The second wave of the pandemic has been creating havoc across the country and as the nation prepares to come to terms with tackling shortages, we also have to be mindful of the third wave. However, one thing that has remained constant is that women have been at a far greater disadvantage and have almost been invisibilised in the scheme of things and in terms of planning. The pandemic has impacted women - physically, financially, mentally and has had an impact on their education. It has deepened pre-existing inequalities, be it how they are treated in society, their participation in policy and politics or their pay disparity.
In the first lockdown, the Central government had supported families by providing Rs 500 a month for three months, to nearly 200 million women directly into their Jan Dhan accounts. However, in the second wave, since no nationwide lockdown was announced, that safety net has been taken away and there has been no thought on that front by the Centre either. While women and child empowerment is a state subject, states are already grappling with Covid-related financial impact and GST refund delays.
India’s Constitution gives equal rights to women in society as men; however, long-standing patriarchal norms have continued to deny women equal access in the society. Now, for some hard facts on the prevalence of unjust differences between the genders- India ranks 151 out of 156 nations on economic participation and opportunity for women. The female workforce participation in India in 2019 stood at merely 20.52 per cent, and is in danger of falling further, due to the crisis.
Women earn 35 per cent lesser than men while the global average is 16 per cent. Women, despite being half the nation’s population, contribute only 17 per cent to its economic output. A government that promotes Digital India has again forgotten to factor in its women and the digital divide is only getting more defined in this crisis. Males account for 67 per cent of India’s online population, this gap is not just leading to girls falling off the education grid but could also be a factor for women getting vaccinated, since appointments are based on access to a portal.
Besides the above challenges, there has also been a rise in child marriages and malnutrition due to the pandemic and school closures. Let us also not forget the growing incidence of violence against women, as well as their restricted access to health facilities due to restricted mobility. At a time when a higher and greater intervention of government is needed, we have unfortunately seen the Indian government cut its gender budget outlay for this year by 26 per cent. We see fewer and fewer discussions on these urgent issues and more unfortunately, any initiative in this direction is led to political blamegame by the Centre.
As a country, we need to discuss and prioritise the agenda of women, as it is not just making us a just and equal society but is also important for India’s economic growth story. India is seeing large-scale job losses and a fall in the GDP growth rate. Oxfam India estimates the economic loss from women losing their jobs during the pandemic at $216 billion, knocking off 8 per cent from the country’s gross domestic product. The second wave is also seeing a higher impact on women in rural areas than in urban areas, leading to a further divide, not just in gender but also geography.
Recently, a district court verdict in Goa of a sexual assault case of 2013 went against the complainant because she didn’t look ‘victim enough’ in the eyes of the judge. The high-profile case had garnered much attention because the accused was amongst the most well-connected men in India. The court’s disparaging remarks against the survivor are yet another reason why women don’t come forward to report violence or assault, out of fear and shame.
There has been more than a two-fold rise in complaints of domestic violence since the lockdown, but the WCD Minister has dismissed it as incorrect, without being sensitive enough to the situation of women who may have feared complaining about it since they were locked down in the same house and vicinity as the accused. Around 10 million of our girls are increasingly at risk of being forced out of school and into child marriage, child labour, sexual exploitation, teenage pregnancy, poverty, trafficking and violence. The circle of violence for such girls is never ending.
Fewer women in Covid data
Data suggests that more men as compared to women lost their lives due to Covid-19, but there is little discussion or policy in place to support widows and families who were dependent on the men for economic sustenance. We still have not gauged data to understand whether the lower number of women in the Covid data is because of immunity or because of inability to get access to testing and vaccination.
Till date, pregnant women have been kept out of the vaccination ambit in India citing lack of data, despite a strong case being made for it in India and globally. It was only recently that lactating and breastfeeding women were allowed access to vaccines. Denying women in this category the right to decide whether they want to be vaccinated or not is yet another exclusionary tactic, as well as robbing them of their agency.
While it sounds good to make speeches from the Red Fort about women and their participation in nation-building, it is totally another matter when it comes to implementation. Until women become a collective voice, regardless of their politics and privilege, we will continue to see the exploitation of their sentiments for vote-bank politics of those seeking power.
The writer is a Rajya Sabha MP and deputy leader and spokesperson, Shiv Sena