The large and disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women has highlighted the importance of anticipating their distinct needs and challenges, especially in times of crisis. Our study of 15,000+ women (see Part I of this article) confirmed what many expected -- women were disproportionately affected by the pandemic's negative effects. While the government played a critical role in supporting women through large-scale welfare schemes, these did not sufficiently account for their needs and barriers. We need to address this gap -- both in the existing government machinery, and through additional support systems to support recovery of women. We outline six priority areas to do this.
1. Launch drives to enlist women on MGNREGA job cards; increase the total number of person-days to support rural women's recovery. As noted in Part I, MGNREGA proved to be an important support for rural women's employment recovery during the crisis. However, gender disparity exists in the initial stages of the MGNREGA process -- primarily, during enlistment. 27 per cent of rural women in our study were not listed on the household MGNREGA card compared to 20 per cent of men. Many of these women wanted to be enrolled and families may be more supportive of women taking on MGNREGA jobs than they have been in the past.
We recommend conducting 'enlistment drives' specifically targeted at women. These drives may start with focusing on states with much lower coverage, such as Gujarat and Maharashtra. Enlistment drives alone, however, may not be enough, as demand for MGNREGA work is already high while supply has been low. As more women enlist, the government could also consider increasing the total person-days offered to successfully meet demand.
2. Bundle provision of pads with the PDS distribution; conduct awareness campaigns on menstrual hygiene to increase usage. As households struggled to make ends meet during the pandemic, women's essentials were among the first items cut from family budgets. Access to pads fell since March primarily due to affordability concerns. Women's diminished buying power during the pandemic, along with a pause in pad distribution in schools via the Kishori Shakti Yojana (KSY) scheme, together call for a stronger government response. The government's existing provision scheme -- INR 1 per pad through Jan-Aushadhi Kendras -- tackles unaffordability, but does not have sufficient reach.
We suggest that pads be bundled with food distribution through PDS based on the number of women in the household. The government may consider re-allocating the budget from the KSY scheme to this distribution over the short term. However, increasing distribution alone will not be enough, as awareness continues to remain a challenge. The distribution of pads may hence have to be supplemented by national, state, and district-level awareness drives on menstrual hygiene and management. We also suggest that these drives start with focusing on states with lowest levels of both access and usage, such as Bihar.
3. Ramp up family planning efforts to increase contraceptive access and usage, especially in Bihar. Over the last decade, contraceptive usage has steadily increased to the point that 19 out of 22 states have achieved the stable total fertility replacement (TFR) rate of 2.1. However, despite improvements, Bihar continues to have a high TFR of 3.49. Our study also highlights this disparity: 49 per cent of women in Bihar who required contraceptives were not able to access them during the pandemic - the highest percentage among states and 32 percentage points higher than the national average. This is despite the Bihar government distributing condoms and other contraceptives to quarantined migrant workers. Health and hygiene concerns (because usage of female sterilization -- the most commonly used contraceptive method -- requires visits to a clinic) and lack of affordability were among the primary reasons women cited for lack of access during the pandemic.
We therefore suggest that the government build upon and accelerate its existing efforts through ASHA workers, Mission Parivar Vikas, and other schemes within Bihar. These efforts may require strategic focus on specific districts that have low uptake of contraceptives (e.g., NFHS-5 suggests Purnia has observed a decline in contraceptive usage). In addition, since health and hygiene was a concern for women, the government could consider developing and launching behaviour-change campaigns involving both men and women to encourage the use of condoms as a modern contraceptive. Keeping in mind the deepening effects of the ongoing pandemic with a possibility of extended lockdowns in the future, this recommendation could be considered for other states as well.
4. Strengthen SHGs' resilience by focusing on their economic recovery and market linkages via the existing Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana -- National Rural Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NRLM). Our study suggests that despite 12 per cent more SHG women being employed before the pandemic than the average woman, they were hit harder. More SHG women lost paid work, and, on average, they both lost a higher share of income and experienced a slower income recovery than all women. This is in line with previous studies that have found no impact of group-based livelihood programs on income or assets.
The government already supports improvements in the income levels and quality of life of rural low-income women through the DAY-NRLM program. We recommend that the program focus equally (if not to a greater degree) on supporting SHG women's own economic recovery and resilience as it does on engaging SHG members in community response.
Specifically, the program could invest in providing SHG women with the relevant technical trainings (e.g., women in Jharkhand were provided training on how to operate machines and handle packaging, accounts, registers, etc.) as well as managerial trainings (a study in Kerala highlights lack of managerial capacity as one of the major challenge faced by SHG members) to build business acumen and skills, as well as support them in onboarding to digital marketplaces and/or providing a platform for them to sell online and procure raw materials.
Additionally, in the immediate short term, the moratorium and one-time restructuring period on loans to SHG members may be extended (with a parallel push on awareness to drive uptake) to ensure flexibility in loan repayments as SHG members cope with increased indebtedness and reduced income in the current crisis.
5. Put in place systems for inclusion of single, separated/divorced/widowed women under the One Nation One Ration Card (ONORC) rollout. As the government rolls out ONORC, it will be important to be intentional about including single women, specifically those who are separated, divorced, and/or widowed. As noted above single women who are separated, divorced, and/or widowed are more likely to limit food intake. These women could be put in the priority category (alongside beneficiaries who wish to transfer ration cards from one household to another) to ensure that due to set state-wise quotas (set as per 2011 population), they do not end up wait-listed.
Moreover, there are opportunities to ease eligibility requirements for single women, and in particular help, them acquire a separate ration card. For example, acquiring a separate ration card requires documents such as residential proof; that can be difficult for women to arrange, and we believe it is likely contributing to their exclusion today.
6. Build social assistance programs for informal workers, specifically domestic workers and casual labourers. Across all occupations, domestic workers have been the slowest to regain employment; 18 per cent of those previously employed in domestic work were yet to regain work (vs 11 per cent for all women). Casual labourers have seen a swift recovery in terms of paid work; however, incomes still lagged 33 per cent below pre-pandemic levels, making their income recovery the slowest of any category of worker. Yet policy-makers often overlook these segments -- while funds were earmarked for construction workers, migrants, farmers, and self-employed women, there has been no substantive effort to support domestic workers and casual labourers.
Appropriate social assistance programs are recommended to be designed to cushion the impact of the crisis and aid recovery for informal workers. Social assistance may be in the form of universal child grants, maternity benefits and social pensions.63 Targeting informal workers is often cited as a challenge in reaching informal workers. Alternate innovative approaches, such as region / area-specific programs in which the assistance is provided to urban low-income neighborhoods, can be considered and piloted.
Data collection and analysis needed
Beyond these six priority areas, we need to systematically gather and monitor gender disaggregated data, and use that to integrate a gender lens into the crisis response plans of government departments and agencies. As our data confirms, women have indeed been hit harder and have been slower to recover from the socio-economic effects of the crisis. The issues go beyond what we've studied -- there is evidence of a disproportionate impact on women in terms of education, marital status, health, domestic violence, and much more.
It is therefore imperative that we (a) set up a monitoring agency to periodically gather national level data on gender; (b) undertake a systematic review of the response plan across sectors now, as the pandemic slows down; and (c) develop action plans using a gender lens for future crises. And we have seen some good steps in this direction - for instance, India consistently incorporates a gender lens into its budget the issue is with what we define as women's issues which is sometimes narrow and that its scope doesn't cover crises like this one.
Systematically monitoring data and applying a gender lens in the design and execution of government programs will not only help mitigate the impact of the crisis on women for the remainder of the pandemic, but may also help to address some of the structural causes of their vulnerability in the first place.