Jamnagar: When we launched our second Women@Work series in December 2020, nine months after the countrywide Covid-19 lockdown, 13% fewer women were employed or looking for jobs than the year before, compared to 2% fewer men. Urban women's job losses were more numerous.

In the month since, the situation has remained dire, our reporting has shown. The pandemic has thrown into high relief the all-pervasive, systemic and entrenched realities that prevent women from earning a living--and self-reliance.

Namita Bhandare's award-winning first series on this theme had highlighted many of these realities: the devaluation of women's work, whether paid or unpaid; the family structures that keep women confined to the hearth and the home; the logistical shortfalls that make travel for work or study dangerous or at least difficult; the marriage and motherhood penalty; and so on.

Our second series built upon the insights and perspectives gleaned from the first, to examine the lived experiences of women's lives and work during the pandemic. Through a series of stories, interviews and podcasts, we've attempted to understand the policy, political and socio-economic interventions that can create the conditions for women to participate more fully in the economy, as also to exercise their rights, agency and volition.

Here's a look at the key points that have emerged.

New economy's new challenges and old hurdles

As online platforms such as Urban Company, Housejoy, Uber, Ola and Swiggy connect customers with service providers in India's booming gig economy, women service providers are getting the short end of the stick, a June 2020 report by the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE) found.

The earning potential and flexible working hours have drawn women to these apps, but issues of occupational segregation, gender pay gaps and lack of social security benefits have followed them to these new online employment opportunities, we reported in this January 2021 story.

The solution?

On September 23, 2020, parliament passed the Code on Social Security 2020, mandating the central government to register gig workers and set up a social security fund for them. Gig platform workers should be given some sort of compensation with the platform people setting aside some amount from their turnover, Soumya Kapoor Mehta, head of IWWAGE, told IndiaSpend in an interview.

Another possible solution could be a 'platform of platforms', Ria Kasliwal, research associate at Accountability Initiative and author of a study, by Observer Research Foundation, on gender and the gig economy, had suggested. This would be a statutory body that would not only establish a standard set of guidelines for the platforms but also monitor them.

Delhi's informal workers during the pandemic

Even the value of scrap went down due to the pandemic, as 29-year-old Lutfun Nisha, a rag-picker in north-west Delhi, said in this January 2021 story. "If I do not find garbage, I cannot sell anything to the scrap dealer. Before the lockdown, I used to sell it for Rs 35-40 per kg. Now, the rate has dropped to Rs 10 per kg," she said.

This story examined the situation for women workers in India's capital--often already invisibilised, many of them were driven out of work by the pandemic. While women in the formal sector faced pay cuts and job losses even as their burden of unpaid domestic work increased, the pandemic exposed existing faultlines. "In [the] case of Delhi, long commuting hours, work timings and safety issues restrict women's mobility and hinder their workforce participation," said Sanghamitra Singh, senior manager, Population Foundation of India.

In a subsequent story on informal workers in March 2021, we examined the situation in the textiles and garments sector, among India's oldest, where many women workers put in over 12 hours a day, six days a week, but do not have the negotiating power to demand better wages or working conditions.

A win for India's sexual harassment at the workplace law

In February 2021 came senior journalist Priya Ramani's acquittal in a case filed by Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament M.J. Akbar, alleging she had defamed him when she accused him of sexual harassment. In a joint interview with Ramani and her lawyer Rebbeca John, we examined the implications of the verdict for reporting and prosecuting sexual harassment in the workplace in India.

John also emphasised that some provisions in the law need to be overhauled or amended, such as the provisions regarding the composition of the internal complaints committee (ICC) under Chapter II of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act. "And particularly when the person accused is head of the institution, or holding some high position in the institution, the other members of the IC therefore, are people who are subordinate to him. And therefore, it becomes very difficult for them to look at the evidence being led objectively," she said. The ICC must have more than one external member for the sake of neutrality, she added.

