such as Nayantara Sehgal, Romila Thapar, and Urvashi Butalia would go on to recount the horrors that women in the sub-continent faced even as their countless contributions in bringing up their children and to their families seemed immeasurable. But there have been gains over time. In 1951, a girl in India married at the age of 15. Today, the average age of marriage for girls is 22. In 1951, when my mother was three years old, a woman in her reproductive age was likely to bear about 6 children. Today, my three-year-old daughter is likely to bear only 2 children or less.

      Battles for delaying marriage and reducing fertility rates have long been fought in India and the results have been slow in coming. Despite all the deliberate efforts to raise the age of marriage, until the 1960s, women were still likely to be married when they turned 16. The gains came only after the 1970s, when movements to restrict child marriage started bearing fruit, more so in the later decades through active NGO involvement. Fertility rates too showed a similar trajectory, with couples slowly realising that female children too could provide ‘caring, sensitive support’ in older ages, and with that investing more in educating their girls.

      Those supporting the Indian female work participation movements have also seen slow but steady victories. After independence, the work done by Kamla Devi Chattopadhyay who was a pioneer in letting refugees become owners of small enterprises by establishing industrial townships like Faridabad showed that women could also be part of this self-work narrative. She founded the All India Women’s Conference, the Lady Irwin College for Home Sciences (the first of its kind college for women in India), and set up a series of crafts museums including the Central Cottage Industries Emporium so small craftsmen (including women) from the unorganised sector could take their wares to organised markets.

      But women continued to work in the so-called ‘informal’ economy, which comprised about 90 percent of their work. It was real work that went unrecognised, that was without formal protection of minimum wage thresholds; yet was governed by informal harsh rules framed by middlemen. Organisations such as the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) changed that. They provided for the first time a federated structure to the scores of women working in India’s informal economy.

      Today, SEWA encompasses a membership base of over 1.6 million women, across multiple trades and states in India, where women who work as construction laborers, as street vendors, as domestic workers and from within the confines of their 6×6 feet homes rolling papads or beedis—are all recognized as ‘workers’. The Indian state too has responded over time, with programs such as Velugu in Andhra Pradesh providing the early foundation for the rural self-help group movement, now federated into the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) architecture.

      There were multiple others who provided a fillip to recognising women’s work in India. To name a few, Bina Agarwal wrote about how women’s well-being, bargaining power within the household, and overall empowerment is enhanced through the ownership and control of the land. This later spurred an amendment in the Hindu Succession Act, with Hindu women claiming equal inheritance rights with men in ownership of property, particularly agricultural land.

      Devaki Jain brought into the feminist parlance the concept of ‘feminisation of poverty’ indicating how poverty was more severe for women than for men, while simultaneously arguing that the term feminisation itself devalued the increasing prevalence of women in work. Dr. Jain and others also argued on how women’s work was underreported, including the often derogatory ‘free collection of goods’ which actually served an economic need of satisfying hunger for many families. Organisations like Jagori worked on feminist consciousness particularly in rural areas, so even women who were not well educated could recognise what violence was, and what they could do to report it. Their work mirrored the work of other feminist economists of the time, including Naila Kabeer, Nata Duvvury, Nancy Folbre and Ester Boserup, all of whom were writing about similar issues.

      Where does all of this leave us with the present crises of fewer women showing up as part of the labour force, and an unprecedented challenge of global scale that has impacted women’s work around the world? The task of creating ‘suitable’ jobs for a female workforce—one that looks very different now than what it did 75 years earlier, with more educated women who do not marry as early, do not have as many children and have high aspirations—is daunting. But the voice of feminist reporting in India shows a strong responsive tradition. As an organisation working on women’s economic empowerment in India, we at IWWAGE look forward to documenting what the future holds.

      This article was published in CNBC 18 and you can access the article here.

      Big story: Making it work for women

      Chanda Devi speaks with a smile. One that belies the tension about her 1-acre farm in Majhaulia village of Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district being ravaged by floods. Income has almost halved because she had to sell the eggplants, potatoes and okra she grew at lower rates during the lockdown. Then there is the monthly instalment of ₹2,000 toward repaying a ₹50,000 loan she had taken from her self-help group (SHG) to set up a box-sized kirana shop. “Kahin na kahin se toh minus karna padega,” says the 30-year-old. She will have to cut some other expenses to ensure she does not default on her instalment.

