Investing in the lives and livelihoods of Indian women is crucial for the nation’s full recovery

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Participants in the UN Women’s Second Chance Learning and Professional Learning program in India. Credit: UN Women

NEW DELHI, India, June 10, 2021 (IPS) – Thousands of Indians have been affected by the latest COVID-19 outbreak. Not only those who suffer from the disease, but also those who treat them.

As with the first wave and the countless disasters that preceded it, women have taken on the heavy burden of caring for the sick and finding ways to meet the basic needs of their families.

The combination of illness, unpaid care, the economic downturn, lack of access to finance for women entrepreneurs and domestic violence has kept many women from returning to work.

Much of this is due to a long history of seeing women’s work as unimportant in the “real world” of the economy, and as unworthy of value in the household.

A recent report from Oxford shows that Indian women and girls spend 3.26 billion hours of unpaid care work every day, contributing at least 19 trillion yen per year to the Indian economy .[1] Yet in India, chores performed at home have historically not been considered “work”, due to gender and caste norms.

Susan Ferguson. Credit: Yvonne Fafungian

If these trends are not reversed, it will have a devastating impact on the economy while further exacerbating gender inequalities. For this generation of women to emerge relatively unscathed from this pandemic and return to the workforce, we need to invest seriously in the livelihoods of women and girls in our country.

India has now lost more than 300,000 people to the virus and that number continues to rise as the country struggles to cope with a deadly new variant that has exceeded its healthcare capacity.

The rural areas of the country depend on the incredible dedication of frontline workers: Anganwadi workers, ASHA (Certified Social Health Activist) workers, community health workers and nurses, as well as social organizers. civilian and volunteers.

This predominantly female workforce has been seriously overwhelmed. The ASHA program has only been around for 15 years, but it is often the only line of defense in remote areas.

These women have been hailed as national heroines for the dangerous work they have done, which has sometimes resulted in illness and death due to the lack of protective equipment. Many also face verbal and physical abuse during door-to-door investigations.

The accolades and appreciation – which are unrelated to any economic benefit or opportunity – serve as an ironic reminder that these women are still often forced to do double duty in the form of seemingly endless unpaid work at home. .

Public spending in India on health care is only one percent of its GDP, which is far lower than that of many other developing countries. Indeed, the Anganwadi and ASHA programs are technically qualified as volunteer work.

This devaluation of “women’s work” is reflected in the household. India’s First Time Use Survey indicates that while Indian men spend 80 percent of their working hours in paid work, women spend almost 84 percent of their working hours in unpaid work.

Health workers participating in UN Women India’s Second Chance Education Program present their “Certificate of Completion of Essential Nursing Training in COVID-19 Pandemic Management”. Credit: UN Women

According to NITI Aayog, women spend 9.8 times more time than men on unpaid household chores. In a country with a high proportion of multigenerational households, women spend an average of 4.5 hours per day caring for children, the elderly and the sick or disabled, compared to less than an hour for men.

The COVID-19 epidemic has only exacerbated this situation, and its impact on women’s participation in the formal economy is clear. Many women have had to formally stop working to devote themselves solely to unpaid work. In the decade leading up to the pandemic, women’s participation in the labor market had already trended downward, making women’s incomes in India just one-fifth of men’s – well below the global average.

Over the years, the Indian government and states have taken initiatives to increase the participation of women in the labor market. Starting with removing restrictions on women’s right to work nights in factories or appointments as board members, full maternity benefits and protection from sexual harassment in the workplace.

Initiatives such as the National Rural Livelihoods Mission, Skill India Mission and Startup India all have progressive policies, programs and legislation. Despite these important initiatives, the decline in women’s participation in the labor market has not yet been reversed.

After the recent outbreak of this pandemic, there is a risk that this labor exodus will become permanent. It would decimate both women’s livelihoods and the economy as a whole.

On the other hand, according to IMF estimates, equal participation of women in the labor market would increase India’s GDP by 27%.[2]

This crisis can be avoided if India increases its public investment in formal and informal care economies and harnesses the job creation potential of the care economy.

According to the ILO, the demand for care jobs (caring for children, the disabled and the elderly, both in urban and rural areas) will increase with working parents and an aging population.

According to the simulation results, increasing investment in the care economy to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 could generate 69 million jobs in India.[3] Analysis shows that if an additional 2% of GDP were allocated to the Indian healthcare system, it would create millions of jobs, many of which would go to women.

It is essential that women working on the front lines in health care are recognized as formal workers and enjoy the same benefits and protections as any other comparable profession. The implementation of progressive child care and leave policies would also help ease the burden.

But there is also a need for a change in mentality that recognizes the value of this equally vital unpaid work. In fact, Indian politicians recently took the unprecedented decision to pledge to pay women for their unpaid work, a move that activists have long been calling for and could be adopted by the rest of the world.

Some have criticized such proposals, saying they will only entrench gender stereotypes and discourage women from entering the formal labor market. Therefore, in the long term, policies of this type must be combined with those which help women to participate in formal working life if they so wish.

These include initiatives that help women entrepreneurs find and secure funding for their initiatives, which they have struggled to access in the past.

It also includes expanding educational opportunities for women and girls. UN Women India’s Second Chance Education Program is a good example of how we can simultaneously tackle the pandemic and provide women with opportunities to advance their careers, by training frontline health workers. while providing access to employment.

We must also take into account the persistent problem of income inequality. We consistently see larger pay gaps in countries where women work longer unpaid hours. Although this situation has improved over the years in India, investing in healthcare infrastructure will ensure that women do not opt ​​for lower paying jobs when seeking roles that trade flexibility for hourly pay, due to home requirements.

The involvement of the private sector is also essential in this area: family-friendly workplace policies benefit women workers and can benefit the economy as a whole.

Ultimately, it will be about changing mentalities, sharing the burden fairly, and dismantling the idea that domestic work is exclusively the domain of women. Whether at home, in the office or in the field, we must stop taking women’s work for granted.

Susan Ferguson is the UN Women Representative for India. She joined UN Women in 2017, after a long career in international development. She has lived and worked in South Africa, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, and has experience working in local development agencies; establish and manage social services; work in local, state and federal government in Australia on social policy and social programs.

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[3] Care Work and Care Jobs for the Future of Decent Work: Key Findings from Asia and the Pacific, ILO, 2018 (– in / index. htm).

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