Why The Pandemic Hit Indian Women Harder

Edited by Vanishree


When we talk about the ongoing pandemic, our discussions are more often than not gender-neutral. Our conversations are focussed on gender-less numbers of cases, unemployment, migrant workers, and lower-middle-class struggles. This is not surprising. For years, popular narratives have excluded or barely touched upon how gender affects the mechanisms of interaction and standards of living.

The ongoing pandemic has hit women harder than it has affected men. Unemployment rates are at a disproportionate all-time high for women, there are higher cases of child marriage within lower-class families, instances of domestic violence have increased, women are subjected to more unpaid domestic and emotional labour, violence against trans women has increased, and a significant number of sex workers are left without any mode of income.


Domestic Violence

In June, the NCW received 2,043 complaints of crimes against women, out of which a majority of the cases reported were of domestic violence, followed by police apathy towards women. This is the highest number of cases in 8 months. The months of April and May also witnessed a steep spike in the number of complaints received. Although not considered a crime in India, more women have reported increased instances of marital rape. One reason for this may be that the NCW is advertising itself more. However, the other, more obvious reason is the lockdown imposed in India, where women are locked in with their abusers, often with no means of escape because of their financial dependency. The registered cases of domestic violence are far less than the reality. In many homes, women are forced to live with their husbands and do not know better than to accept the abuse that is inflicted upon them. According to the National Crime Research Bureau, one in three women in India falls victim to domestic violence. Factoring in the stress caused by job losses, unemployment, security concerns, and increased alcohol consumption, women in predominantly patriarchal households bear the heavier brunt of the ill-imposed lockdown. 


Increased Domestic and Emotional Labour

According to research conducted by Bain & Company and Google, out of 432 million working-age women in India, 343 million worked as unpaid caregivers and homemakers. While this may be presented as a choice for women in a few upper-class households, women from most socio-economic classes are never given the option to work professionally. Longstanding patriarchal prejudices against women have relegated women to the sphere of unpaid emotional labour – caring for children, the elderly, and the state of the home. In the wake of the pandemic, domestic responsibilities of already overburdened women have increased by an estimated 66% (World Bank). Families of over ten are catered to by just one adult woman, usually the wife of the patriarch. According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, women in India spend around 7 hours a day engaged in unpaid home labour, while men spend less than 50 minutes a day. 


Disproportionate Rates of Unemployment

According to data provided by the World Bank, the workforce in India is already highly disproportionate. Only one woman works at a paid position for every 4 men. This is to say, less than 25% of the labour force consists of women. This figure, too, is at a steady decline. Although a significant portion of the population has been affected by the pandemic, women face higher rates of unemployment than men – 55% of those fired, or left unemployed were women. 29% of men were unemployed as of May 2020, as compared to 39% of women. Women are always the first to be let go because of traditional, cultural norms devaluing the worth of a woman's work, and also because, during the lockdown, women struggle to commute to work, because of limited access to public transport and limitations on the distance they can travel. In response to the rapid unemployment faced by women, the government has promised 500 rupees per month to women with a Jan Dhan account for the next three months, which is nowhere near enough.


Child Marriage and the Threat to Girls’ Education

The economic burden brought about by the pandemic directly threatens the education of young children, especially girls. Girls in many households are viewed as a burden, because of their inability to contribute financially to a household and the weight of dowry they carry. Girls are often viewed as disposable and discretionary, which is why, in a time of financial instability, families with both, girls and boys, choose to allocate more money to the schooling of boys, propounding the view that a girl’s role is to be the caregiver and nothing more. Since spending on a girl is no more than an afterthought, many young girls, often underage, are married off because their families cannot incur the cost of raising them anymore. When schools across India are trying to shift to an online mode of learning, girls from lower-income backgrounds are the most affected, as only 12% of Indian youth has access to internet supported devices. The percentage again dips for girls.


Sex Workers and Women of Minorities

Sex workers in India, both, cisgender and transgender women, are facing the debilitating effects of the pandemic. Since they are left with no customers and a job that isn’t acknowledged by the government or society at large, they have no option but to find their way home through whatever means they can manage. During their journey back home, should a medical emergency arise, sex workers have nowhere to turn. Because of the risk of STD’s and the social stigma sex workers carry, hospitals are often unequipped or hesitant to treat sex workers. Besides just sex workers, health care often shuns marginalised groups such as trans women, Dalit women, Muslim women, and women with disabilities, because of both, their inability to pay for their medical bills and also because of prejudices.