      Devi is determined to not let these challenges get to her. She had started working in agriculture as an 18-year-old newly married woman who needed to push her family out of penury. She joined an SHG in 2012 to take a loan of ₹20,000 and get back their farm that was mortgaged with the local money lender.

      “My husband is not really a self-starter. He is better at doing something he is asked to do,” says Devi, who wakes up at the crack of dawn, feeds the cows, sweeps and mops her home, cooks for the family, works in the field for over 6 hours, attends meetings at the SHG and the Farmers’ Producer Company (FPC) she is part of, returns home to cook, wash clothes and take care of her elderly mother-in-law. She finishes all the domestic chores alone, without any help from her two sons, her brother-in-law or her husband, the latter only helping her in the farm. “I started working only because I had no other option to get my family out of financial difficulty. But I have always wanted to be independent,” she says. “Times have been tough again, and I know that my work and my income are essential to keep my family afloat.”

      A 2018 Harvard Business Review report states that globally, for every 10 percent increase in women working, there is a 5 percent increase in wages, including for men, since the overall productivity levels of the regions with better female labour force participation (FLFP) increase.

      The International Labour Organization (ILO), in global policy guidance notes for its Decent Work Agenda to empower rural women in 2019, said that productive employment and good quality jobs for women in rural areas “not only contributes to inclusive and sustainable economic growth, but also enhances the effectiveness of poverty reduction and food security initiatives, as well as climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts.” Yet, in India, when the economy slows down and jobs start disappearing, women’s livelihoods have often been the first to be hit. The 2020 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report ranks India at 149 out of 153 countries when it comes to economic participation and opportunity for women. According to the report, only 35 percent of the financial gap between women and men has been covered.

      Rural women particularly fall out of the workforce at a much sharper rate than urban women. Data from the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) indicates that FLFP in rural areas fell from 33.3 percent in 2004-05 to 19.7 percent in 2018-19. This is a sharper fall compared to rural men, who’s participation fell from 55.5 percent to 55.1 percent in the same period, or urban women, whose participation fell from 17.8 percent to 16.1 percent.

      “First, parents or husbands determine norms around education and jobs women can access, the hours for which they can work. Second, the conditioning is such that girls often imbibe these mindsets much more deeply than boys. Our studies have found that when there is a job scarcity, more women actually respond by saying that the jobs should go to the men instead of them,” says Soumya Kapoor Mehta, an economist who heads the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE), a non-profit supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

      A survey of 5,000 workers across 12 states conducted by the Azim Premji University (APU) between April and May found that 71 percent rural women casual workers lost their livelihoods during the lockdown, compared to 59 percent of men. The proportion stood at 45 percent each for self-employed men and women in rural areas.

      The Covid-19 pandemic is likely to exacerbate issues, so much so that the slight uptick seen in the FLFP for the first time in over a decade, from 18.2 in 2017-18 to 19.7 in 2018-19, might not sustain and is not considered a significant enough gain by experts compared to the rate at which labour participation has fallen over the years. Economists also believe that the burden of unpaid care work would fall disproportionately on women due to the pandemic, especially with children and other family members spending more time at home. This is likely to add to the already lopsided load, which—according to an Oxfam India report as of January—stood at 291 minutes of daily unpaid domestic chores for rural women, compared to 32 minutes for men. “Many women in rural areas might retreat further into their homes now, as their families would expect that fulfilling domestic duties would be their primary responsibility,” says Nalini Gulati, country economist for the India programme of the International Growth Centre (IGC), who believes that women should receive social recognition for care work.

      She also points out that women were the de-facto head of the family and in-charge of farmlands when the men of the house migrated to cities for work, but since the latter have come back to the villages, they will have to be absorbed in agriculture and non-farm jobs. States do not have gender disaggregated data for the returning migrants. “So a lot depends on what happens to job opportunities for men. It is in that context that we have to view what happens with the female labour force and opportunities for them, and not in isolation,” Gulati explains.

      That said, workforce participation of rural women has primarily been driven by need. The sudden income shock created by the pandemic could also lead to reengaging women in the economy because distressed households are looking at ways to increase income levels, believes Rosa Abraham, research fellow at the Centre for Sustainable Employment at APU. “It is practical to have a gendered lens to policy-making right now, because people are desperate for work. Policy that provides for work will find takers in the economy, and a lot of these takers are going to be women,” she says.

      Economists believe that a gendered approach would involve a set of holistic measures, ranging from pay parity to more formal recognition of work done by women.

