PANDEMIC AND ITS GENDERED IMPACT
Updated: Feb 2
“Indian-origin Abhijit Banerjee, wife Esther Duflo awarded Nobel Prize in Economics” — Hindustan Times (2019)
Ester Duflo is an eminent economist who is believed to have brought about a change through her experiment-based approach towards poverty induced issues. She is the director of MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, a premier poverty research institution, yet, the Indian media chose to highlight her incidental marital status with her co-recipient (Abhijit Banerjee) while reporting this instance. Choosing to highlight the latter’s origins to India is explainable but reducing Duflo’s identity to her relationship and marital status does not do justice to her numerous accolades.
The above background is a reminder of how deep-rooted patriarchy is in our society.
The ideal “societal” woman is subjected to various gender roles and her primary accomplishments are the ones she achieves as a caregiver/ homemaker. Why is it that the society expects a woman to strike a perfect ‘work-home’ balance? In the wake of the recent pandemic, such assigned gender roles of a typical Indian family have been highlighted and feared to be reinforced.
March 25, 2020- 1.3 billion people were asked to stay home as the biggest democracy in the world came to a standstill. What followed the lack of prior official planning was the inevitable migration of masses, the urban poor. Although media houses were quick to report this, the resultant dimension of power relations within genders was marginalized. Now that several parts of the country transition into the unlock stage, the focus is on reviving the slump of the economy. In a society like ours where patriarchal influences reflect in the smallest of our actions, one can only wonder whether the government strategies of economic revival will be gender sensitized and if not- will it be questioned?
The long hiatus from the lockdown has bestowed upon many, blank hours to reflect and engage in activities we possibly could not devote time to. While the formal job sector was relatively laid back, the largely scattered informal sector of the Indian society has been in a state of incessant hustle. Households that have historically looked at the work of caregivers with disdain while emphasising its importance as integral to one’s ‘womanhood’, have realized in the wake of the pandemic, the importance of a homemaker’s contributions, which earlier were seldom rewarded or even respected. With the paucity of alternate care providers, the household’s reliance on women has increased. This increased dependability often demands disproportionate amounts of time and energy, leading to their confinement within the four walls. The workload drastically increases with the return of migrated family members and the opportunity to work from home for their male counterparts. Many observers like Moira Donegan (columnist, The Guardian) foresee long term consequences of such trends.
This increased dependency might lead to the widening of existing gender disparities in India, specifically in rural settings. The prolonged confinement holds the potential to reverse decades of hard work and progress made by many to achieve empowerment. The COVID-19 pandemic is contributing in more than one way to bring women back to their homes — the “return of the 1950s housewife”. (Heejung Chunk- Sociologist).
Simone de Beauvoir once wrote in a book, ‘One is not born, but rather becomes a woman’- womanhood is not innate but a product of prolonged psychological and societal conditioning.
The current scenario is reviving patriarchy while rebuilding itself upon the pre-existing societal structure of hierarchy and inequality
There have been instances of women queuing up in the wee hours to ensure water procurement (this has led to the emergence of an underground water market where women are likely to face harassment). The surge of violence against women, ballooning household responsibilities, the household's reluctance to employ domestic help, lack of digital awareness, heavy reliance on public transport, dissolving of self-help groups coupled with other eminent factors of a patriarchal society are pulling women back. The above factors indicate how the pandemic and the resultant socio-economic conditions are heaping a deck against women.
Although women across the country are at a disadvantage, the post-lockdown phase is sure to worsen conditions for marginalized poor women. A contributing factor here is the huge wave of Reverse Migration. The absence of a male member from the family often gave women agency and freedom which is now likely to be taken away. Additionally, many women who had previously taken up agricultural opportunities left behind by their male counterparts will be devoid of this participation for months to come. While reversing the governments achievements on poverty, the pandemic and the new norms are also adding another layer of a hindrance for female participation in the informal/formal workspace. Since women are the central caregivers of the family, they need to be protected; thereby limiting job opportunities from traditionally congested markets e.g. construction labour. The setback for women is greater also due to the nature of businesses that are being affected, e.g. the tourism sector, retail outlets, hospitality centres and informal domestic help. As some employers are forced to lay-off workers due to the economic downturn, many studies show that it is the female workforce who will once again face the disadvantage. Often viewed as ‘less productive’, ‘liability’ (due to the Maternity Act) and secondary earners, they are the early targets when disposing of employees.
Financial freedom, although an essential aspect of women empowerment, is not the primary reason why I think that the focus on this issue needs to be greater than ever in the implementation of economic revival strategies. Working outside their homes enables women to build and exercise their agency and better understand their rights. They set goals and aspire to achieve them. Engagement in bargains with the employing enterprise plays a crucial role in building self-confidence and increasing social awareness. The path ahead must be planned carefully while viewing the scenario through the lens of gender inclusivity. Although women might be increasingly employed in non-mobile areas, their safety and productivity should never be at stake. The government can empower women in agriculture through the existing schemes (MGNREGA) and by incentivising their contribution to the economy (through cash transfers). One can only hope that the lockdown has educated people of the female contribution in the household and that they learn to value their presence.