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Gendered impact of 'catastrophic' second wave of Covid-19 pandemic in India

By Ishika Chaudhary, Ritika Gupta, Sakshi Sharda, Chhavi Kapoor, Arjun Kumar* 

Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development, and building good governance. – Kofi Annan
The Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has layers of crisis embedded in it as it’s a political crisis, economic crisis, humanitarian crisis, and psychological crisis. India has the largest number of cases in Asia and the second highest confirmed cases as of June 25, 2021. 
The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a public health crisis in India. The shortage of oxygen, vaccines, beds and basic health amenities has been reported. In May 2021, World Health Organization (WHO) has declared two variants in India ‘Delta’ (B.1.617.2) and ‘Kappa’ (B.1.617.1).
The catastrophic second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated miseries and inequalities to a great extent. The gendered impact of this is visible in the increasing cases of unequal access to opportunity based on one’s gender, economic dimensions, mental health, domestic violence, abuse, and sexual harassment. The National Commission of Women (NCW) received 2,383 domestic violence complaints between January and May 2021, the highest since 2000.
Moreover, to describe the gravity of the situation, the term Shadow Pandemic has been used to highlight the violence perpetrated against women and the unaccounted miseries that arose during the pandemic. However, the depiction of gender-based violence against women during the ongoing pandemic as a “Shadow pandemic” can be contested. This is because violence against women is very much embedded and visible in our deep-rooted structures, social norms, and societal behaviour, portraying the situation as rather Business as Usual (BAU).
Here we examine the dynamics of violence, caregiving burden, economic dimension, ASHA & Anganwadi workers, period poverty, digital illiteracy, overall well-being, and way forward.

Violence

Gender-based violence is a spectrum. It can take the form of physical, sexual, and psychological violence. It lies at the intersection of other identities like race, class, religion, caste, and socioeconomic status, which further makes the situation dreadful.
Home is considered to be a place full of warmth, love, and affection but the pandemic has revealed that the definition of home varies according to individual experiences. Living with a family member who is abusive traps an individual in a cage, wherein it becomes difficult to even find space to breathe.
According to NCW, over 70% of women who experienced physical violence during Covid did not seek help or tell anyone about it.
Preventive, curative, and systemic support needs to be ensured to the survivors of violence. One-stop crisis centres need to more effective in reaching out to the victims of domestic violence. Awareness needs to be built regarding the laws and rights of women.

Caregiving burden

In a patriarchal setup, women are responsible for all the household chores and taking care of the family, which has led to caregiver burden. Caregiving is multifaceted. Studies show that women experience more secondary stressors i.e. relational and financial problems, combined with different tasks.
Oxfam India estimated that women and girls put in 3.26 billion hours of unpaid care work every day. It is equivalent to the contribution of Rs 19 lakh crore (trillion) a year to the Indian economy.
The Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) of India, released by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementationin 2019, indicated that the only sector which has a larger number of women getting vocational training is work related to childcare, nutrition, pre-school, and cr├Ęches. Women are the primary caregivers all across the world and constitute almost 70% of the global health workforce but it is estimated that they hold only 25% of senior roles.
Working women are finding it more difficult to work from home due to additional family responsibilities. According to a Deloitte report, a Global survey finds that nearly seven out of 10 women who experienced negative shifts in their routine as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic believe their career progression will slow down. Virginia Woolf said it right that women need their own space to pursue their dreams.
The movie “The Great Indian Kitchen” depicts how gender roles are embedded in our perceptions of each other. Doing household chores and cooking is considered to be natural for a woman, as she must know that her end destiny is getting married and fulfilling household responsibilities at the end of the day. This stereotypical perception needs to be challenged by active interventions at the micro-level.

Economic dimension

India’s female labor force participation rate (FLPR) has been declining for over three decades. While 36% of male workers lost employment during the lockdown in 2020, 74% of female workers lost jobs. Raising FLPR to the same level as men can boost India’s GDP by 27%. The reasons for the low participation rate are lack of formal wage opportunities, socio-cultural norms, lack of workplace safety, and less access to education.
The Union Labour and Employment Ministry told the parliamentary standing committee on 23rd June 2021 that it doesn’t have any data on women’s participation in the labor force. For effective policymaking, data is a prerequisite.
Schemes of the government like Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana, Jan Dhan Yojana, Self Help Groups, Skill Development, PMAY, SBM, Ujjwala Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana Scheme, Mission Shakti, and the One-stop center scheme have been beneficial to women. India needs to focus on interlinking women’s issues and building a comprehensive outlook. An integrated approach that focuses on sensitization can enhance women’s rights in the long run.

ASHA and Anganwadi workers

The majority of the Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) and Anganwadi workers are women. They have been the lifeline of the country amidst this pandemic as they are working on the ground level and providing services to the people. But there is no system for ASHA workers. They are not treated as permanent workers and are considered activists and volunteers.
ASHA workers have helped to build a deep connection among the people in rural areas as their role in distributing oxy-meters, thermometers and creating awareness has been very significant. However, due to a lack of personal protective equipment, many ASHA workers have succumbed to this virus.
They are paid a meagre sum of rupees 2000-3000 per month, which doesn’t adequately compensate for the tremendous work they are doing. They are protesting countrywide for their right to work with dignity, in accordance with Article 21 enshrined in the Indian Constitution. We need to move from Relief to Reform. Educational and counselling sessions need to be organized for these workers.

Period poverty

Period poverty refers to a lack of access to menstrual hygienic products, especially for women in rural areas and those belonging to weaker sections of society. We need to ensure that pads, menstrual cups, tampons, soap, and napkins are included in the list of the essential items as according to UNICEF, “Essential hygiene products are a priority for the health, dignity, and welfare of all people who menstruate”.
Taboo and stigma around menstruation need to be tackled with a mitigation approach. Awareness mechanisms need to be created by the government to move towards an equitable future.

Digital illiteracy

Due to digital illiteracy in rural areas and the perception that women should not be given mobile phones, women find it difficult to seek help via helpline numbers and even to get vaccinated.
Digital inclusive policies are the need of the hour.
Equal opportunities need to be provided to everyone irrespective of gender. Door-to-door vaccination drives are essential. Education programs should be conducted at the ground level to generate awareness among the masses.

Overall well being

The mental health of women needs more attention. A research study by CARE International revealed that while almost everyone experienced anxiety and emotional fatigue because of the pandemic, women suffered three times more when it came to mental health. Psychological health services need to be included in primary health care. Every individual should know Psychological first-aid.
The Covid-19 pandemic is traumatic not only because it threatens our and our loved ones’ existence but also because it threatens the cultural norms, frameworks and habits that we deem granted and assume will still operate after we’re gone.
People, during this pandemic, are experiencing “Group Trauma”, as it is a collective trauma shared by society. Therefore, trauma-informed care must be given attention. We need to remember “Emotions need motion”, that it is okay to be sad, anxious, or angry as these are human emotions and they need time to pass by. We need to build more empathetic communities and find ways to stay connected with each other.

Way forward

Covid-19 has revealed stark inequities in India. India needs to invest more in research and development (R&D) as that can lead to innovative policymaking. Gender-responsive budgeting and policy-making can go a long way in mitigating this crisis. Gender segregated data needs to be maintained for effective policymaking. Sex workers and the LGBTQ+ community’s concerns need to be incorporated into the broader policy framework.
Women should be decision-makers for moving towards an egalitarian future. A gender-sensitive monitoring system has to be developed. Stories of women’s valour during the Covid-19 pandemic need attention as Empowerment of women is the only way towards real #AatmaNirbharBharat and #NewIndia.
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*Researchers at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi

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