      Education-Employment Trade-Off
      There is a U-shaped pattern between increasing numbers of rural women getting access to education and still not joining the paid workforce. Mehta of IWWAGE explains that the majority of women are unpaid workers who assist with household enterprises or agricultural work, and the ones in non-public casual work are often engaged in precarious or vulnerable jobs. The women who get educated seek careers outside of these sectors, but are constrained by the lack of availability of jobs that would be commensurate to their education.

      “Rural women also want part-time jobs so that they are able to accommodate their household chores. Those kinds of roles are not available across geographies at the district level. So, women end up taking odd jobs in the informal sector, because flexible options in the formal sector are just not created in rural India,” she says.

      While women are usually restricted from migrating to nearby towns and cities to access skill training and jobs, the government can create support infrastructure to help them access these opportunities, adds Kanika Kingra, senior policy and advocacy manager at IWWAGE. “This would include hostels for girls, tackling issues around mobility and safety, creating creches and child care centres,” she says.

      Gulati points out that even as the majority of rural women are engaged in agriculture, they often do not get access to credit facilities, subsidies or even agricultural tools because of lack of asset ownership. “Most of the land is registered in the name of male farmers,” she says. According to an Indiaspend report in 2019, only 13 percent of women own the land they till.

      The government, on its part, is banking heavily on organising women into SHGs to empower them. “Community-building is essential to helping women get the confidence to step out of their homes and work. The National Rural Livelihoods Mission [NRLM] has mobilised about 6.8 crore women with a capitalisation support of ₹10,200 crore so far,” says Alka Upadhyay, additional secretary, Union Ministry of Rural Development. Cultivating community leaders would also help the government reach the most marginalised people effectively, believes Nikita Wadhwa, programme coordinator for Collective Impact Partnership, an initiative that supports local women who undertake leadership roles by helping others in their community. “They work closely with decision makers to ensure that women can access government schemes and policies meant to empower them, and work to address systemic barriers and gaps,” she says.

      Kumaribai Jamakatan, 51, is one such tribal woman from Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra. Women in the area depend mostly on selling mahua flowers, or forest produce like tendu leaves and bamboo. While the latter could not be carried out during the lockdown, the market price for mahua fell from ₹30 per kg to ₹15 or ₹18 per kg. “This caused a lot of mental anguish as many women did not even have money to run their households. So I ensured that I connected with them regularly to address their issues, and make them aware of all the social security benefits they can avail, be it free gas cylinders under the Ujjwala Yojana, or ₹500 in their Jan Dhan accounts,” she says. “The SHGs are not able to meet and training sessions have stopped, but we women ensure we keep each other’s morale high.”

      Women who run their own enterprises in villages barely earn half the revenue as their male counterparts, Mehta of IWWAGE says. “She does not make enough because she does not have networks to connect to markets or access information on products, training etc,” she says. “There needs to be marketability around what these MSMEs are creating. Governments can be encouraged to make a certain proportion of their procurement through women-led enterprises.”

      Abraham of APU agrees that government support to decentralised community institutions can empower women socially and economically. “Kerala, for example, provides extensive credit to women-led businesses under Kudumbashree [community organisation of neighbourhood groups]. Other states could look at creating similar channels to provide more funding and resources to rural women entrepreneurs,” she says. In its 2020-21 budgetary outlay, Kerala earmarked ₹1,509 crore for women-related programmes. This was 7.3 percent of the overall budget, an increase from 4 percent the previous year. It is under Kudumbashree that Jayashree (who uses only her first name) found a livelihood with a steady income, along with 25 other women, at an apparel park established with the help of the Nedumpana gram panchayat in the Kollam district of Kerala. Initially, they ran into losses to the tune of ₹3.5 lakh because of low margins, difficulty in marketing their products and delays in payments. Then, three years ago, the government supported them with procurement orders for stitching uniforms for the Kochi Metro and the state lotteries department, apart from orders from state hospitals. “The government orders helped each of us get a stable income of up to ₹15,000 per month,” she says.

      During Covid-19, the women set up sewing machines at home and stitched over 1 lakh masks each for gram panchayats and government departments, and another 1 lakh for the Karunya Community Pharmacy, the state-run retail chain that provides medicines at affordable prices. Jayashree explains that the women are paid per unit of clothing they stitch, and each of them was able to earn at least ₹30,000 through these Covid-19-related orders. “We never say no to any job order that comes our way. Even if we cannot do it ourselves, we pass it on to the smaller women-run stitching units so that they also earn a livelihood,” she says. “Women must help each other.”

