New Delhi: Vidya Kaushal, 22, trained for six months as a beauty entrepreneur before she set up her own salon, 'She', in her hometown of Jagdishpur in central Uttar Pradesh's Amethi district. Kaushal, who graduated last year, could have become a teacher as her family wanted, but chose instead to become an independent entrepreneur.

It cost her Rs 50,000 to set up the salon, which she rented at Rs 5,000 a month. Jagdishpur, once an industrial hub nurtured by the Gandhi family, has seen factories shut and employment dry up over the last decade, but Kaushal's parlour saw a steady stream of customers when it opened in early March 2020.

Two weeks later, India went into a nationwide lockdown to deal with COVID-19. With strict social distancing rules in place, the beauty business became untenable. 'She' had to shut and Kaushal had to disband her two-member team. The parlour reopened in July once the lockdown lifted but it now gets few customers, Kaushal said, though she ensures hygiene and physical distancing.

"On a good day, five people will come; on most days, it's less. People are really scared. I have suffered losses for months and if I raise prices, clients refuse to pay. It's also difficult to run the parlour all by myself," she said. She is hopeful that the ongoing wedding season will revive her business.

Among women, it is not only entrepreneurs who are struggling to survive, we found in our reporting across several districts of Uttar Pradesh including Lucknow, Allahabad, Sitapur and Amethi. In cities, women employed as domestic help, at construction sites and call centres, and in handicraft and retail units, have lost jobs. In villages, women's participation in public employment schemes has dipped as men who returned from cities during the lockdown have replaced them.

Early research on the impact of the lockdown on women's employment confirms what anecdotes showed: The drop in employment is not gender-neutral. "Given the large pre-existing gender gaps in employment, in absolute terms, more men lost employment than women. However, conditional on being employed pre-lockdown, women were roughly 20 percentage points less likely to be employed than men who were employed pre-lockdown," said a report by Ashwini Deshpande, professor of economics at the Ashoka University, who investigated data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, a business information company.

In a three-part series, IndiaSpend is examining the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on work and livelihoods across India. In the first part, we looked at workers who stayed back in villages, concentrating on southern Rajasthan. In the second part, we investigated the return of Odisha's migrant workers to Surat and other migrant destinations, and the work and living conditions they have returned to. In this, the third and concluding part, we explore how the lives of women in India's workforce, urban and rural, have been impacted by the pandemic. We focus on Uttar Pradesh, which also reports a high gender skew in employment.

Even before the pandemic, women's participation in India's workforce was low due to social and cultural reasons, as IndiaSpend reported in its series Women@Work. At just 24%, according to the Economic Survey 2017-18, India's rate is among the lowest in South Asia.

The states with the lowest rates for female employment were Bihar (2.8%), Uttar Pradesh (9.4%), Assam (9.8%), as per state-wise analysis of the Periodic Labour Force Survey (2017-18) by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation.

Slump hits women-run businesses

Vidya Kaushal's business is one of many built on the back of the consumption boom in small- town India that goes back a decade. Micro-businesses like hers, 20% of which are owned by women, have been hit hard by the ongoing crisis, data show.

Representatives of India's beauty and wellness industry, mostly micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME), had demanded government support from MSME minister Nitin Gadkari during the lockdown. They reported that seven million jobs were at stake in this category of businesses where two of three employees are either women or migrant workers.

The sectors most affected in the pandemic crisis--restaurants, retail, beauty, tourism, education, domestic work, and carework for the young and elderly--have high female employment, said Gayathri Vasudevan, chairperson for Labournet, a social enterprise that works on enabling livelihoods.

Kaushal, who started her business with her family's savings, does not expect any support from the government. "All businesses around me have been destroyed and we will have to survive on our own," she said.

Upto 73% of women entrepreneurs have dealt with setbacks caused by the lockdown and the pandemic, with 21% witnessing near wipe-out of revenues, said a report by Bain & Company, a management consultancy that interviewed women business owners of solo and small enterprises across Indian cities. Upto 35% of the women interviewed reported a significant decline (25%-75%) in business revenues. Women were affected even more than men because of the need to take on additional domestic work during the lockdown, the report said.

Crafts units shut

The lockdown and the resulting economic downturn have aggravated gender inequities, several reports have shown (here, here and here). Women have lost jobs and livelihoods, many are on the frontlines fighting the pandemic as health and social care workers, while also shouldering increased domestic workload.

Paid work for women in India is concentrated in low-growth, low-productivity sectors, mainly agriculture or home-based, informal work. It is estimated that there are 250,000 chikankari and zardozi workers in Lucknow--crafts that need fine embroidery skills. Most of these craftspersons are women, and with demand dwindling during the lockdown, most have lost jobs and earnings. Rani, 35, whose story we share later, is an expert zardozi worker whose unit shut during the lockdown. But with four young children and costs of food and education, she cannot afford to put away her needle yet, she said.

"This work has completely stopped since the lockdown. These women support their families, but they are invisible," said Arundhati Dhuru, an activist from Uttar Pradesh and convener with National Alliance of People's Movements, an NGO collective.

Given that in 2018 women's participation in India's workforce had fallen to its lowest since Independence--18.6%--as per the Periodic Labour Force Survey 2018-19, the pandemic could have serious repercussions on female employment in India, said experts.

