Public health emergencies often expose and magnify existing gender and economic inequalities in society. Even though we are still learning new facets related to Covid-19, it is clear that the fallout of the pandemic disproportionately falls on women and girls.

Noting the heightened impact on women not just in India but around the world, UN Women states that “across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection, the impacts of Covid-19 are exacerbated for women and girls simply by virtue of their sex”. In India women’s informal employment was already lagging and health systems were fragile before Covid-19 hit. Now, women’s economic outcomes are on the edge of a precipice if we do not listen to the leaders and organisations on the ground who have a clear understanding of the needs and the solutions, and a readiness to work with local officials.

A group of women leaders across Maharashtra are working for women’s rights from the perspective of human and Indian constitutional rights in academia, research, advocacy, as well as in collaboration with the government. These 22 women leaders, under the network of the Collective Impact Partnership, have drafted a Demand Charter that outlines key issues, with policy proposals that are achievable as they are in place in other states. It includes recommendations and lessons that apply across the country.

This Demand Charter shows that there is a real opportunity for both the central and state governments to lead by acknowledging the issues which need addressing and help by designing or amending current Covid-19 relief measures from a gender lens. Four such areas of concern have been noted here.

First, over 80% of the total women workers in India are employed in the informal sector. The current crisis has severely impacted their ability to continue working and earn any income, especially those most vulnerable such as single, divorced, and differently abled women, as well as those from nomadic or denotified tribes—many of whom were sole earners in their households. A study of the impact of Covid-19 on informal women workers by the Institute of Social Studies Trust found that around 83% of women workers covered in the study were facing a severe income drop. Furthermore, according to the 2011 Census, a total of 23 million households in rural India are headed by females, of which 14 million households are “considered for deprivation”.

The government’s decision to use Jan Dhan accounts to transfer benefits to over 40.7 million women is a laudable initiative. However, the sum of Rs 500 per month for three months is insufficient for a significant portion of the beneficiaries to cover even the essentials. This scheme, therefore, must aim to increase cash transfers to marginalised women (to at least Rs 3000), to ensure that their necessities are met.

Second, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) aims to enhance livelihood security in rural areas by providing at least 100 days of minimum wage employment in a financial year to every household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work. However, we are hearing from the ground that currently most of the work provided is difficult manual labour, such as digging wells, and public works jobs which many women find inappropriate. Village officials are turning people away and women are also being forced into work which many feel is not suitable for them, a violation of the Act, which guarantees work to all eligible beneficiaries, in whichever way they can contribute.

We recommend the Gram Panchayat include waste segregation, and agricultural labour so that women gain access to minimum wage employment. Further, the government should increase the employment guarantee to 200 days (up 100 days) which has been proposed for several years and now must be reconsidered during these harsh economic times.

The third area of concern is the school drop-out rates among girls, which were already alarmingly high in a pre-Covid world. Across India, 39.4% girls aged 15-18 years drop out of school and college, according to a recent report by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights. Of the girls who drop out, 64.8% do so because they are forced to take on household chores or are engaged in begging. During Covid-19, girls’ dropout rates will soar as their families are less likely to be able to afford their schooling. The Malala Fund has projected that 10 million secondary school-aged girls in low- and lower-middle income countries may never return to school. This is a cause for concern in a country like India, where, as mentioned above, dropout rates among girls have been higher.

With traditional schooling systems in disarray during this pandemic, preventing dropout rates among girls, particularly adolescent girls, must form a key area of focus for the governments when schools open. Girls—and their families—must be incentivised to stay in the schooling system, which calls for more scholarships to girl children from low income households and marginalised communities.

Finally, we know that incidents of sexual harassment and violence increase exponentially during crises. Already in India, one in three women suffers physical and sexual violence at home, according to data from the National Family Health Survey-4, released in 2018. During the pandemic there is increased risk of sexual harassment and exploitation of women workers, especially those from marginalised backgrounds, because of the heightened competition, corruption, desperation, and pressure to accept low wages and to compromise in various ways in the informal job market. In response, state governments must ensure proper implementation of the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) Act. The POSH Act has a wide definition of ‘workplace’ which makes it applicable to both organised and unorganised sectors in India and mandates the setting up of an internal committee (IC) for redressing sexual harassment grievances. The Telangana and Maharashtra governments have mandated registration of the IC in their states. Other states should follow the lead and issue a compulsory directive for all businesses including educational institutions to set up internal committees.

Without addressing the gendered nature of the economy and society, women and girls continue to bear the consequences through gender blind policy interventions. We have an opportunity to update our interventions by listening to the experts and voices from the ground—women leaders who know the stakes are too high as we risk losing decades of progress on women empowerment due to this massive socio-economic disruption.

Views are personal. Mehta manages the Collective Impact Partnership programme in Maharashtra; Pawar is founder-director of the grassroots organisation Anubhuti, a Right to Pee core activist for safe and affordable public toilets for women & girls, and an activist for nomadic and de-notified tribes.

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