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Gender inequality in labour force during Covid-19: 'Need' for sex-disaggregated data

By Dr Debashrita Chatterjee*

The first and second waves of Covid-19 have caused an unimaginable scenario for Indian families. Lack of health services leading to sharp rise in deaths and job loss have been major factors contributing to familial troubles. Ever since the lockdown was announced in March 2020, as many as 5 million salaried Indians lost their jobs as of July 2020 and the number increased to 7.35 million in April 2021.
According to the ILO Rapid Assessment of the Impact of the COVID-19 Crisis on Employment, casual workers, unprotected regular job employees and self-employed were most likely to lose their work and income.
Inequalities among gender have been sharply visible as women suffered a greater loss of employment than men, broadening the gap of gender inequality in the labour force. Statistics show the number of employed men dropped by 29% between March 2019 and April 2020, while for women the percentage change was 39%.
That implies four out of every ten working women in 2019 lost their jobs during Covid. Data released by the World Bank in June 2020 also showed India’s female workforce participation rate fell to 20.3 percent in 2020.
The outbreak of the virus and stay-at-home orders brought several troubles in women’s lives irrespective of their education level and wealth status. For example, millions of female migrant workers engaged in the informal sector were forced to leave the cities as they were unable to pay for accommodation and daily essentials after the close down of small and large scale industries.
The lives of working women in white-collar jobs has not been easy-going as they work simultaneously for home and office. Based on a survey report, 85% of professional women faced challenges while working from home and 66% endured some amount of pay cut during the pandemic.
The life of self-employed women has also been affected as 89% of the self-employed urban women have lost their livelihoods compare to urban men, 77%. Among these, several have been burdened with elderly care and children, surviving with savings and financial help from relatives.
In regard to going to the workplace, several case studies state how women who identify themselves as skilled workers in the service industry perceive things: Unlike men, they face limits like safety and travel risk while going to jobs, thus, many can’t do any job like men after their job-loss during the pandemic.
For survival, several underprivileged groups stepped outside of home even in the lockdown period at the risk of death/infection. One such group is female sex workers (FSW). In the absence of social welfare programme for them, and a lack of legal documents, FSWs can’t access food and cash transfer benefits from the government. Unfortunately, there are no data available on the women as a single bread earners who lost their job.
Besides, pervasive gender-based digital divide has led to gender gap in ownership of mobile phones, users of mobile phones, and access to internet usage. According to the Mobile Gender Gap Report, only 21% of females used internet compare to 42% of males during complete lockdown.
The share of population by type of handset owned revealed that only 14% of women owned smartphones and 31% owned basic phones whereas 37% of men owned smartphones and 29% owned the basic phones.
The inability of women to access smartphones, internet, and lack digital literacy have created additional hindrances for women to engage in digital market or carry their routine work in their field.
It is difficult to predict how long India needs to cope up with the impact of Covid-19 and bring life back to the normal. There is an urgent need to gather standardised comparable sex-disaggregated data on work status in relation to age, marital status, place of residence, industries among others to understand how men and women are affected by the virus and what challenges do we need to overcome in the coming years.
Such data will be helpful for the formation of evidence gender based policy. In addition, we need to close the digital gap between the poor-rich and users-non users of digital technology so that more girls and women can access information on jobs and perform online-based jobs.
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*Researcher, Centre for Health and Social Justice, Delhi

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