      Playing to the Strengths
      The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the government’s flagship rural jobs programme that provides 100 days of work per household with minimum wages, has allayed the job distress for many migrant workers. Experts suggest that job cards can be provided to more women under this scheme so that they do not lose out on work in a competitive labour market that now includes returning migrants. Abraham of APU says that lessons from MGNREGA can be applied to other sectors predominantly employing rural women, including the health sector. For one, the jobs programme has equal wages for men and women. Otherwise, the wage disparity between men and women in rural areas is steep, where women’s incomes could be as low as half as that of men.

      “The MGNREGA has also streamlined payments through post office and bank accounts, although there are still delays in compensation,” Abraham says. “Some of these best practices could be adopted with respect to anganwadi and Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs), where the money often does not trickle down to the grassroots.”

      Chinmayee Barik, a nurse with the medical mobile unit of the Tata Steel Rural Development Society in Jajpur district of Odisha, says ASHAs have been at the frontline of collecting data on Covid-19 response and tracking migrants, which is then processed by her team. “Their responsibilities have increased two-fold, and they are at a health risk, but are paid a meagre ₹6,000 per month. They need to be compensated properly,” she says. Kingra of IWWAGE says the government must refocus on its strengths in the care economy and formalise the employment of the millions of ASHA and anganwadi workers. “In the Covid-19 context, the demand for such workers has increased. They should be recognised as part of the formal workforce with competitive wages and incentives like health insurance.”

      Abraham suggests that the government could invest in social security in the form of universal basic services in the health and education sectors, which employ a lot of rural women. This, she says, will have “multiplier effects in the economy, whether it is building up health or school infrastructure. So these sectors could absorb more women”.

      She also points out that it is important to understand a typical woman’s work day and the metrics of measurement should not overlook the different forms of care work. “If we have to assess women’s participation in the economy, domestic work could be statistically taken into consideration.”

      This article was published in CNBC 18 and you can access the article here.

      This gender research and advocacy group is implementing large scale interventions for economic empowerment of women

      “India remains an anomaly for a country where despite economic growth and rise in education of girls, the Female Labour Force Participation Rates (FLFPR) has been showing a worrying decline in the past 30 years or so,” says Soumya Kapoor, head of IWWAGE. Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE) is a gender research and advocacy organisation set up by LEAD, an action-oriented research centre of IFMR Society.

      IWWAGE, through its research, not only unpacks the barriers that women face in joining the workforce but emphasises advocacy initiatives to advance economic empowerment of women. It leads large scale interventions embedded in existing government initiatives such as gender trainings for women, setting up gender resource centres within National Rural Livelihoods Mission and piloting digital innovations such as improving women’s access to entitlements via app-based solutions with Haqdarshak. It has also set up a Center of Excellence on Women’s Empowerment Collectives to expand research on the role collectives such as self-help groups of women or SEWA’s union and their role in empowering women at local levels. Leading the organisation is Soumya Kapoor, a development economist who has worked for 18 years in the development sector, spanning research around gender, women’s empowerment, poverty reduction strategies, social inclusion challenges, and policy levers to alleviate them around the world. She has also worked as an independent policy advisor for the World Bank, UNICEF, the Government of India, the Centre for Policy Research and the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). She has co-authored several World Bank and UNICEF research outputs, including some of their flagship reports and has two widely acclaimed books to her credit. Soumya has a Tripos Degree from the University of Cambridge in Economics and a B.A. (Hons.) in Economics from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University. She has also been a Visiting Fellow to the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Where India stands today Despite economic growth, decline in fertility rates of women, and rise in schooling and improved learning outcomes for girls, Female Labour Force Participation (FLFP) levels in India remain alarmingly low, with only one out of every five women of working age in the workforce, according to Soumya. Women’s access to resources, assets and other rights and entitlements also continue to remain low, leading to limited to no impacts on other social development outcomes.

      “Economic empowerment of women is fundamental to achieving gender equality and inclusive growth. IWWAGE was set up to address this challenge,” Soumya tells HerStory. IWWAGE has partnered with government ministries and policy agencies like NITI Aayog, Ministry of Rural Development, and Ministry of Women and Child Welfare and more to help turn research into policy level advocacy. It also boasts a high-profile list of donors that include The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, UN Women, World Bank among others. According to an International Labour Organisation study, longer term trends suggest that female labour force participation rates (FLFPR) in India have been puzzling. Female participation rates declined from 34.1 percent in 1999-00 to 27.2 percent in 2011-12, and wide gender differences in participation rate also persists. Despite more women taking up regular work over the years, in 2018, 80 percent of the salaried jobs continued to be held by men, while as many as 80 percent of women who worked, did so in the informal sector. There is also a substantial gap in the earnings of men and women.

