COVID-19 response: Inclusion of women must for more resilient post-pandemic India

Policy responses should also aim to build women’s ability to cope with future shocks

By Franklin Jones
Published: Tuesday 14 June 2022

Visalakshi, 28 years, used to work as a housemaid and managed to earn Rs 15,000 a month by working in five-six homes. She lives with her  mother and two young daughters in Chennai. Even as the only breadwinner of the family, she was able to lead a decent life. 

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Not everything was the same afterwards. There were days the family of four struggled to have one meal per day. 

It’s been almost two years now and young Visalakshi is still struggling to put things back on track. Millions of women like Visalakshi have seen their lives and livelihoods threatened by COVID-19, as they face fewer employment prospects and increased care responsibilities. With many women working in the informal sector, these challenges have exacerbated. 

Women are the guardians of household food security in many communities. Especially as men become more involved in off-farm labour or move to urban centres for work, women are assuming a bigger share of agricultural production beyond their roles as principal household food producers as well as fuelwood and water collectors. 

Lockdowns also resulted in increased unpaid domestic and care work for women. Along with caregiving, food preparation and maintaining the house, women are primarily responsible for nursing back to health family members who fall ill. 

Paid or formal work is always tougher with round-the-clock household tasks. Women often reduce the amount they eat or eat last to ensure the rest of the family is fed during a food crisis. This is when most Indian communities already have a tradition of men eating first and the best food. 

Emerging evidence from this pandemic and experience from previous humanitarian emergencies show that it is women who disproportionately bear the households socio-economic hardship. However, when it comes to entitlements, women are less likely to receive benefits although they lost their livelihoods and incomes due to lockdowns. 

Many women who are informal workers were left out of social protection measures such as cash transfers in response to the pandemic because of their social status. If women have less access to the safety nets, then overall economic gender equality may regress as a result of the pandemic and associated response efforts. 

Along with prioritising cash transfers as relief during the ongoing pandemic, it becomes inevitable to increase allocations for women-targeted cash transfers too. Without sufficient resources, goals cannot be transformed into action. Also, policymakers need to ensure equitable distribution of the cash transfers. 

The Indian government, for example, has leveraged an existing financial inclusion programme — the Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojana — to roll out an emergency cash transfer scheme. But it has delivered the emergency cash only to accounts registered for women. 

Having 100 per cent of the funds delivered directly to women may address some of the intra-household inequalities, though the programme is still inaccessible to over half the poor women.

Around 53 per cent of poor women in India will be excluded from emergency cash relief, an analysis of the 2018 Financial Inclusion Insights survey showed.

The government must revise its existing targeting criteria to include various marginal and vulnerable groups affected by disasters, with a focus on targeting individuals instead of households, particularly women and girls. Governments can collaborate with civil societies to identify the most marginalised category and provide last-mile support. 

During emergencies, it is evident that women generally face income losses, subjected to domestic violence and are in dire need of basic necessities. There is also an increase in informal borrowing, with women taking loans from informal sources at high interest rates. 

All these uncertainties have led to the re-emergence of a demand for basic income for women during disasters. While a universal basic income will require careful deliberation on its feasibility, design and implementation, an emergency basic income or unconditional cash transfer tied to the duration of any emergencies could exclusively help enhance the financial uncertainties faced by women-headed households. 

These emergency cash transfers should also be complemented with investments in public infrastructure, basic services such as health and food security and should work hand-in-hand with existing social safety nets to ensure sustained impacts. 

Household-level cash transfers should be communicated as a family benefit, with both spouses as recipients. Wherever possible, we need to ensure women will receive the transfer. One way to reach women is to simply mandate it. 

For the past several decades, disaster assistance strategies of humanitarian aid agencies such as World Vision India focusses on women and children to help them meet their basic needs and rebuild livelihoods. As in other emergency contexts, cash and vouchers have proven to be a time-tested, reliable method of support ensuring that vulnerable women meet their families’ basic needs while avoiding harmful coping strategies.

We still have a lot to learn about the most effective means of ensuring women equally benefit from social protection schemes. We constantly need to be reminded that by choosing to invest in women, we can significantly improve the lives of all people in a community. 

Policy responses should also aim to build women’s ability to cope with future shocks. These measures applied to the current pandemic can be integrated into disaster management policies and programming moving forward. It is also important to invest in women’s leadership and empower women to participate and contribute in the design of policy measures to address future crises.  

Women’s rights and empowerment must be a key element of the pandemic response and long-term resilience. This comes as a reminder to “leave no one behind” as we look to rebuilding our economies.

As critical contributors to their households and communities, women must play a key role in any disaster management response and recovery agenda.  

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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