COVID-19 has unleashed one of the greatest human tragedies of the contemporary era demonstrating our fragility and has laid bare severe and systemic inequalities at all levels. It provides several lessons in the conduct of all aspects of human personality, professional, societal, and institutional lives globally.
The rise of populism, authoritarian nationalism and the global crisis of COVID-19 pandemic has a huge impact on women’s lives, work, livelihoods, and entitlements. In particular, the current pandemic has accentuated the already high and persistent gender inequality and disparities in rural areas in developing countries like India.
Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), Delhi conducted a survey covering 4500 women respondents in rural areas of 20 states during July and August 2020. The survey report was released on September 5, 2020, in a national level webinar attended by several well-known experts and faculty, practitioners, experts and policymakers.
Study findings: Impact of the pandemic on women village makers
Water, sanitation and fuel
The survey findings reveal improvement in safe drinking water, toilet facility and use of clean fuel, but expensive LPG/PNG continues to be a major stumbling block. One in every two women respondents used tap water for drinking purposes; 80% of them had toilet facilities within the house, 75% of them had LPG/PNG connections, but due to high charges three-fourth of the women could not go for cylinder refill.
Education and health facilities
Access to education and health facilities are still the main problem in rural areas. Around one-third of the surveyed women revealed that their children did not attend online classes in the absence of access to a smartphone with an internet connection. Half of the respondents said that they still availed the private health facility, and 80% of them depend on private health care. 52% of the women did not use sanitary pads during menstruation as they were expensive or because of lack of awareness.
Land and agriculture
Land is the main resource in rural areas and about 63% of the respondents have mostly joint land ownership, and around 55% of them owned marginal land (below 1 hectare) that produced mainly rice, wheat, and sugarcane crops. Around 54% of the respondents sold their produce to the local trader, 33% to the buyer, and 23% to cooperative and government agency. Due to the pandemic, 42% of the respondents reported having received less than the market price, and 28% reported facing delay in payments for the sale of produce.
Livelihood and time use
Around three-fourth (74%) of the respondents still depend on farming-related activities for their livelihood, while 36% were involved in non-farm activities. Over half (56%) of the respondents did not get any work during the pandemic as the work they used to do in both farm and non-farm activities before the pandemic has now gone to returnee male migrants. This also gets reflected in the time use survey, and now women are spending more time on unpaid domestic and care work.
Out of a total active time of about 10 hours in a normal day, women were spending 90% of their time in unpaid work such as cooking, other domestic tasks and care work. This reveals that women’s workload in unpaid domestic and care activities in rural areas has increased during the pandemic.
This is mainly due to their children not attending schools and lack of economic activities for women due to the reported high return (76%) of male migrants in rural areas.
About 65% of the respondents told that wages and salaries have decreased during the pandemic, while 44% said that crop sale prices have reduced, and 70% feel that the price of essential commodities has increased during the pandemic.
More than half (52%) of the respondents believed that the prices of products have increased during the pandemic, while more than 60% revealed that production, marketing, and movement have also reduced significantly. Almost half of the women surveyed (48%) reported that they had some debt - 35% borrowed money from landlords, and another 30% from commercial institutions.
14% of respondents revealed the existence of untouchability in rural society, 21% experienced discrimination based on caste and 46% encountered wage discrimination based on gender.
Around 43% respondents reported seeing violence against women in their neighbourhood, 10% of the respondents said that there has been an increase in child marriages, 15% reported an increase in child labour, 38% noted an increase in verbal abuse, and 13% reported an increase in farmer’s suicide during the pandemic.
Government welfare schemes
About 57% of the respondents belonged to below poverty line households and all of them possessed Aadhar and voter identity cards. The government welfare package reached to a majority of the respondents as three-fourth (76%) of them received some form of relief package, about 40% received cash transfers and of the applicants (83%) availed work under MGNREGA.
In general, in rural areas, people are taking preventive measures during the pandemic and 52% of the respondents were using cloth masks. But the impact of the pandemic can be seen on respondents as over half of them faced stress about earning a livelihood or contracting COVID-19. Around 55% of them were eagerly looking for work and another 52% needed urgent medical assistance and ration.
Prof Vibhuti Patel, Former Professor, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai highlighted that every fourth youth in the country is currently unemployed due to reverse migration of men to rural areas. They are now competing with women for work and women are increasingly losing employment. She also stressed that gender stereotypes are playing a big part and there is an underreporting of unpaid care work.
Ms Madhu Joshi, Senior Advisor, Gender Equity and Governance, Centre for Catalyzing Change (C3, formerly CEDPA India), New Delhi highlighted that women being isolated in a lockdown situation have become more vulnerable to domestic violence but also cut off from social groups which give them identity and power.
Prof G. Sridevi, Associate Professor, Department of Economics, Central University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad said that women and children belonging to lower social groups face the highest amount of sexual abuse and suffer from malnutrition.
Prof Govind Kelkar, Chairperson, GISC, IMPRI and Executive Director, GenDev Centre for Research and Innovation, Gurugram pointed out the need for data for ownership of resources by women.
Usually, land ownership is in the name of the head of the household which perpetuates patriarchy in society. Unpaid care work is a necessity, but it should not be the responsibility of only women and should be recognized as productive work by economists. Unpaid work has to be reduced with technology.
Raising issues related to women’s inequality is considered as a part of social justice activism and not a part of science, so, there is a need to conceptualize patriarchy in the present context appropriately.
Others who attended the webinar are Dr Arjun Kumar, Director, IMPRI; Dr Balwant Singh Mehta, Research Director, IMPRI and Senior Fellow, IHD; Dr Simi Mehta, CEO, IMPRI; Dr Indu Prakash Singh, Facilitator, CityMakers Mission International; Prof Kailash Tharware, Professor and Head of Examinations, Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics (GIPE); Dr Ellina Samantroy Jena, Faculty and Coordinator, Centre for Gender and Labour, V.V. Giri National Labour Institute; Prof Sunil Ray, Senior Fellow, ICAS, MP and Advisor, CDECS; Dr Upender Singh, Director, CDECS.