      This article was published in CNBC 18 and you can access the article here.

      Wage employment for women: Forgotten priorities

      Low and declining women’s labour force participation rates in India have been a longstanding concern. Government policies for addressing this challenge have mainly emphasised promoting entrepreneurship among women. Designing skill development programmes (DDU-GKY, PMKY and so on) which also aim at building women’s skills to access technology; facilitating access to digital platforms and promoting partnerships with start-ups aimed at providing women with fintech solutions; and facilitating access to credit through extending low-value MUDRA loans have been some of the main interventions. All these programmes primarily aim at making entrepreneurs out of women as a way to achieving greater workforce participation of women – with a lateral objective of enhancing ‘Make in India’ efforts through greater entrepreneurial ventures by women.

      But data on entrepreneurship of women in India suggest that there is a long way to go. The economic census, last published in 2013-14, showed that women’s enterprises were only 13.8 percent of total enterprises and 84 percent of these were operating without any hired workers. The average employment per women’s establishment was 1.67 workers indicating low employment creation capacity.  Further, 27 percent of all non-agricultural establishments owned by women were operating from home – of which more than 50% were in manufacturing.

      The periodic labour force survey (PLFS), 2017-18, shows that 52 percent of women’s workforce is in self-employment, which can be further disaggregated into three sub categories – own account enterprises (OAE), employers and unpaid/contributing family workers. The first two categories capture women’s entrepreneurial ventures best. Almost 32 percent of all women workers are engaged as unpaid helpers in household enterprises and only 19 percent run OAEs. These figures, coupled with micro-evidence from literature, show that the women OAEs remain trapped in low-scale, low-productive, low return ventures such as in rolling bidis and agarbattis, making pickles and papads, or mending clothes with a sewing machine.

      But self-employment only captures one half of women’s work. According to the PLFS, 48 percent women are in wage employment. Of these, 21 percent are in regular employment and 27 percent work in casual labour. The impact of increasing wage employment on women’s empowerment is well-established. Still, there is no policy emphasis for this sector.

      There are several mechanisms that can be employed to increase women’s wage employment opportunities. For example, the MGNREGA attracts a large number of women, with about 55 percent of total person-days of work created under this legislation accruing to women. There are a number of field reports to suggest that provision of equal wages for men and women, proximity of workplace, assumed safety at workplace and so on, makes MGNREGA a popular option for women. MGNREGA has the potential to attract even more women if all its provisions such as creche facilities, shade and water are also provided adequately. Unfortunately, the trend of provision of work under this scheme has been stagnant and there have been challenges of delayed wage payments.

      Outside of agriculture, where the absorption of labour has been declining, women are attracted to jobs in providing public services. The PLFS data show that 29 percent of women working outside agriculture in rural areas are engaged in public employment. Large numbers work as frontline workers, particularly in public health and education. Some cadres such as anganwadi workers and helpers, mid-day meal cooks, ASHA workers, ANMs are exclusively women (estimated to be over 60 lakh). Nearly half of the total teaching workforce in elementary education in India are women.  In recent times there has also been an increase of women employed as police constables in many states.  But despite these opportunities, women remain concentrated at lower levels of the occupational hierarchy, mostly restricted to what are seen as ‘women’s roles’ (traditionally caregiving occupations). They receive low wages and work in poor conditions.

      An agenda of universal provision of basic services such as health, education and social protection can not only contribute towards improving India’s human development indicators but also create millions of new jobs, more so for women. Some state governments have provisions such as reserving posts for women in government jobs. But such measures can have an impact only when there is an expansion in the total number of government jobs. Having said that, there is a need to hire more workers for public services, given the millions of vacancies that exist for these posts as per government norms.

      Apart from casual wage work and regular public employment, women’s wage work includes work undertaken in factories, especially in garments, electronics and food-processing which have served as traditional sectors of women’s employment. While great emphasis has been on promoting ‘Make in India’, policies related to incentivising these sectors have been elusive. Recent subsidies announced for the textile sector aimed at generating employment are yet to show results.

      Governments can push for multiple policies to create decent wage work opportunities for women, from expanding public works programmes such as the MGNREGA, to adding a cadre of public service para workers, for whom there is a crying need. Such interventions along with a focus on labour intensive manufacturing sectors can not only create employment and demand but also contribute to lifting the Indian economy out of its current economic slowdown.

