[Published in Asiaville, April 6, 2020]

On March 24, 2020, India joined the host of other countries by instituting sweeping lockdown measures to contain the community spread of Coronavirus, through social distancing. To say such a policy response has far-reaching implications for economic, political and social spheres of life is trite. Like in many crisis situations, men and women are differently affected by such measures enacted by the State. Beyond the gender inequalities that pre-exist between men and women in everyday walks of life, such policy responses also starkly allow us to see the specific risks and heightened vulnerabilities for women, even as they participate in the collective fight to stop the spread of COVID-19 throughout India.

Impact on domestic violence:

Little noticed during such epidemics is the interfamily dynamics, especially in conflict-ridden homes. Lockdowns and quarantines, be it for COVID-19 or other diseases, can give rise to instances when women are at the risk of confinement with abusive partners and family members. Past studies on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa during 2014–15 showed how women and girls experienced high rates of sexual violence and abuse during the quarantine period. More recently, in China’s Hubei province, it was reported how domestic violence nearly doubled in cities under the COVID-19 lockdown.

According to National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) in 2015–16, 28.8 % of women aged 15 to 49 years are reported to have experienced Intimate Partner Violence (physical and/or sexual), at least once in their lifetime. Though domestic violence is widely prevalent, women often tend to underreport cases due to social norms and patriarchal beliefs that justify violence within a marriage. This can further pose serious challenges for women during the lockdown and cut off their access to the criminal justice system and also counseling and other essential health services.

Women in the informal sector:

In the wider Indian economy, “almost 94% of total women workers are engaged in the informal sector, of which about 20% work in the urban centers.” They include domestic workers, rag pickers, vendors, construction laborers, garment workers, migrant workers among others. These women have low bargaining power and lack the access to safe and decent working conditions.

The pandemic has severely impacted domestic workers, owing to the lack of a safe workplace and the absence of paid sick leave and access to health care. In Delhi, domestic workers cited how they faced pressure from employers to continue working, despite the fear of getting infected with the virus.

The COVID-19 crisis has already brought to light the plight of women migrant workers in India. Due to travel restrictions imposed by the sudden lockdown, women migrant workers have lost their only source of income and the media has reported instances of how they, along with other male migrant workers, have had to walk miles on foot to reach their home towns.

Protecting health workers:

Globally, women constitute 70 % of workers in the health and social sector. India’s case is no different. Along with doctors, nurses and community health workers — Anganwadi workers and Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) workers are the first line of responders in the context of a health emergency. Incidentally, studies from China illustrate how frontline health workers, including nurses who directly treated COVID-19 patients showed higher incidence of depression and other mental health concerns. Emerging reports from COVID-19 hit countries also show how female frontline health workers have been at a greater risk of exposure to the virus due to shortages in safety gear (Personal Protective Equipment — PPE). As of late March, in Italy, one in 12 people infected by the virus have been health workers.

Reports from Chennai, New Delhi and Bangalore shed light on how doctors have been forced to screen suspected coronavirus patients, without basic safety gear. If the lockdown is eventually not able to flatten the curve and prevent hospitals from running out of capacity, the possibility of our health-infrastructure coming under stress is all too real. In case of such eventuality, women frontline workers will be the worst hit.

Double burden of care work:

Even among those privileged to avoid direct struggles with the virus, domestic violence, or economic anxiety, other little noticed inequities now begin to surface. The ILO (2018) estimates that women do 4 times more unpaid care work than men in Asia and the Pacific. In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, many workplaces have allowed their employees to work from home, thus blurring the boundaries between “home” and “work.” For many women, this has increased the double burden of work, owing to their paid work as well as unpaid care work, linked to their traditional gender roles — cooking, cleaning and taking caring of family and children, who are now home due to school closures. Emerging data from COVID-19 hit countries like the US reveals the impact of this on women’s mental and physical well-being.

Looking ahead:

The issues briefly touched upon here necessitate the need for a gendered understanding of the lockdown in India. Any studies on the impact of this global health emergency on women should take into account, beliefs and attitudes that define their gender roles in the society, be it in marriage or the workplace. As a first step, obtaining gender-disaggregated data can be crucial. National-level data should be furnished on the number of men and women who are differently impacted by the COVID-19 crisis — in terms of infections, mortality rates, wage losses, unemployment, mental health and incidence of violence. This can help design effective policy interventions in the aftermath of the crisis.

Leadership and political will are key to this. There should be more women involved in decision-making at the national, State and local levels. Lastly, it is crucial for India to adapt and learn from other countries and regions handling (or mishandling) the crisis. In this regard, China, the US and Italy have already offered lessons, and warnings, on why gender cannot be ignored in COVID-19 responses. []

Development practitioner & writer | Former policy consultant & researcher with United Nations | I work in migration, gender policy & technology for development.

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