While the world grapples with the loss of life and livelihoods due to the COVID-19, studies bring to light the disproportionate impact it has on the women.
Worldwide and in India.
A leading non-profit, working with youth across India, quickly adapted to the current realities and moved all their skill development and capacity building sessions online, using Zoom and Facebook live to simulcast their sessions to their target group. On taking stock, they realised that female participation percentages for these sessions were minimal.
On investigating further, two major reasons came to light:
- A much smaller percentage of girls than boys had access to tools like smartphones, computers and internet access; and
- For those who had access, through their on phones or borrowed from their fathers or brothers, faced restriction on using platforms like Facebook, due to biased social customs preventing use of digital tools by young girls and women.
This real and worldwide phenomenon, known in the development world as Digital Gender Divide, has made women empowerment much tougher in the post COVID world that necessitates a much higher amount of digital communication than ever before; and this is just one aspect of the numerous challenges that women empowerment thinkers, policy makers and practitioners face today.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, are a set of 17 comprehensive social, economic, political and environmental goals ratified by 193 countries.
While a comprehensive study on the impact of COVID 19 on these SDGs is yet to be done; there is widespread consensus in the Indian civil society network about the strong negative impact that this pandemic will have on these targets. It includes Sustainable Development Goal 5 that focusses on gender equality and empowerment of women and girls.
As aptly worded by British journalist Helen Lewis in her March 19th article on The Atlantic, that “The Coronavirus Is a Disaster for Feminism”.
- COVID responses in India and globally have faltered in offering a convincing support and welfare package for our medical workers, a staggering 70% of whom globally are women as per estimates by WHO. Also important to mention the 900,000 ASHA (frontline health workers known as Accredited Social Health Activists) workers in India, who are at the forefront of the fight against this pandemic for their minuscule regular compensation and no special welfare packages.
- Restricted mobility, lack of ambulances and denial of treatment faced by pregnant women forced the National Commission of Women Chairwoman Rekha Sharma to write to Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan urging the government to intervene.
- An estimated 2 million sex workers, predominantly women, whose livelihoods are one of the worst affected, have been kept out of government welfare schemes service professionals such as barbers, washer men, auto rickshaws and taxi drivers.
- Increasing incidences of domestic violence against women has forced the National Commission of Women to set up a separate WhatsApp number for reporting of such cases specifically during COVID 19. Numerous leading nonprofits and UN bodies have adapted their intervention strategies to focus on this issue during COVID and leading celebrities from sports, Bollywood and Tollywood to speak up against this issue including helping the Hashtag Lockdown on Domestic Violence to trend on twitter.
And this disproportionate impact is not restricted to just India.
- A study by Institute for Fiscal Studies and UCL Institute of Education (and reported by The Guardian) found that English mothers are 47% more likely than English fathers, to lose their jobs permanently during lockdown; an indicator of what’s happening globally.
- A Fact Sheet by USAID has observed that most jobs created after a major world crisis is targeted at mainly men, making chances of equal pay for women even slimmer.
- Our NSSO (National Sample Survey Office) 2011-12 data pegs India’s female labour force participation rate at 25%, one of the lowest in the world; a number which, as these studies (quoted above) show, will surely go down further due to this pandemic.
In our current “exclusive” world, COVID 19 has severely affected the vision of an equal and inclusive society. As the American social reformer Susan Anthony once famously said: “Men, their rights, and nothing more; women, their rights, and nothing less”; the current crisis is reason to further prioritise the building of an egalitarian society, rather than using the excuse of economic development to depriortitize inclusive policies.