      This opinion piece is written by Dipa Sinha and Sona Mitra. Dipa Sinha teaches Economics at Ambedkar University, Delhi, and  Sona Mitra is the Principal Economist at Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE), an initiative of LEAD at Krea University.

      Can Covid-19 provide opportunities to strengthen the SHG movement?

      The Self-Help Groups (SHG) movement was introduced in India in the 1980s[1] to alleviate poverty, establish a platform for collective action, ensure access to rights and entitlements, as well as improve the health and wellbeing of women. Initiated by Non-Governmental Organisations[2] (NGOs) the movement was adopted and scaled by the Government of India through the Deendayal Antayodaya Yojana – National Rural Livelihoods Mission (DAY –NRLM) which has so far mobilised approximately 60 million poor women into SHGs across India.

      SHGs are voluntary groups of up to 20 women, that come together on a weekly basis to pool savings and discuss issues of mutual importance. The pooled fund, deposited in the SHG’s bank account is used to support women in the form of loans. SHGs are founded on weekly meetings and savings and their success or failure is partially based on the frequency of these activities. The SHG, however, serves a function that goes well beyond finance; it is a source of collective action, mutual support and comradery. It provides a platform to impart knowledge and wisdom in the form of group discussions and informal conversations that women regularly engage in, thereby strengthening bonding and social capital. SHGs also draw on formal trainings imparted to them by the state and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), to create awareness on various issues such as gender equality, livelihoods, health, gender based violence and so on.

      Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE) has been engaged with DAY-NRLM through its project SWAYAM [3] which supports gender trainings (undertaken by CSOs) and pilots to test the relevance and effectiveness of institutional platforms such as Gender Resource Centres (GRCs)/Gender Justice Centres (GJCs) in four states: Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha. The concept of the GRC draws from the experience of similar platforms in Delhi and Kerala [4] where GRCs have been used to help women access schemes and programmes, as well as record their grievances. SWAYAM builds on a critical element of NRLM’s success i.e. the mission’s commitment towards prioritising women’s perspectives and being responsive to their needs and aspirations. This approach has been embedded across all DAY-NRLM activities and reflects in its primary goal of strengthening women’s agency, identity, well-being, and solidarity through women’s collectivisation.

      This approach and the ability of women to meet to discuss their needs and put forth their requirements, is likely to be put to test on account of COVID-19. SHG meetings have traditionally formed a space for women to gather mutual support and raise their grievances. They serve as an important platform for women to share their lives and aggregate for a common cause. They have been the fulcrum around which well-known movements such as the anti-arak (alcohol) movement in Andhra Pradesh have gathered force; and around which the Scheduled Caste women in states like Punjab are mobilising to collectively farm common lands.  Such mobilisation will suffer if women are not permitted to meet.

      The lockdown announced in March 2020, to curb the spread of the Coronavirus in India has sent shockwaves across the Indian economy. Rural economies are in distress, with supply chains cut off, labour shortages and rising unemployment [5]. The lockdown has had immediate and devastating effects on women and girls [6]. Gender based violence is reportedly on the rise. Women’s unpaid labour has increased along with the anxiety to feed their families. Cash flow is limited and with prevailing social distancing norms, collectivisation has come to a total halt. All regular meetings and activities at the SHG, VO and CLF have stopped, for an indeterminate period of time [7]. Women not being able to move out of their homes (except for farm work), have lost spaces outside the home, such as SHG meetings, where they could come together and share intimate details of their private lives, including domestic abuse. With this space being closed, women have lost the space to share their experiences and have a community of support. This has and will continue to have large scale impact on the SHG movement.

      IWWAGE has been in discussion with CSO partners [8], field level functionaries and SHG leaders in its four implementation states on the impact of the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown on SHGs, their daily functioning and their economic and non-economic activities. How will women’s SHGs transform during and post the crisis? And what impact will the crisis have on women’s solidarity and collectivisation?

      Presently, no SHG activities are taking place. There are no meetings, no savings, no loan disbursement [9] or recovery. In June, rural India will enter a new sowing cycle. Women will most likely, at this time, prioritise their livelihoods which will affect attendance and frequency of SHG activities. They will have no time to meet, to discuss their needs or grievances. This is an important aspect that is likely to get diluted, but can be avoided, perhaps through innovative forms of online communication, and more hand-holding and outreach to women through gender champions including senior SHG leaders, community resource persons, Samta Sakhis and the like. For certain activities, SHGs have started using digital modes of communication such as WhatsApp. Use of digital tools while changing the nature of SHG meetings will allow the flow of correct information. However, online communication cannot be a substitute for the weekly SHG meetings, which should continue, with social distancing norms in place, as they are not only a platform for savings but also for ensuring collective well-being, food security and support.

