Budget 2021: Why A Women-Led Path To Economic Recovery Is Crucial

“Taking women & girls along on the path to recovery & growth is key to an inclusive, equitable post-COVID future.”

5 min read
Hindi Female

The Union Budget 2021-22 in the recovery phase of the COVID-19 pandemic was announced on 1 February by the Finance Minister amidst much anticipation, and it is bound to have a critical impact on how women and girls’ lives are going to be transformed as a lead up to the attainment of Sustainable Development Goals 2030.

The Budget announcement prioritises women’s empowerment as a national thrust area of growth in itself alongside ‘Strong Infrastructure, Healthy India, Good Governance, Opportunities for Youth, Education for All, and Inclusive Development’ to realise ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ Budget 2030.

The Budget rests on six pillars which include Health and Wellbeing, Physical and Financial Capital and Infrastructure, Inclusive Development for Aspirational India, Reinvigorating Human Capital, Innovation and Research & Development, and Minimum Government & Maximum Governance. In addition to being a standalone budgetary focus, women’s empowerment and gender equality (GEWE) must be centre-staged across the six pillars.


Why Proposed Bills Must Consider Different Gender Needs

The announcement of Atmanirbhar Swastha Bharat Yojana, to boost health infrastructure over the next six years, seems timely and crucial towards building better and accessible infrastructure and must be adequately budgeted from a gender perspective. Women constitute almost half of the qualified health workforce in the country, performing a critical role in service provisioning in healthcare. It is crucial for the scheme to be gender responsive in its outreach as well as implementation and monitoring, starting with collection and recording of gender disaggregated data.

The proposed healthcare bills, including the National Commission for Allied Healthcare Professionals Bill and National Nursing and Midwifery Commission Bill must take into account the differential gender needs, as well as be informed by the voice, choice and agency of women healthcare functionaries.

The launch of the Mission Poshan 2.0 and the extension of the One Nation One Ration Card Scheme is expected to aid food and nutrition security, especially for migrants. It is hoped that these missions will adopt a gender inclusive strategy to improve nutritional outcomes, especially for women and girls who are most often the last and least to eat, given the prevalent socio-cultural norms and practices. The healthcare and nutrition reforms should also cater to women’s needs beyond their role as mothers and caregivers.


How Budget 2021 Aims To Reduce The Drudgery Of Women

The Budget places emphasis on the manufacturing sector towards successfully building a USD 5 trillion economy. The announcement of mega investment in textile parks in addition to PLI schemes should provide the much required impetus for women entrepreneurs to be recognised as global champions in manufacturing. These investments must however be accompanied with setting up an equitable ecosystem for a level-playing field for women entrepreneurs to access and participate in the global supply chains.

A range of pronouncements have been made to increase capital investments including across roads & highways, railways, urban infrastructure and power. To create a future-ready public infrastructure system, it is imperative to ensure that women and girls’ mobility, safety and economic autonomy is prioritised and adequately budgeted.

It is equally critical that those from diverse genders are not left behind from the gains that will accrue from these announcements.

As part of the commitment of the government to promote a smoke-free rural India, the Prime Minister’s Ujjwala Yojana has been expanded to one crore more beneficiaries. Furthermore, the universal coverage of water supply is expected to reduce women’s drudgery and time spent on household labour and care work. While these are welcome steps to improve the health and wellbeing of women, it is pertinent that efforts are sustained to ensure women’s ownership and control of resources, both at the individual and community level.


Women Must Be Offered A Safe Work Environment & Incentive To Participate In Gig Economy

The step to support the MSME sector by more than doubling investment is an opportunity to promote existing and potential women entrepreneurs. It is indeed a pathbreaking initiative that social security benefits will be expanded to the gig and platform economy. This has potential to provide flexi-work opportunities for millions of women provided that an enabling environment is created through affordable access to digital technology, capacity enhancement and investments to promote women and girls’ engagement in STEM.

Incentives for women to participate in the gig economy must be considered. For instance, reducing the wage gap, providing adequate skills, access to digital assets, digital literacy and digital platforms are key drivers for participation of women in the labour force in India and for their subsequent economic empowerment.

Challenges around workplace safety sometimes prevent women gig workers from taking up non- gender stereotypical roles as this could involve interfacing with male clients inside their homes, which necessitates investments in safe work environments, both online and offline.

The proposed portal that will collect relevant information on gig, building, and construction-workers must include sex disaggregated data to inform this initiative and ensure that benefits of schemes reach women workers.

Proper measurement will ensure clear visibility of the work being undertaken by gig workers, especially women and how they spend their time (in hours) between for instance, gig work and unpaid care work.


Minimum Wages For All Is Great, But An Enabling Environment — Especially For Women — Is Needed

The world of work is undergoing rapid transformations that pose both significant challenges and opportunities for women’s empowerment and gender equality. Among them are technological and digital changes that are creating new types of jobs and enabling new forms of work but may also lead to the disappearance of some jobs which typically women hold. The potential effects of Artificial Intelligence (AI) on jobs and the nature of work need to be anticipated to ensure that women will have the requisite skills.

Furthermore, it is pertinent to scale up and promote the AI-based solutions in women led businesses and/or start-ups to ensure that they have an equal footing.

As per the Budget announcement, minimum wages will apply to all categories of workers, and women will be allowed to work in all categories and also on night shifts with adequate protection.

This move must be accompanied with the creation of an enabling ecosystem for women workers, including, for example, creche facilities, toilets in workplaces and a safe work environment.


Women & Girls From Vulnerable Backgrounds Must Be Considered

Substantial investments in the promotion of the fisheries sector must secure employment opportunities and diversification of skills of the millions of women workers in the fisheries and allied sectors.

The announcement of Rs 1,000 crores for the welfare of tea workers, especially women and their children in Assam and West Bengal, is a welcome step given that women constitute close to 60 percent of tea pluckers in the industry.

The proposed schemes must provide an opportunity to upskill and re-skill women for key roles in decision making positions across all levels. UN Women has been working with the tea industry over the last three years, including setting up the first of its kind women’s safety and empowerment platform to promote safe and equal agrarian supply chain.

The Union Budget 2021-22 is a critical and timely plan of action to guide the country’s recovery and growth amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Taking women and girls along on the pathway to recovery and growth is paramount to building an inclusive, equitable and sustainable post-COVID-19 future for all.

This must involve ensuring that women and girls from the vulnerable constituencies and sectors, which have been hit disproportionately due to the pandemic, are placed at the centre of implementing and monitoring the budgetary commitments. The realisation of the vision of an ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ rests on achieving full atma-nirbharta of all its women and girls.

(Nishtha Satyam is Deputy Country Representative, UN Women, India, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka at United Nations. She tweets @SatyamNishtha. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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