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      Pandemic and the gender divide

      Women and girls across the world have been disproportionately affected in the year of the pandemic, not in terms of the impact of the virus, but more so socially and economically. While India was rapidly responding to the health crisis, millions of Indians were grappling with the unintended impacts of the lockdown measures on the economy and their livelihoods. Even before the onset of COVID-19, India’s female workforce was largely invisible, underpaid, under-protected and constituted the largest segment of the informal workforce, which is among the worst-hit this year. But several opportunities exist in 2021 to ensure that India’s women are not left behind in its recovery plans.

      In a report authored by IWWAGE and TQH, data on women’s workforce and livelihoods showed some worrying and promising trends in 2020. India’s Female Labour Force Participation Rate (FLFPR) has been consistently declining over the past few decades, despite economic growth, decline in fertility rates, and rise in education levels. Further, in a country where approximately 50 per cent of the population is below the age of 25, there has been a consistent promise to leverage the demographic dividend. The numbers belie this promise – a majority of the female labour force now falls in the 40-44 age group, with the highest proportion of “unemployed, willing to work” job seekers in the 20-24 age group.

      Women continue to work largely in the informal sector (94 per cent of women work in the informal sector) and most have no written job contract or defined benefits. They form a large part of the labour force in industries like fashion, the beauty industry, housekeeping and events, which have been severely dented due to social distancing regulations. This has put them at greater risk during the pandemic – mounting job losses, reduction in wages and financial insecurity — with many availing loans from informal sources. In an IWWAGE study, with nearly 1,500 informal women workers in West Bengal and Jharkhand, almost half the women reported a loss of income due to the nation-wide lockdown. According to data released by the EPFO, even in the formal workforce, women’s share in payroll additions decreased in the immediate months of June to August, post lockdown. Unemployment levels for women grew to 17.1 per cent as opposed to 10.9 per cent for men.

      A survey led by LEAD at Krea University in four states covering over 2,000 women-led non-farm enterprises that were either micro or small in nature, showed that on average, businesses had reported a 72.5 per cent drop in revenues between pre-COVID-19 and June 2020, with many enterprises reporting a median revenue of zero in April. However, a resurvey of these enterprises suggests that several are showing promises of recovery since. Another study led by LEAD, in partnership with the Global Alliance for Mass Entrepreneurship on the impact of COVID-19 on 1,800 micro-enterprises, showed that 79 per cent of the female entrepreneurs reported low sales and reduced customer footfall. Nevertheless, there is still a glimmer of hope, with 19 per cent respondents reporting a scaling up of their businesses during this period.

      Women’s collectives and SHGs proved to be a bulwark in the fight against COVID-19, producing a staggering number of face masks, PPE kits and sanitisers, and running community kitchens to feed food-insecure households during the lockdown. A study, led by IWWAGE and Project Concern International in Odisha, noted that 81 per cent of the 423 women surveyed would reach out to SHGs for any type of support and saw them as important avenues for social solidarity.

      The Ministry of Statistics, Planning and Implementation also released the Time Use Survey this year. Findings indicate that 92 per cent of the women aged 15-59 years participate in unpaid domestic activities and spend nine times more time on household duties as compared to men. A disproportionate amount of unpaid care work is cited as one of the main reasons for low female labour force participation globally where a two-hour increase in women’s unpaid care work is correlated with a ten-percentage-point decrease in women’s labour force participation. However, there are other barriers too constraining their ability to participate in the economy. Women face an uphill battle when it comes to financial security, property rights or even access to rights and entitlements in the absence of formal identification. Over 176 million poor women lack a Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) bank account and 70 million lack a ration card. Access to information around rights and government programmes is also curtailed, compounded by the lack of access to smartphones and the internet. There is a 50 per cent gender divide between male and female internet users in India.

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