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Opinion

How Covid-19 makes women and girls’ concerns invisible: analysis

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The coronavirus disease pandemic (Covid-19) has crossed all sectors of society, but although we all face the same storm, the ships we sail on are different. Class, caste and gender hierarchies significantly determine the nature of the challenges we face. In India, the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities, including with regard to gender.

Girls in India face a continuum of discrimination even before birth, at the risk of sex-selective abortions, right up to childhood, and manifesting themselves even in adulthood through a multitude of regressive social norms and practices. The contribution of women to the economy is not recognized. Women bear the silent and essential burden during crises as primary providers of home care and healthcare settings. For example, more than 900,000 credentialed social health activist workers are at the forefront of Covid-19 crisis management, working with great personal risk and minimal compensation.

The pandemic carries the risk of making women and girls and their concerns even more invisible. So far, the government has extended support by providing 1,500 rupees for three months to nearly 200 million women with Jan Dhan accounts, and has also promised to reimburse the cost of the cylinders from April to June to beneficiaries of the Ujjwala scheme. However, there are problems of access to banking services, as well as the availability of cash that women, especially poor women, are facing right now. Disruption of all economic activity has worsened growth prospects by bringing unemployment levels to unprecedented levels. This lack of work will further harm women, more than 90% of whom are employed in the informal sector. India’s female labor force participation rate is 23%, and is in danger of falling further due to the crisis.

In addition to jeopardizing their own economic independence and the survival of their families, the blockade has had the greatest impact on the health, both physical and mental, of women. Now that the blockade is being eased, the government must classify all services that serve women’s reproductive health as “essential” and violence against women should be seen as a health care issue to prevent unnecessary death and pain. Violence against women increases during most crises, including epidemics. The National Commission for Women has reported increases in violence against women in the past two months. The reported numbers are only an indication of the depth of this problem. Most cases of violence go unreported due to fear and shame created by prevailing social norms. The culture of impunity embedded in patriarchal society will be further strengthened by the meager police force that will have to shoulder the responsibilities of imposing blockades and ignoring problems of violence against women. Blocking and economic stress act as a perfect storm for abuse of women. It is compounded by the sad reality of the digital divide between men and women, and men make up 67% of India’s online population. This means that even when women who have a phone want to communicate with helplines, in many cases they are unable to do so because they are trapped in their home under the control of family members. Proactive government measures, such as awareness campaigns through local government agencies and NGOs, and functional helplines are urgently needed to prevent abuse of women.

It is necessary to incorporate a much stronger gender lens in the Covid-19 response so that we do not lose the achievements made with so much effort in relation to the rights and well-being of women in education, health and empowerment. The inequality and high rates of violence suffered by women is a global pandemic and a national crisis. Unfortunately, Covid-19 and the shutdown have worsened, and it is striking both in our homes and in the outside world.

Shireen Vakil is Chief of Policy, Tata Trusts. Aparna Uppaluri works in philanthropy
for women’s rights

The opinions expressed are personal.

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