Gender-responsive lens will create equitable world for women in a post-COVID world

Gender budgeting and gender-responsive-investing makes the allocation of resources equitable and needs to be addressed in every sector and not in health, education or rural areas alone.

The contradictions in the progress of women empowerment were laid bare by the severity of the pandemic COVID-19. It is quite a paradox that some women as scientists were leading the vaccine race to beat the virus while many others were struggling to circumvent the abuse of domestic violence and inequality further accentuated by the crisis.

The lockdowns imposed for community containment overburdened women with unpaid household and care work and displaced them disproportionately from jobs, leaving them more vulnerable to economic shocks.

New Beginnings: We cannot definitely say when these contradictions became deeply entrenched like social mores, but a new year, and the vaccine rollout-which has already begun in India and other parts of the world, signals a new beginning for addressing these contradictions.

Countries are slowly reopening and resuming economic activity across some of the sectors.

As per the Centre of Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), there are 13 per cent fewer women employed or seeking jobs compared to last year, while only 2 per cent of men are in the similar situation. As per the CMIE data, the total number of women working in urban areas in November 2020 was almost 23% lower. 

The pandemic impacted women disproportionately because more women seek employment in informal sectors of the economy where they have little or no savings and lack any social support. Globally 74 million women work in the informal economy. There is a dire need to reduce the informal sector as well as create universal income guarantee for the better future of workers in informal economy.

It is true that when women undergo long gaps in employment due to family pressures, they suffer the fallacy of skill gaps and consequently face difficulty in finding a job and even when they manage to bag one, they have to endure a drop in earnings. Globally the gender pay gap is stuck at 16%, but in some countries the divide is as large as 35%. 

While the economic activity is getting back to normal, many schools across the nation are still closed. Moreover, the vaccine trials for the children above 12 years of age have just begun. The vaccine availability for younger children is still not in sight. The option of work-from-home has emerged as a blessing in disguise for some women, but juggling professional and domestic responsibilities along with child care is no mean task. According to a UN Women study women spend three times as many hours as men in unpaid care and domestic work. What exactly should we do?

Focus on women-dominated sectors: It is going to take women longer to get back to employment also because sectors which are over-represented by women like travel and tourism, hospitality, retail, are the slowest to get back to the pre-COVID activity. Tailored fiscal, monetary, legal or regulatory policy interventions will expedite growth in these sectors just as the textile industry, which employs around 70% women workforce will benefit from the PLI scheme announced in August.

The Women Entrepreneurship Platform (WEP) initiative remarkably supported women startups and small businesses during the lockdown by involving them in the production and distribution of face masks. More such interventions will be welcome!

Gender Bonds: Gender bonds are proven financial instruments used for bringing about gender parity by directing funding in women-led enterprises. Gender budgeting or gender-responsive- investing makes the allocation of resources equitable and needs to be addressed in every sector and not in health, education or rural areas alone. Moreover, any quantitative, regulatory and policy intervention would be incomplete without its data-backed impact assessment.

Social Stock Exchange: A robust social sector can play a crucial role in enforcing gender-sensitive policies like women or girls’ property rights, their safety, or bringing about equitable development of all the segments of the society. The Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), in July last year had submitted its recommendations for setting up a social stock exchange in the country. A social sector stock exchange will result in better reporting and impact assessment, improved fundraising, and prepare the social sector future-ready for any crisis of similar nature.

Public procurement: The government in India has tried to support the MSME sector through periodic policy interventions. A decisive step towards this direction was to make it mandatory for all the central PSUs to get 25 per cent of the annual procurement from the registered MSEs, and out of it, 3 per cent had to be from women entrepreneurs. How effectively have the CPSUs followed it is debatable.

According to a UN study, when governments opened up their treasury to support MSMEs during the initial lockdown period, only 12% countries adopted response and recovery measures with a strong gender lens. A focused approach towards hand-holding women entrepreneurs would better the Female Labour Force Participation Rate (FLPR) in the country.

Addressing the digital divide: The digital gender gap makes the pre-existing digital divide in India between rich and poor far deep-rooted. Even though the Internet economy is growing in India and more jobs have begun to move online fewer women have access to the Internet services.  As per the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IMAI) while male users accounted for 67% of the online population in 2019, only 29% users were women. Equal representation of women online will make them access to information and new ideas and uplift women socially, economically and politically. The possibilities of women exercising greater autonomy and control over their finances will definitely improve and fare well for the economy too. The mobile industry’s Mobile Gender Gap Report 2019 highlighted that by narrowing the gender gap in the access to a mobile phone, developing countries could add $700 billion to their combined economy over the next five years.

We need to create equal opportunities for women, but we also must understand that equal opportunity does not always yield an equitable result. Engaging men and encouraging them to analyse experiences, realities and challenges that women face in a given situation will throw up more tangible results. Here’s an opportunity to shed the stereotypes in gender roles that men are the breadwinners and women caregivers at home. Gender inequality will vanish only when the responsibilities of when earning and care-giving is not divided into silos and mutually agreed upon together.