Rightfully compensating women for both paid & unpaid labour will usher in true gender equality, writes Harini Calamur
UN Women

The Covid pandemic has exposed how fragile the world’s move towards equality and equity is. Across the world, the most economically and socially vulnerable communities have been the most hit. In India, urban slums have borne the brunt of the virus – and the migrants who lived there, may have carried the bug back to their home states during the lockdown.

In the US and Europe – communities at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid, usually immigrants, or people of colour – have been most impacted. In general, men have borne the brunt of the virus’s wrath. But, the economic and social consequences for women have been far more devastating and this could undo decades of work in trying to build greater equality and equity for women.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), over 6 in 10 people in employment, and 80 per cent of all enterprises, are part of the informal/unorganised part of the economy. About two billion people are dependent on it. Across the world, more women than men are part of the unorganised sector – from jobs like house helps, to job-lot factory workers, from construction site workers to street vendors. Most of these jobs enable them to merely subsist.

In India, it is estimated that 118 million women workers, or 97 per cent of all women employed, are employed by the unorganised sector. Most of these jobs are not ‘work from home’ jobs. Most of these 97 per cent of women who earned a daily living, have been adversely impacted by the Covid lockdown.

Unpaid work of women

Over and above this is the burden of unpaid work. UN Women estimates that women spend at least 2.5 times more time on unpaid work than men. The National Statistical Office (NSO) carried out India’s first time use survey for 2019, and found that women in India spent three times as much time as men in doing “unpaid domestic services for household members”. This burden of unpaid household work has gone up during the pandemic.

And finally, there is the pay gap, wherein women are paid considerably lower than men, for the same work. This could be in the boardroom, the shop floor, or as a job-lot worker. Women, on an average, earn 19 per cent less than men. According to the UN, the global economy loses $160 trillion each year because of this inequality.

The issues are well known, and every government in the world pays lip service to these issues. Many, including the Indian government, try to bridge this generational inequality, and much has been achieved over the last 100 years, in which women gained equality and emancipation. However, we are at the crossroads of history and many of these gains now seem threatened, with economies around the world slowing down.

Rebuild without inequality

While Covid has wrought destruction on economies and livelihoods, it is also a chance to rebuild without the inequalities of the past. And the starting point of this is to see how half the world’s population, the half that brings up families and nurtures the future, is empowered financially, through a series of measures that has been a long time coming.

A crucial shift away from the older ways of seeing things, is the recognition of women’s work as work and ensuring that this work is paid for. The first step towards equality would be to ensure that this work is paid for. In the book, The Growth Delusion, David Pilling writes about the nature of ‘women’s work’ and estimates that “if cooking, cleaning, washing, driving and so on were counted, these activities would add roughly $3.8 trillion to the total size of the American economy. That would make the economy 26 per cent bigger.” According to McKinsey, treating women equal to men in the labour market would add $28 trillion to the world GDP by 2025.

All in all, it seems that gender equality starts with economic parity, and the bedrock of this is recognising women’s work as work and paying for it. This is something that Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman must ponder on, while preparing the Budget. On the one hand, we nurture the ambition of becoming a $5 trillion economy. On the other, is the glaring slowdown of the wheels of the economy, impacting the poorest and the most vulnerable.

The solution maybe simpler than it seems - a universal women’s wage for every female over 18. A standard amount that is decided by the state and index-linked. This pays for the work done by women, to build and nurture households, the society, and by definition, the state. Work that is deemed valuable because without it, we would be peering into the abyss of anarchy.

The impact of empowering every woman financially will likely transform not just the economy, but also society. As we move into the second decade of the millennium, the chance to build a more equal tomorrow is possible. It depends on whether states are bold enough to take that chance.

The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology and audiences. She is a columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker.

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