Investing in the lives and livelihoods of India’s women is critical to the nation’s full recovery – global challenges

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Participants in the Second Chance Education and Training Program of UN-Women in India. Credit: UN Women.
  • Opinion Susan Ferguson (New Delhi, India)
  • Inter press service

As with the first wave and countless disasters before them, 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, economic downturn, lack of access to finance for women entrepreneurs and domestic violence has made it impossible for many women to return to work.

This is largely due to the fact that for a long time women considered the work performed by women to be unimportant in the “real world” of the economy and unworthy in the household.

A recent Oxford report shows that Indian women and girls spend 3.26 billion hours daily on unpaid care work, which equates to at least £ 19 trillion per year for the Indian economy. However, in India, duties performed at home have historically not been considered “work” due to gender and caste norms.

If these trends are not reversed, they will have a devastating effect on the economy and further exacerbate gender inequality. For this generation of women to emerge relatively safe from this pandemic and return to the labor market, we must invest heavily in the livelihoods of women and girls in our country.

India has now lost more than 300,000 people to the virus, a number that continues to rise as the country struggles to cope with a deadly new option that exceeds its health care capacity.

The country’s rural areas depend on the incredible dedication of women front-line workers: Anganwadi workers, ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activists) workers, local health workers and nurses, and civil society organizers and volunteers.

This predominantly female workforce is seriously overloaded. The ASHA program has only been in existence for 15 years, but they are often the only line of defense in remote areas.

These women were hailed as national heroes for their dangerous work, which sometimes led to illness and death due to lack of protective equipment. Many also experience verbal and physical abuse during door-to-door interviews.

Praise and appreciation – which are not tied to any economic gain or opportunity – serve as an ironic reminder that these women are still often required to fulfill a double duty of endless unpaid household chores.

Government spending on healthcare in India is only one percent GDP, which is much less than that of many other developing countries. Indeed, the Anganwadi and ASHA programs technically qualify as volunteer work.

This devaluation of “female labor” is reflected in the home. India First use poll states that while Indian men spend 80 percent of their working time in paid work, women spend almost 84 percent of their working time in unpaid work.

In accordance with NITI Aayogwomen 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, the sick or the disabled, compared with less than one hour for men.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has only exacerbated this situation, and its impact on women’s participation in the formal economy is clear. Many women had to stop working officially in order to devote themselves entirely to unpaid work. In the decade before the pandemic, female labor force participation was already on a downward trend, leaving women earned income in India – only one-fifth of the male – well below the world average.

Over the years, the Indian government and states have taken initiatives to increase female labor force participation. From lifting restrictions on women’s right to night work in factories or by appointment as board members, to comprehensive maternity benefits and protection from sexual harassment in the workplace.

Initiatives such as the National Mission for Rural Livelihoods, Mission Skill India and Startup India have progressive strategies, programs and laws. Despite these important initiatives, the decline in female labor force participation has not yet been reversed.

Following the recent outbreak of this pandemic, there is a risk that this job exodus could become permanent. This will undermine both women’s livelihoods and the economy as a whole.

On the other hand, the IMF estimates that 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 economy and harnesses the job creation potential of the care economy.

According to the ILO, demand for care work (caring for children, the disabled and the elderly, both in urban and rural areas) will grow at the expense of working parents and an aging population.

Simulations show that increased investment in the care economy to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) could create 69 million jobs in India by 2030. Analysis shows that if another two percent of GDP were allocated to India’s health care system, it would create millions of jobs, many of which would go to women.

It is vital that women working at the forefront of health care are recognized as formal workers and have the same benefits and protections as any comparable profession. Implementing progressive childcare and leave policies will also help ease this burden.

But you also need to change your mindset to recognize the value of this equally important unpaid job. In fact, Indian politicians have recently taken an unprecedented step by pledging to pay women for their unpaid work, a move that activists have long called for and that could be adopted by the rest of the world.

Some have criticized such proposals, arguing that they would simply reinforce gender stereotypes and discourage women from working in the formal sector. This is why, in the long term, such policies must be combined with policies that help women to participate in the formal labor force if they so choose.

These include initiatives that help women entrepreneurs find and receive funding for their initiatives – something they have tried to get in the past.

This 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 address the challenges of post-pandemic recovery and offer women career opportunities by educating leading-edge healthcare workers and providing employment opportunities.

We also need to take into account the persistent problem of income inequality. We are consistently seeing wider wage gaps in countries where women work longer than unpaid hours. While this situation in India has improved over the years, investing in care infrastructure ensures that women do not choose low-paying jobs when looking for roles in which flexibility gives way to hourly pay due to demand at home. Private sector participation is also critical in this area: family-centered workplace policies are beneficial for women workers and can benefit the entire economy.

Ultimately, it will boil down to changing attitudes, sharing the burden equally, and abandoning the notion that domestic work is solely 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 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, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, and has experience with grass-roots development agencies; creation and management of social services; work in local government, state and federal government in Australia on social policy and social programs.

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Notes

[1] https://www.oxfamindia.org/press-release/timetocare-india
[2] https://in.one.un.org/unibf/gender-equality/
[3] Care work and care work for a decent work future: Key findings in Asia and the Pacific, ILO, 2018 (https://www.ilo.org/global/topics/care-economy/WCMS_633305/lang–en/index.htm).

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

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