(The article has been contributed by Salonie, a tech evangelist and public policy advocate)
As Covid-19 spreads across the states of India, there has been a huge increase in women participation to support the healthcare services and infrastructure for treatment of patients. To combat the current health crisis in India, women voluntarily have taken up work to help Government meet its demands of healthcare and sustaining livelihood. This massive human tragedy has indeed shown a silver lining to elevate the role of women to raise India’s standard of living in the future.
As per government data of 2018-19, India’s per capita income from liberalization era (1991) to the present scenario has risen from INR 2000 to INR 10,534 a month (risen by 6.8% to Rs 11,254 during 2019-20 as per government data on national income). As the country continues to increase its economic growth, regrettably, there has been a considerable reduction in the condition of female labor force participation. From 31.2% in 2011-12, the latest government statistic stands at 23.3% in 2017-18, according to the National Sample Survey Office.
90% of women in India belong to the informal sector, wherein they are part of the jobs which pay low and are at bottom end of the value chains, leaving them with minimal labor legislations coverage and skill development opportunities.
When the urban cities and industrialized areas were shut in the lockdown, the rural areas and women from informal sectors, aanganwadi centers and self-help groups stepped up to sustain the economy through their efforts in food security, manufacturing face masks and testing people with COVID-19 symptoms. But the sad part is that the INR 20-lakh crore stimulus package for revival of economy, fails to identify the resilient work of women in informal sector and small businesses.
ASHA workers are India’s first women community health workers, but unfortunately do not have a fixed salary. The government had publicly applauded the efforts of self-help groups and women health workers, but as the cases of COVID-19 rise, the state of the women workers continues to decline with no roadmap around access to social protection or special provisions for women under the recent labor reforms.
With the rise in the trend of increased female participation in labor force in segments like health, food and sanitation in present pandemic situation, the political leadership should not ignore the critical role that women could play in the next few years to save the country from a looming economic crisis.
Recently, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath added a fund of INR 218.50 crore for about 32,000 self-help groups that worked endlessly to manufacture critical medical equipment to help patients. However, besides refunding women for their effort, the government needs to develop a strategy to promote women-centric reforms and equal labor rights, especially for rural areas and informal sector.
As per former International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Christine Lagarde’s paper, increasing women's participation in the Indian labor force to that of men can boost India's GDP by 27%. At a time when government is looking to leverage opportunities arising from the existing crisis, the policymakers must build sectors that encourage participation from women in workforce or small-medium businesses. Some of these sectors could be healthcare, technology, agriculture, textiles and handmade goods.
To drive the economic growth, stakeholders must enforce women participation in every reform to be implemented under the ‘Self-Reliant India’ movement, be it labor, education, MSMEs, start-ups, agriculture or skill development and vocational training. There must be development of secure work opportunities and enterprises that provide handholding and training to women workers or entrepreneurs to transition from an informal economy to a formal one.
Additionally, the reverse migration of laborers from urban areas to villages, can provide an opportunity for more women to get employed in cities and raise the economic activity.
Indian government has been trying to follow a gender-responsive and increase its gender commitment since decades. Now is the time to devise an experiment that can not only break the stereotypes around women in workforce but also cause a fundamental shift in India’s economy.