"Women have been affected the most, so far as the socio-economic toll of the pandemic is concerned," said Vibhuti Patel, former professor at Advanced Centre for Women's Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences. "This is not just because of increased care work, it is also because of entitlement--whenever the unemployment rate is high, men get prioritised [for jobs] as they are seen as breadwinners and women as homemakers. In times of economic prosperity, women are hired last, and during a crisis they are fired first and are the last to be hired."

'As soon as men enter job market, women are thrown out'

In a state like Uttar Pradesh, which has social and cultural restrictions on women's mobility, the effects of the current crisis are bound to be even more gender-skewed, experts said. In 2017-18, only 8.2% women were in the state's labour force in urban areas and 9.7% in rural areas. When compared to the corresponding national average, the LFPRs for women in rural and urban areas were lower by eight and nine percentage points respectively.

In May this year, the Uttar Pradesh government announced measures to address the issue of women's employment under the State Rural Livelihood Mission. One of these was a scheme to appoint 'Banking Correspondent Sakhis' (friends) to act as links between banks and female customers in all the 58,000 gram panchayats of the state. Other projects involved self-help groups in mask-making, manufacture of personal protective equipment and tailoring of school uniforms.

"Uttar Pradesh has been one of the lowest performing states for women's participation in work. We don't have [recent] numbers but we expect there must be a drastic drop since the lockdown," said Dhuru of the National Alliance of People's Movements.

Dhuru travelled across the districts of Sitapur, Hardoi and Unnao for an informal assessment of what the lockdown was doing to women's participation in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Generation Scheme (MGNREGS). She found that women who worked under the scheme have been displaced by their husbands, migrant workers who returned from cities in the millions during the lockdown. "As soon as men enter the market, women are thrown out," she said.

With over 2.1 million migrant workers returning home to Uttar Pradesh, there was an unprecedented demand for MGNREGS jobs this year. According to state government figures reported in June, it topped the list of states offering employment under the scheme--5.7 million workers. The maximum numbers came from Sitapur district, right after capital Lucknow--about 191,000.

Most MGNREGS jobs go to men, said Richa Singh of Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan, a Sitapur-based collective, who has been working on the issue of women's rights and livelihood in Sitapur district. "Despite the provision for 33% reservation for women, the proportion of women workers in MGNREGA in our district used to be the lowest in the country, close to 5%. It's now improved and is close to 20%. It's not easy for women to work in this region. There is no acceptance for it," she said.

In 2006, when the scheme was launched in India, Rambeti, 46, of Sitapur district was among the first women to demand work in her village. Most families from her village, Alipur, had started migrating to cities for work but she stayed on with her husband and four children. The family sustained itself by cultivating its seven bighas (around 1.4 acres) of land and taking on MGNREGS work. Rambeti gets an average of 10-12 days of MGNREGS work a month. When IndiaSpend contacted her one morning a few days before Diwali, she was working at a MGNREGS site outside her village.

"Once you leave for the city, it's not easy to work in the village. You have to fight for your right to work with the panchayat. You have to walk long distances and stand under the sun and do hard labour," said Rambeti, who mobilises women in her village to work in MGNREGS as part of Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan.

One of the women that Rambeti has mobilised is Sunita Devi, who returned to Alipur from Jaipur in July when her husband lost his job in a private company. She has three children aged 10, seven and two years, and this is the first time in her life that she has taken on paid work. "I find it very difficult to dig and to work with mud, but I don't have a choice. Our children need to study and my husband has not got his job back," she said. The family has two bighas (0.4 acres) of land on which they cultivate wheat and groundnut. "There isn't enough water as the soil is dry and the yield is low. It's not enough," she said.

Women doing subcontracted work lose income

Women who work from home in India are underpaid, invisible, but vital parts of domestic and global supply chains. They are in the lowest rungs of India's labour chain, as IndiaSpend reported, performing subcontracted work in the textile and garments industry, for instance, for which they are paid on a piece-rate basis. Other home-based work includes making papads and agarbattis and rolling bidis. There are over 37 million home-based workers in India, most of them women. These women, who eked out an average of Rs 40-50 a day before the pandemic, have been pushed further into the margins.

An assessment by the Self-Employed Women's Association, a union of 1.5 million women working in India's informal economy, between March and July suggested that incomes of women working in the handicrafts, services and finance sectors shrank as enterprises either completely shut down or reduced capacity to less than 50%. "The role of collectives in supporting informal women workers is more crucial than ever. Those who were in collectives found a cushion in this crisis," said Salonie Muralidhara Hiriyur, senior coordinator at SEWA.

Rani was only eight when she learned how to do zardozi work and started supporting her family. This year she put down her needle for the first time in 15 years. The zardozi work of Lucknow has a Geographical Indication tag, but there is no value to the work, she said.

"I would work for seven hours and get paid Rs 150. My eyes have been ruined since the work is so intricate and laborious, I can hardly do it anymore," she said. She hopes that the market will revive next year so she can open a workshop.

(Kumar is a Delhi-based independent journalist. She writes on social justice and gender.)

We welcome feedback. Please write to We reserve the right to edit responses for language and grammar.