The number of working women in India dropped to a dire figure of 9 percent by 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, among other factors, a report suggests.
Between 2010 and 2020, the number of women in India's workforce had already dropped to 19 percent from 26 percent, according to data compiled by the World Bank. The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown announced by the Narendra Modi government in March 2020 accelerated the rate of decrease steeply.
More than 100 million jobs were also lost during this period.
Female employment in India nosedived to such a great extent that now the country falls in the same category as Yemen, as per a report by Bloomberg.
From the international standpoint, if efforts are not made to restore jobs for women, economic growth worth trillions of dollars will be lost.
Women Comprise 48% of India's Population, but Contribute Only 17% to GDP
The Indian economy was already showing signs of decline before the COVID-19 pandemic began. While the Centre had prioritised the creation of jobs, little progress seems to have been made in this regard, particularly with regard to India's women.
The situation is even more dire in rural areas, where a bulk of the country's 1.3 billion population lives.
Even though 48 percent of the Indian population comprises women, they contribute only 17 percent to the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). China, on the other hand, sees its women contributing a staggering 40 percent of its GDP.
Closing the income gap between men and women in India – which is at a whopping 58 percent – is thus imperative, as it would expand the country's GDP by around a third by the year 2050.
India, thus, represents an extreme example of a global occurrence.
As per a report by Bloomberg Economics, initiating policy changes like improving access to education and child care, diminishing gender disparities, and increasing the number of women in the workforce could help add around $20 trillion to global GDP by 2050.
'Pandemic Forced Me To Return to My Village'
For years, Sanchuri Bhuniya, a resident of a small village in Odisha, refused to give in to her parents' wishes of her settling down. She wanted to travel and earn for herself instead of becoming a housewife.
In 2019, she snuck out of her village and took a train to Bengaluru. She found work at a garment factory, which paid her around Rs 8,500 a month – a job that, she says, liberated her.
However, when the lockdown was announced by the Modi government in March 2020, millions of Indians, including 23-year-old Bhuniya, lost their jobs.
Bhuniya then struggled to afford food in Bengaluru, and was forced to return to her village, where she was unable to find stable employment.
"If I run away again, my mother will curse me," she says, adding, "Now, there's nothing left. My account is empty and there's little work in the village."
Stories like Bhuniya's abound in India.
Women Were More Likely To Lose Their Jobs During the Pandemic Than Men
An economics professor at Bengaluru's Azim Premji University tracked the journeys of over 20,000 people in India's labour market. After the first lockdown, she discovered that women were much more likely to lose their jobs compared to men. Women were also far less likely to recover their jobs after the restrictions were lifted.
There may be a number of reasons for this phenomena, such as rising domestic duties, limited childcare options after schools were shut, and a rise in marriages, which confined the autonomy of a large number of India's women.
"When men are faced with this kind of a huge economic shock, they have a fallback option. They can navigate to different kinds of work. But for women, there is no such fallback option. They can't negotiate the labour market as effectively as men do," Abraham was quoted as saying by Bloomberg.
The Scourge of Patriarchy
Denial of employment to women also has to do with cultural discrimination to a large extent. Even today, patriarchal values have a strong influence in thousands of villages across India.
"It's not very manly if their wife contributes to the family income," said Akhina Hansraj, senior program manager at Mumbai-based organisation called Akshara Centre, which advocates gender equality.
He added that men want to create this kind of dependency. "People believe if women get educated, they might work and become financially independent, and then they may not obey and respect the family."
Jump in Marriages Due to Financial Constraints of Families
Another area which experienced a massive impact amid the pandemic were marriages in India, with matrimonial sites witnessing a spike in new registrations after the first lockdown.
As per government data, some states also saw child marriages jump by a staggering 80 percent.
A Hindi teacher of a school in Uttar Pradesh's Anupshahr named Madhu Sharma said that she would usually intervene to prevent around three child marriages a year. However, this number had increased by around three to four times during the lockdown, Bloomberg reported.
Before the pandemic, children were always in touch with their teachers and also with me, Sharma said, adding, "After COVID-19, when the children had to stay at home, keeping in contact with them became a big challenge."
The rise in marriages could be attributed to a number of reasons.
Social distancing rules during the lockdown meant that large gatherings could not take place. This created a financially favourable situation whereby parents could arrange smaller and far-less expensive ceremonies at home.
Also, during the most difficult months of the lockdown, families got their daughters married off as they could not afford to feed another mouth.
In 2015, Prime Minister Modi had started the "Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao" campaign, which was aimed at keeping girls in school and preventing sex-selective abortions. The government also passed a law to raise the legal marriageable age of women from 18 to 21 years.
However, laws passed by the Centre do not reverberate in several villages across the country, where local customs and traditions take precedence over New Delhi's mandates.
Village panchayats, which mostly comprise elderly men, are considered to be all-powerful in thousands of villages. The decisions they take are followed by people across these villages.
Moreover, despite the launching of a campaign to educate India's girls and women, a large portion of the campaign's funds have not been utilised for the purpose, as per recent government audits.
The Situation Isn't Far Better in Urban India
While the condition in rural India is dire, the circumstances in urban India, where literacy and employment rates are higher, are not far better.
Anjali Gupta, a resident of Mumbai, said that her family started pushing her to get married after the pandemic devastated their small grocery store.
Gupta said that they had to exhaust their savings to run the household.
Her parents told her that she would be destitute without a husband, a point she constantly argued against.
The 22-year-old, who is currently pursuing a Master's degree in pharmaceuticals and nutrition, said that she wanted to have a career instead of getting married at the moment, Bloomberg reported.
"My situation is different, my generation is different," she explained to her parents, but to no avail.
Her father pleaded with her to drop out of college and get married. Eventually, the family also started bringing prospective grooms home to meet her.
"It shouldn't be this way. I want to do and learn more. I'm only 22," Gupta said, fearing that she may succumb to her parents' pressure.
(With inputs from Bloomberg.)
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