Women are bearing the brunt of the lockdown

An ongoing study by researchers at Northwestern University, the University of Mannheim, Germany, and the University of California, San Diego, finds that women are bearing a disproportionate economic burden of the coronavirus disease.

The study looks at the American market but many of its findings are applicable to India. Housework, for instance, in both countries remains primarily a woman’s responsibility. But the gap in unpaid care work in India is wide. So, women who can afford it and have paid jobs in the formal sector rely on an army of relatively cheap labour in the informal sector — cooks, nannies and cleaners, many of them women themselves.

Now, with families under lockdown and social distancing showing no sign of abating any time soon, both sets of women, in the formal and informal sector, risk losing jobs.

This is grim news for a country that already has among the lowest female labour workforce participation rates in South Asia. Women continue to drop out of paid work largely due to social norms about “appropriate” work for women, and the cultural idea that housework and childcare are a woman’s job.

Given the scale of the pandemic and the multiple crises from migration to racism, the gender angle has been muted. There is talk among women’s groups of a spike in domestic violence but there is no data available yet.

“We are asking bystanders and neighbours to be alert to domestic violence,” says Sohini Bhattacharya of Breakthrough India. “We are also asking men to step up to share the domestic burden.”

Certainly, it’s too early to say how (and if) men are stepping up at home. But if men take on even a fraction of housework, it could lead to longer-term behavioural change — and a significant freeing up of women’s time that could enable their greater participation in the job market.

The silver lining in the Covid-19 shock would be this disruption of India’s business-as-usual labour market. “In the long-term, when companies realise how beneficial work from home is, the biggest beneficiaries would be women,” says Vyas.

Published in Hindustan Times on April 3, 2020

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