In India, about one in five working age women are part of the labour force. When people lost work because of COVID-19 and the economic slowdown, women were affected disproportionately, data show. When the lockdown eased, and jobs started growing, fewer women were employed than men.

Women entrepreneurs are struggling to survive, women employed as domestic help in cities, at construction sites and in call centres in handicraft and retail units, have lost jobs, IndiaSpend reported in November 2020.

Can stories of women at work be one driver of change and increase women's labour force participation? IndiaSpend spoke to Soumya Kapoor Mehta, head of the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE). IWWAGE tries to put together evidence on "what works" to improve women's participation in economic activities.

This interview is part of the Women@Work 2.0 series, which will examine the barriers to women's employment and solutions to getting more women in paid work. The first story of the series will be released tomorrow, December 15, 2020. (Read our first Women@Work series here.)

Mehta has been an independent policy advisor for the World Bank, UNICEF, the Government of India, the Centre for Policy Research and the Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA). She spoke to us on unpaid care, domestic violence and cultural norms on working out of the home.

Edited excerpts:

You have been doing a whole bunch of studies on women at work in multiple environments, rural as well as urban. You have also looked at COVID-19 specifically. So tell us about what you have been seeing in the recent months and what has changed, if anything.

I think the media is full of stories of the negative impact that COVID has had, particularly on women. The female labour force participation in India has always been low and has been declining over time, which was a source of worry. We have been hearing that, after the last number that we had heard, that 27% of women were in the labour force, now it seems to be down to 20%. It is also because sectors where women tend to be employed more like services, food and health, travel and hospitality, etc. those seem to have been really adversely affected. But that is one aspect.

I think the other aspect that is being discussed, and our organisation has been researching this, is the added burdens that women have faced because you are working from home. Even for women… it is new to urban women, but many of the rural women were always doing that. You have added burdens of domestic chores, looking after the children, looking after the elderly as they are not stepping out, providing for their care. So the unpaid care work burden is very high for women compared to men. About 94% of women seem to be engaged in unpaid care work in India, which is significantly high compared to other countries. It would have hit the roof [because of the COVID-19 pandemic], to say the least.

I think the third thing we are seeing is what everybody is calling the shadow pandemic of violence. Women seem to be in their house, they are under a lot of mental stress and anxiety because they are managing a lot of things. Also, you tend to be in close contact with the preparators [of violence]. A lot of the violence that women face is often at the hands of their family. But as a feminist economist we always knew that this existed, it is much more in the limelight now, as women are not stepping out of their houses.

When you said that 94% of women engage in unpaid work as compared to men, and that is high compared to other countries, why is that?

I think it has a lot to do with cultural norms, Govind. I mean, if you look at World Value Surveys and other surveys which try to do cross country comparisons, if you were to even ask women that if there were a crisis of jobs in the economy should it go to a man or a woman, more women actually in India say that it should go to a man. So it is always that the man is the breadwinner. And of course you have a crisis like COVID, and there is a job loss, particularly now where agriculture is also facing crises, there is high mechanisation as well. So more women actually get displaced from these jobs, because they were the ones who were doing the tilling etc. So there has been low availability of opportunities and there is that cultural social norm that it is really the women who have to take care of the domestic responsibilities.

As we talk about bringing more women into work or back into work what should be our priorities?

I think the first is unpaid care work. In India, for example, in urban areas, I was in another webinar with a few members of parliament (MPs), and they actually did not recognise the fact that in urban areas they do not even have a creche facility. Rural areas, in whatever state, there are anganwadis, where you can leave your children. But, here, I have no option. I do not know whether they are safe, I do not know what the quality of the creches is like. [In urban areas], you tend to live in nuclear families, unlike in rural areas. So where do you leave your children? I think the whole burden of unpaid care needs to be addressed. I know the Niti Aayog also seems to be trying to think through policies on what can be done. I think that is point number one.

I think point number two is also to think about what are the kinds of opportunities or work profiles that would suit women. Ideally, women would like to work somewhere closer to home, which is why they tend to go into farming, which is next to their homes. But that has been declining. So what are the opportunities that you can create for them in urban areas, which would be suitable, which they can do from their home. Then all the accompanying set of skills, digital inclusion, also financial schemes that they can be given access to. So what kinds of opportunities are suitable to women, to provide that.

You recently did a study which talked about the gig economy in the context of women workers. Does that offer opportunities or, does that in some ways mean the space for women coming into work, particularly into the digital economy, has actually shrunk because of the reasons you pointed out earlier?

I would say that it is actually an opportunity that women are eagerly seeking--the gig economy. They just feel it gives them flexibility. If I am in the beauty and wellness segment, instead of being stuck in a job in a salon from 9-7, I can just pick up two or three jobs with the company. It gives them flexibility to manage their time and also attend to their home. It also gives them good earnings. But in the report we found that there are issues, for example, the gig, the platforms, do not recognise them in the traditional sense of workers and labour laws. Now of course, the government fortunately has come with the social security code. Gig platform workers would be given some sort of compensation with the platform people setting aside some amount from their turnover. So let us see how that helps.

Let me go back to the point you made earlier about proximity to work being a very important aspect linked to child care where applicable. What could be a policy intervention?

