- The pre-COVID situation
- Features of rural women’s work
- Lockdown and jobs
- Effect on Health and Nutrition
- Way Forward
Reset rural job policies and recognise women’s work
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The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on women’s work, but devoid of adequate statistics, little attention has been paid to the consequences of the pandemic for women workers and to the design of specific policies and programmes to assist them.
The pre-COVID situation:
- According to National Labour Force surveys, a quarter of adult rural women were in the labour force (or counted as workers in official data) in 2017-18.
- There are no official time-use survey data: the National Statistical Office did conduct a time-use survey in 2019 but the results are not available (a previous pilot survey was conducted 20 years ago).
- Time-use surveys collect information on all activities undertaken during a fixed period (usually 24 hours), the picture changes radically.
- A village-level time-use survey from Karnataka, with data for 24 hours a day for seven days consecutively over two agricultural seasons in 2017-18 show that, although there were seasonal variations in work participation, almost all women came within the definition of worker in the harvest season.
Features of rural women’s work:
1. Lack of regular employment:
- Rural women face a crisis of regular employment.
- When women are not reported as workers, it is because of the lack of employment opportunities rather than it being on account of any withdrawal from the labour force.
- This crisis of regular employment will have intensified during the pandemic and the lockdown.
- With some regional exceptions women from all sections of the peasantry, participate in paid work outside the home.
- In thinking of the potential workforce, thus, we need to include women from almost all sections of rural households and not just women from rural labour or manual worker households.
3. Impact of education:
- Younger and more educated women are often not seeking work because they aspire to skilled non-agricultural work, whereas older women are more willing to engage in manual labour.
4. Inequal wages:
- Women’s wages are rarely equal to men’s wages, with a few exceptions.
- The gap between female and male wages is highest for non-agricultural tasks — the new and growing source of employment.
5. Long working hours:
- An important feature of rural India pertains to the woman’s work day.
- Counting all forms of work — economic activity and care work or work in cooking, cleaning, child care, elderly care — a woman’s workday is exceedingly long and full of drudgery.
- The total hours worked by women (in economic activity and care) ranged from 61 hours to 88 hours in the lean season, with a maximum of 91 hours (or 13 hours a day) in the peak season. No woman puts in less than a 60-hour work-week.
Lockdown and jobs:
1. Loss of jobs:
- A survey by the Azim Premji University, of 5,000 workers across 12 States — of whom 52% were women workers — found that women workers were worse off than men during the lockdown.
- Among rural casual workers, 71% of women lost their jobs after the lockdown; the figure was 59% for men.
- Data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) also suggest that job losses in April 2020, as compared to April 2019, were larger for rural women than men.
2. Jobs in agriculture shrank:
- A rapid rural survey conducted by Foundation for Agrarian Studies (FAS) showed that in large parts of the country where rain-fed agriculture is prevalent, there was no agricultural activity during the lean months of March to May.
- In areas of irrigated agriculture, there were harvest operations (such as for Rabi wheat in northern India) but these were largely mechanised.
- In other harvest operations, such as for vegetables, there was a growing tendency to use more family labour and less hired labour on account of fears of infection.
- Put together, while agricultural activity continued, employment available to women during the lockdown was limited.
3. Allied activities in Agriculture:
- Employment and income in activities allied to agriculture, such as animal rearing, fisheries and floriculture were also adversely affected by the lockdown.
- During the lockdown, the demand for milk fell by at least 25% (as hotels and restaurants closed), and this was reflected in either lower quantity sold or in lower prices or both.
- For women across the country, incomes from the sale of milk to dairy cooperatives shrank.
- Among fishers, men could not go to sea, and women could not process or sell fish and fish products.
4. Non-agricultural jobs came to halt:
- Non-agricultural jobs came to a sudden halt as construction sites, brick kilns, petty stores and eateries, local factories and other enterprises shut down completely.
- Women have accounted for more than one-half of workers in public works, but no employment was available through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) till late in April.
- The first month of lockdown thus saw a total collapse of non-agricultural employment for women.
- In the last few decades, women are employed in government schemes, especially in the health and education sectors. Ex: women work as Anganwadi workers or mid-day meal cooks.
- During the pandemic, Accredited Social Health Activists or ASHAs, 90% of whom are women, have become frontline health workers, although they are not recognised as workers or paid a regular wage.
Effect on Health and Nutrition:
- While the lockdown reduced employment in agriculture and allied activities and brought almost all non-agricultural employment to a standstill, the burden of care work mounted.
- With all members of the family at home, and children out of school, the tasks of cooking, cleaning, child care and elderly care became more troublesome.
- No doubt, managing household tasks and provisioning in a situation of reduced incomes and tightening budgets will have long-term effects on women’s physical and mental health.
- The already high levels of malnutrition among rural women are likely to be worsened as households cope with reduced food intake.
- As we emerge from the lockdown, it is very important to redraw the picture of the rural labour market by including the contribution of women.
- While the immediate or short-run provision of employment of women can be through an imaginative expansion of the NREGS, a medium and longer-term plan need to generate women-specific employment in skilled occupations and businesses and new enterprises.
- In the proposed expansion of health infrastructure in the country, women, who already play a significant role in health care at the grass-root level, must be recognised as workers and paid a fair wage.
- In the expansion of rural infrastructure announced by the Finance Minister, specific attention must be paid to safe and easy transport for women from their homes to workplaces.
As the lockdown is lifted, economic activity is growing but the young and old remain at home. Further, as the COVID-19 infection spreads, given a higher likelihood of cases among men than women, the burden on women as earners and carers is likely to rise. We need immediate measures to reduce the drudgery of care work. It is time for women to be seen as equal partners in the task of transforming the rural economy.