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.
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.
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.
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.
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