I think in many other countries, many innovations have been tried. For example, in Kenya, there are models where the private sector comes in, as well as the government. So there are PPP models that are set up and what they do is that they train women in urban slums to become, what they call 'mamapreneurs'--so mummies are trained on how to run a creche, but at the same time the PPP platform ensures that there is adequate quality, it is affordable, there is learning material, etc. Women also tend to get income and you seem to have increased and solved the creche problem as well. So I think there are models internationally that one can draw from.

What would be the nature of intervention? Let us say we are, in some ways, back to square one or close to square one. For instance, one of the things would be to have policies to, say, incentivise location or relocation of industries. Could there be other such policies?

Relocation of industries is one. You can bring a factory close to them, but at the same time you need to ensure that all these benefits are not diluted and whether manufacturing companies are under the purview of the labour laws. Currently, there are some concerns expressed on the revisions in the labour codes. Currently, COVID is an unusual situation where they [industries] have been given a free hand. So even benefits, like the Maternity Benefits Act where you get 26 weeks off, you do not know whether a company that is hiring a woman would ensure the benefits. So I think it is both a compliance issue as well as bringing these opportunities home.

I think it is also an issue of skills. So traditionally you tend to train women in skills where it is already ordained that they will be in those occupations--whether they are teachers or nurses, in the beauty and wellness segment. And I think even women are conditioned to believe that this is what we can do. So I think there needs to be some norm shifts around what women can do. We also are doing an evaluation of the [government's] skills programme and what we are finding is interesting. You also have to support infrastructure to have girls come and study in these skilling centres, in the ITIs [Industrial Training Institutes]. You need hostels for them, where will they stay, since their parents will be concerned about their safety? Then, will the manufacturing sector also look at them as suitable prospects? So it is both a case of the demand side issue from the manufacturing sector side--am I getting trained women who are engineers and electricians--but at the same time, am I providing opportunities that are closer to their homes and transport facilities that they can use, or even the kind of environment that industries offer them--equal pay, safe working conditions, ability to work at night, maternity benefits? So then all of those compliance issues also need to be met to be able to incentivise a woman to come and work.

I am going to ask you to take a step back and look at this challenge from a larger perspective. But before I do that, there are also lots of stories of inspiration or courage that could motivate others. What comes to mind?

Well, we have been working with two groups who are doing fantastic work. One, we have an extensive programme with the NRLM [National Rural Livelihoods Mission] where we are seeing these self-help groups of rural women who are rising up to the challenge. India actually never faced a shortage of sanitisers or masks courtesy these women. They shifted their skills very quickly and were able to manufacture these in a mass way. They have also been leading the charge at providing food at the quarantine facilities for migrants, even running IEC [information, education and communication] campaigns on social distancing. So the self-help groups have been serving as the barefoot soldiers for the government. So the government is also realising that, here is a mass of women that can be tapped for multiple purposes and whose potential can be built upon.

The other group is the frontline workers--everyone has been talking about them across the world. We also have a project where we evaluate the conditions under which they work. There have been stories of poor pay or pay not reaching them on time, also lack of protective gear or equipment. At the same time, what we seem to be finding is that a lot of these workers are not even fully employed. I mean ASHA workers only work based on an incentive and for them to actually put their lives at risk without protective gear, and sometimes not even enough pay, to actually go, take and run these tests speaks of the incredible spirit that they have.

If you were to take that step back, what are the one or two things that we could do to bring about a transformation in thinking that would help address some of this? It could be a policy, physical infrastructure, whether it is the attitudes inside homes, which we perhaps cannot penetrate some times.

Well, at a policy level, we have been thinking about the budgetary provisions that can be made in certain schemes. There are also provisions for women in public employment. If you look at the breakup of women in regular salaried jobs in India, a lot of them prefer public to private employment because it gives them security. When you break up public employment even further, you realise that there are a huge number of vacancies. Even for anganwadi workers and ASHA workers, even for the police force, there are supposed to be 33% women… you do not find them there. So, can we just take a step of even trying to fill these vacancies, which will also have a demand side effect in the economy because you are providing those jobs. So that is on the policy side.

I think, working with these groups of women has made us realise that there is a lot of work to be done with men as well, who are actually willing to listen. And that is what our experience has been with these self-help groups of women, or even running programmes with SEWA [Self Employed Women's Association], they gradually open up. We have programmes on gender training and when we actually do these programmes with both men and women, they are willing to shift cultural norms. They see the economic benefits of joining a group or an organisation like SEWA and then they open up. So there can be gradual shifts brought about through gender training.

I think the third is actually platforms and accessibility to women. So a woman who is in a rural area, you do not expect her to pick up the phone and call the national helpline for counselling, if she is facing a domestic violence issue. You need to build the leadership at the lower level or give platforms like a gender resource centre or a help desk that she can access willingly rather than go and stand in a panchayat office. We are trying to pilot those solutions as well. And probably, if nothing works, provide her with digital access. Why can she not get IVRS [Interactive Voice Response System] messages? Why can she not just have an app on which she can see what are the schemes that I can apply for? And upload the documents and we are trying to do that with Haqdarshak and we are finding great success because women seem to say I do not need to go through my husband or any government functionary. I can just do this through an SHG [Self Help Group] leader who has brought the app to me. I can just download and apply for the scheme. So I think, accessibility, last mile delivery becomes much more important for women as well.

Note: IndiaSpend is collaborating with IWWAGE for a Women@Work fellowship.

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