      SHGs have emerged as frontline workers and the last mile connect between governments and the people during this crisis. SHG women are playing a pivotal role in responding to  COVID-19; they are making masks, hand sanitizers, PPE kits, distributing take home ration, disseminating COVID-19 related information and running community kitchens to feed the vulnerable[10]. The role of SHGs has never been more important than now and can prove to be a rare silver lining in the distress that SHGs are dealing with. Women can come forward and take leadership and development roles in their villages. It is an opportunity that the SHG movement must capitalize on.

      Going forward, it will be important to strengthen the movement, to make sure it can absorb the economic, social and health shocks of the crisis. Post the lockdown governments should evaluate, the investment by SHG movement into COVID-19 response and its impact on the SHG economy.  It would also be beneficial to have clear guidelines from the authorities, about when and how SHGs can reconvene and what precautions they must take while doing so. SHGs should also leverage digital platforms, to ensure the flow of correct information, to keep in contact with each other and with the modification of training pedagogies, to deliver certain types of trainings. While the digital platforms cannot be a substitute for weekly meetings, it goes some way in offering a temporary solution to the immediate problem. In these times when communication through technology marks a new form of solidarity, we must leverage the existing means at our disposal and find new and creative ways to progress; so that we do not lose the momentum gained in the SHG movement over the last 30 years.

      Kaliat Ammu Sanyal is a Research Manager with IWWAGE, working with SWAYAM the NRLM vertical at IWWAGE. This piece draws from SWAYAM’s current work with Women’s Empowerment Collectives on gender mainstreaming across four states in India.

       

       

      [1] “Self Help Groups (SHGs) in India.” 2014. New Delhi: Ethiopian Delegation

      [2] Ramesh, Jairam. “Self-Help Groups Revolution: What Next?” Economic and Political Weekly 42, no. 36 (2007): 3621-624. Accessed May 13, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/40276360

      [3] Strengthening Women’s institutions for Agency and Empowerment (SWAYAM)

      [4] “Kudumbashree | Gender Resource Center / Block Level Counselling Center”. 2020. Kudumbashree.Org. http://www.kudumbashree.org/pages/348. AND “Department Of Women & Child Development”. 2020 Revenue.Delhi.Gov.In http://revenue.delhi.gov.in/wps/wcm/connect/doit_wcd/wcd/Home/Gender+Resource+Centre+Project

      [5] Mukherjee, Sanjeeb. 2020. “Rural Sector Stressed As Covid-19 Disrupts Supplies, Spikes Unemployment”. Business-Standard.Com. https://www.business-standard.com/article/economy-policy/rural-sector-stressed-as-covid-19-disrupts-supplies-spikes-unemployment-120032500780_1.html

      [6] Deshpande, Ashwini. “Protecting Women Is Missing from Pandemic Management Measures in India.” Quartz India. Quartz, March 28, 2020. https://qz.com/india/1826683/indias-approach-to-fighting-coronavirus-lacks-a-gender-lens/

      [7] SHGs are federated at the village level into Village Organisations (VOs) and consequently federated into a apex institution, a Cluster Level Federation (CLF). The VO and CLF meet regularly. The executive committee (EC) of the VO and CLF meet twice a month. EC1 meetings are to discuss social issues, convergence, rights and entitlements, while EC2 meetings are devoted to financial transactions

      [8] ANANDI in Madhya Pradesh, PRADAN in Jharkhand, Chaitanya in Chhattisgarh and Project Concern International (PCI) in Odisha

      [9] The only loan disbursement currently active is the distribution of the Vulnerability Reduction Fund (VRF)

      [10] Kejriwal, Nita. “Covid-19: In Times of Crisis, Women Self-Help Groups Lead the Way.” Hindustan Times, May 3, 2020. https://www.hindustantimes.com/analysis/covid-19-in-times-of-crisis-women-self-help-groups-lead-the-way/story-SyXJVNPLUdVbSljkeaeszN.html

      We Cannot Have a Lockdown Exit Strategy Which Ignores Women

      Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic precipitated a crisis in the country, there has been limited examination of its gender-differentiated impact.

