The COVID-19 pandemic caused approximately an economic loss worth S500 billion in the South Asian region. The region was affected miserably by the pandemic and had the highest number of cases in the globe. India, with the second-largest population in the world, spearheaded the number of cases in the second wave.
The informal sector in South Asia dominates the economy. This sector has a gender bias- with the scale tilting heavily towards women. Women often seek opportunities in the informal sector due to a lack of jobs for them in the formal sector, as compared to their male counterparts.
Compared to the developed countries, women from developing countries in the South Asian region were struggling and witnessing gender-bias in the workplace because of social norms and values. Within a decade from 2010 to 2019, South Asia’s women were fighting their own battles against their male counterparts to get recognition in the workplace.
Between January 2015 and December 2019, the number of women in senior-vice-president positions increased from 23 to 28 percent, and in the C-suite from 17 to 21 percent. When Covid-19 struck the world, the upward trend of women's careers shifted abruptly. According to Mckinsey data, one in every four women is thinking about leaving the workforce or changing careers, compared to one in every five men.
The Pandemic and Inequalities
The pandemic is fuelling the existing gender inequalities and restrictive social norms, yet its impact on women participation has no exception but to make it worse. Women and girls are bearing the burden of unpaid care and domestic work which has been accelerated by the crisis.
According to estimates by the United Nations, women spend an average of 4.1 hours for unpaid work per day compared to men’s 1.7 hours which implies women did three times more unpaid work than men on a global scale.
The conventional gender stereotypes in societies are the major driving forces to inequalities. Schools and daycare closures, working from home requirements amidst the pandemic have extensively impacted women, such as home-schooling for children, additional household and caregiving activities with full-time employment and also taking care of sick family members usually falls on women and such.
These kinds of work go largely unrecognized and will not be visible in a country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) calculations.
Women Unemployment Amidst The Crisis
The disproportionate impact on women unemployment by the pandemic is the area to address the economic inequalities. The impact would set the women labour force participation back and leave them more vulnerable to disruption.
In South Asia, a high proportion of informal work comes to women and those employments are the first immediate hit in the time of economic uncertainty. On the other hand, the reason behind the unemployment could be that most impacted sectors by the virus have a high level of women workers, for example, education, food services, tourism, commerce, etc.
The impact has been particularly harsh on the textile industry across South Asia which used to employ millions of women. This sector laid-off employees in large numbers and more are expected to be rendered jobless due to the disruption of supply chains resulting from the pandemic.
Looking at the previous crisis in history, there seems to be a precarious relation between retrenchment decisions and sexist assumptions by employers. They presume that men, during times of crisis, have a stronger claim to income than women. To go into greater depth, these assumptions are indeed linked to the traditional gender norms- the thought process of which should immediately be halted.
Post-Covid: Men have reclaimed their jobs, while women remain jobless.
Most women are leaving the workforce due to housework and caregiving responsibilities during the pandemic because of the lack of flexibility at work. They are unable to bring their overall potential to the workplace and worry about their performance- especially those women who have children at home. Burnout is a common crisis for women in the Covid-19 era and women found themselves unproductive in remote working settings while simultaneously having to perform household duties. While most men worked peacefully in a new hybrid workplace, women were encountering major disruptions to display their talents in their careers.
As an example, for gig work, men are employed in vital services such as plumbers and electricians, delivery services while women do non-essential jobs such as beauty and personal grooming. Because of the gendered character of this job, women gig workers were the first to lose livelihood options due to the development of COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdowns. While the demand for most services undertaken by men gained pace of work after peak-covid era, womens work is at a standstill even up to the present time.
Furthermore, approximately half of the women-owned MSMEs reported a layoff rate of 76-100 percent, while one-fourth of the MSMEs reported laying off 51-75 percent of their employees during the COVID-19 period. When asked if they were interested in rehiring all laid-off employees after resuming business operations in the post-pandemic period, nearly a third of MSME owners said no. A big number of female entrepreneurs appeared to be unfamiliar with the government's stimulus package's specifics. Furthermore, there are a variety of supply-side barriers that limit women's access to resources. These obstacles have put women-owned MSMEs at a considerable disadvantage, especially during COVID-19.
Why is financial freedom important for women?
It has been proven that poverty and inequality are often linked. Financial freedom is an important tool for gender equality as money gives women autonomy. Once women can earn enough to sustain themselves, they are more confident and gain the independence to make their own decisions instead of depending on ‘the man whose care they are traditionally put under.’
As established, we live in a patriarchal system where men are considered to be ‘the breadwinners of their family.’ Ensuring that women work and receive equal pay to that of their male counterparts shakes this core tenet of society.
When women achieve financial freedom, they own and learn more. Having access to independent finances allows women to have more bargaining power in familial decisions. These decisions may include purchasing more nutrition-packed food and the ability to send more girl children to school.
Therefore, it is important to the progress of gender equality, for women to have financial freedom.
With the setback that the pandemic brought to female workforce participation, it is imperative that society realises the need for financial inclusion of females and promotes policies that promulgate such inclusion.
How can governments help?
Since the pandemic has had a greater adverse response to the employment of women, it is of utmost importance that extraordinary measures are taken by countries in South Asia to help bring back women to the workforce. Not only will such policies personally help women but will also help fuel the economies post the hit they suffered during lockdowns.
The International Labour Organisation has recommended that countries invest in the care economy. Since jobs of the care sector majorly fall upon women, government investment in the care sector would help to boost demand and ease the supply side impediments.
Another major step that can be taken by the public and private sector would be to promote more women to decision making positions. This would ensure that women are not being hired to just fulfil the required quota but have a say in the way the organisation is run, push for more women-friendly policies and can, in turn, hire more women into the formal sector.
• Re-examine the definitions of ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ economies,
• Create a supportive environment to promote sustainability of women-run MSMEs,
• Ensure that cases of sexual harassment at the workplace are stringently dealt with, in a timely fashion,
• Fund and run programs to help women upgrade their skills
• And support civil society organisations who help women learn new skills to create a more robust gig economy.
It is impossible for a nation to move ahead if it leaves its women behind. The pandemic created a major obstruction in all the strides the South Asian nations had taken towards development. The lockdowns brought all the countries to an unpredictable grinding halt.
In order to resume efforts towards gender equality and to create a better environment for future generations to grow up in, it is imperative that nations not only bring women back to the workforce but also construct a landscape where women no longer have to face glass ceilings or break societal barriers created as a result of whimsically defined gender roles.