Investing in the lives and livelihoods of Indian women is crucial to the full recovery of nations – Global Issues


Participants in the UN Women’s Second Chance Vocational Education and Training Program in India. Credit: UN Women
  • Opinion Written by Susan Ferguson (New Delhi, India)
  • Interpress service

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

A combination of illness, unpaid care, economic slowdown, lack of access to finance for female entrepreneurs, and domestic violence has left many women unable to return to work.

Much of this is attributed to the long history of seeing the work women do as unimportant in the “real world” of the economy, and unworthy of value in the family.

A recent report from Oxford University showed that Indian women and girls work 3.26 billion hours of unpaid care work every day – a contribution of at least £19 trillion annually to the Indian economy. However, in India, duties performed at home have not historically been considered ‘work’, due to gender and caste norms.

If these trends are not reversed, they will have a devastating impact on the economy with further exacerbation of gender inequality. For this generation of women to emerge relatively unscathed from this pandemic and be able to return to the workforce, we must 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 deal with a deadly new variable that has overwhelmed its healthcare capacity.

The country’s rural areas depend on the incredible dedication of frontline workers: Anganwadi workers, ASHA (Certified Social Health Activist) workers, community health workers and nurses, along with civil society organizers and volunteers.

This workforce, which is predominantly female, has been seriously overworked. 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 do, which sometimes leads to illness and death due to a lack of protective equipment. Many are also subjected to verbal and physical abuse during door-to-door surveys.

The accolades and recognition – which are not associated with any economic benefits or opportunities – serve as a cynical reminder that these women are still required to do double duty in the form of seemingly unpaid work in the home.

India’s public spending on healthcare is only one percent of its GDP, which is much lower than many other developing countries. In fact, the Anganwadi and ASHA programs technically qualify as volunteer work.

This is reflected in the devaluation of “women’s work” in the home. India First time use questionnaire It states that while Indian men spend 80 per cent of their working hours in paid work, women spend approximately 84 per cent of their working hours in unpaid work.

to me NITI AayogWomen spend 9.8 times as much time as men on unpaid household chores. In a country with a high proportion of multigenerational families, women spend an average of 4.5 hours a day caring for children, the elderly, sick or disabled, compared to less than one hour for men.

The COVID-19 outbreak has only exacerbated this situation, and its impact on women’s participation in the formal economy is becoming clear. Many women have had to stop working officially to devote themselves only to unpaid work. In the decade leading up to the pandemic, women’s labor force participation was already trending downward, making women earned income In India one fifth of the proportion of men – well below the world average.

Over the years, the Government of India and the states have taken initiatives to increase the participation of women in the workforce. From removing restrictions on women’s right to work nights in factories or appointments as board members, to comprehensive maternity benefits and protections from sexual harassment in the workplace.

Initiatives like 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 workforce has not been reversed.

After the recent outbreak of this pandemic, there is a danger that this mass exodus from the workplace will become permanent. This would kill women’s livelihoods and the economy in general.

On the other hand, according to IMF estimates, equal participation of women in the labor force will increase India’s GDP by 27 percent.

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

According to the International Labor Organization, the demand for care jobs (care for children, people with disabilities and the elderly, both in urban and rural areas) will increase with working parents and an aging population.

According to simulation results, increased investment in the care economy to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 could generate 69 million jobs in India. The analysis shows that if another 2 per cent of GDP were allocated to the Indian healthcare system, it would create millions of jobs, many of which would go to women.

It is critical that women working on the front lines of health care are recognized as formal workers and enjoy the same benefits and protections as any similar profession. Implementing childcare and gradual leave policies will also help reduce the burden.

But there must also be a shift in mentality that recognizes the value of this vital, unpaid work. In fact, Indian politicians recently took the unprecedented step of pledging to pay women for their unpaid work, a move that activists have long demanded – one that could be embraced in the rest of the world.

Some have criticized such proposals, saying they will only reinforce gender stereotypes and discourage women from entering the formal workforce. For this reason, in the long run, policies of this kind should be combined with those that help women participate in the formal workforce if they so choose.

These include initiatives that help women entrepreneurs find and obtain funding for their initiatives – something they have struggled to access in the past.

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

We also need to consider the persistent problem of income inequality. We consistently see larger wage gaps in countries where women perform longer unpaid hours of work. While this situation has improved over the years in India, investing in care infrastructure will ensure that women do not choose low-paying jobs when looking for roles that flexibly trade hourly wages, due to demands at home. Private sector participation is also critical in this area: family-friendly workplace policies are beneficial for female workers and can win the entire economy.

In the end, it will turn out to change attitudes, share burdens equally, and dismantle the idea that domestic work is the exclusive domain of women. Whether it is 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 in India. She joined UN Women in 2017, after a long career in international development. She has lived and worked in South Africa, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, and has experience working in grassroots development agencies; creation and management of social services; Work within local, state and federal government in Australia in social policy and social programmes.

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[3] Care work and care jobs for a future of decent work: Key findings in Asia and the Pacific, ILO, 2018 (–en/index.htm).

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© Inter Press Service (2021) – All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service


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