      To some extent governments have recognised and tried to address the heightened risk of gender-based violence during lockdown.

      Beyond this, policies have barely recognised that women disproportionately bear the brunt of the lockdown situation, with reduced economic opportunities and increased burden of unpaid work.

      As we move into the exit strategies and post-lockdown policies, we have an opportunity to reshape existing gender disparities.

      While women constitute over 85% of all health workers in India (PLFS, 2017-18), they also crowd the low level services within the sector that exposes them to maximum risk with stretched supplies of PPE.

      They are the ones working prolonged shifts to substitute for those colleagues falling sick; and many are spending days in a row in cramped and unhygienic temporary quarantine facilities. The ASHA workers, despite facing public anger in many places, are working at the frontlines of community surveillance, devoid of PPEs, masks and other protective gears.

      Needless to say, the direct fight against COVID19 in India is largely being driven by women at the frontlines.

      Also read: ASHA Workers Are Indispensable. So Why Are They the Least of Our Concerns?

      The extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic have also created indirect impact on women by further burdening them with invisible yet challenging roles within the household. In India, evidence shows that women already perform ten times more unpaid work than men.

      Given that rigid gender norms do not change overnight, women’s burden of domestic responsibilities has been aggravated with household members locked indoors, but reluctant to negotiate sharing of chores.

      Closing down schools and Anganwadi or day-care centres as well as collapse of normal healthcare services have substantially increased women’s roles in looking after children, the sick or quarantined, elderly and disabled.

      The responsibility of subsistence adds to their burdens especially with no school meals, desperately scarce food stocks, yet more mouths to feed.

      Also read: India’s Lockdown Is Blind to the Woes of Its Women

      For women in paid work, public messaging emphasises ‘work from home’ which may be possible for 4-5% of all women workers in urban white-collar jobs.

      However, 94% of them are women farmers, vendors and petty retailers, micro-entrepreneurs, domestic workers, and construction workers; predominantly in the informal sector without identity cards, formal contracts or social protection: they are experiencing catastrophic loss of incomes. The lockdown will probably further deteriorate the already plummeting female workforce participation rate.

      This calls for exit strategies that would focus on including women at the centre of the policies.

      Some of the immediate interventions of the government would be to recognise women’s contributions in fighting COVID and extend special provisions to ensure women health workers are not excluded from government support.

      Women walk past closed shops during nationwide lockdown to curb the COVID-19 pandemic, in Kolkata on May 8. Photo: PTI

      The direct intervention in retaining women in the economy would be to increase the number of person-days in NREGA to at least 200 days per year to provide women informal workers with remunerative opportunities, recognising women as farmers for including them in the schemes like the PM-KISAN Yojana, providing one-year moratorium to the 37 million women MUDRA borrowers to boost small businesses of women and providing tax breaks and subsidies to sectors that employ more women such as garment factories, service delivery start-ups and so on.

      Beyond this, women would be immensely supported by the re-institution and normalisation of regular public services in health, education, childcare and other basic amenities, creating support mechanisms for food security like universal PDS for the next six months at least, additional cash transfers for those losing their livelihoods due to the extended lockdown, and provision of respectable amounts to the 20 million women pensioners instead of the meagre Rs 333 under the COVID-19 relief package or the Gareeb Kalyan Yojana.

      The Centre has also promised a Rs 500 cash transfer per woman for the next three months starting in April; however this needs immediate activation of all JDY accounts, more than 50% of which are still inactive (World Bank Findex database)

      The issue of documentation for urban informal migrant workers is proving to be a significant barrier. So a proper implementation of the COVID-19 relief announcements needs to include massive drives for registration, followed by an expanded social security coverage for the excluded millions of unregistered workers with emphasis on inclusion of women.

      It is obvious by now that the pandemic is no longer a mere health crisis but is leading to a deep humanitarian tragedy. Given that women are bearing significant costs of the COVID-19 fallout, the relief announcements by the government definitely need a second version that not only has a vision for the immediate six-month post lockdown period, but that duly acknowledges women’s contributions in fighting the crisis and ensures that women as economic agents do not fall through the cracks.

      A special focus on women’s inclusion would be central to effective exit from the lockdown.

      Jashodhara Dasgupta and Dr Sona Mitra are co-conveners of the Feminist Policy Collective, a collective of researchers and activists working to promote transformative financing for gender equality.

      Disclaimer: This blog first appeared as an article in The Wire on May 8, 2020. Click to visit the article.