A further problem is of intent. Even though most companies and institutions nominally comply with the law, and have an internal complaints committee, compliance must also be in spirit, not just in letter, John said. "And in spirit, there is always an attempt to disbelieve the woman," she said, "And that is again the same old problem we've had--you disbelieve rape victims, you attribute motives to them where none exist. And you generally like to say that women are liars."

In an accompanying story, we examined how the law leaves out the majority of India's women workers, who work in the informal sector. Poor data collection and implementation further hinder compliance to the law.

Women as small business owners

Women running their own small businesses face difficulties in a range of areas including access to finance, hiring space and networking, we reported in a two-part story in February 2021. As a result, only seven of 100 entrepreneurs in India are women, of whom half (49.9%) get into business out of necessity rather than aspiration, said a November 2020 report by IWWAGE.

"Globally, it [female entrepreneurship] is a tool of empowerment since it helps the entrepreneur take decisions, lead, manage and develop skills in production and even personal leadership," said Sona Mitra, principal economist at IWWAGE in LEAD at Krea University. Running a business also allows women greater independence, financial and otherwise, in their personal lives, said Mitali Nikore, founder, Nikore Associates, a policy and research group.

Policy-level changes can make it easier for women to own property and access loans, such as making certain loan amounts collateral-free. Mentorship, mutual support groups, training in managerial and technical skills, and help with child and elderly care can help women entrepreneurs scale up. And state governments can help by establishing incubation centres in collaboration with industry associations, such as Telangana's 'WE Hub'.

Mental health and inclusive workplaces

While the Covid-19 pandemic has made employers more open to conversations around depression and anxiety, women living with schizophrenia continue to find that they are forced to hide their diagnosis at the workplace due to widespread stigma, we reported in this May 2021 story. Yet, meaningful work and financial autonomy are vital for such women, who, studies have shown, face more acute fallouts of the illness.

Unemployment in persons with schizophrenia can be a matter of life and death in a lower-income country like India, especially in cases where families were previously dependent on their income, R. Padmavati, director of the Chennai-based non-profit Schizophrenia Research Foundation (SCARF), told us. Being disabled in the domain of employment increases financial stress on the family--health expenditure remains out-of-pocket and disability pension extremely low at an average of Rs 1,000 per month.

Programmes for vocational training and work-placement for persons with schizophrenia by non-profits Iswar Sankalpa in Kolkata and Banyan Tree in Kerala and Chennai are showing the way forward. SCARF trains and places clients who have schizophrenia, and follows up with both clients and employers regarding functioning, discrimination and such issues. Meanwhile, a Supported Employment Programme developed by the National Institute of Mental Health And Neuro-Sciences (NIMHANS) in Bengaluru has shown good placement rates and improvement in socio-occupational functioning and reduced disability.

Employers can help by providing flexibility and understanding, and creating a supportive environment through steps such as sensitisation workshops. A concerted effort is required from the government, the disability community, families, mental health professionals, employers who have successfully employed people with schizophrenia to lobby and effectively sensitise, said Thara Rangaswamy, co-founder of SCARF.

Self-help groups' valiant work, and struggles

All through the pandemic, we've read stories of women's self-help groups (SHGs) making masks and sanitisers to help efforts to fight the pandemic. Nearly 76 million women in rural India took up self-help initiatives that proved instrumental in managing the food insecurity and healthcare challenges posed by the pandemic--from running community kitchens to making masks--an October 2020 report by the IWWAGE said.

However, we reported in July 2021, they are themselves dealing with members' loss of income and unpaid debts. "Last year was quite difficult," said Sushma Devi, 45, member of a self-help group in the village of Daru-kharika in northern Jharkhand's Hazaribagh district. "A lot of people returned from the cities; there were no jobs available; people did not have enough food at home."

On top of this, we found, SHGs complained that they hadn't been compensated for running kitchens, in addition to facing long-running problems such as discrimination and lack of mentorship, information and transparency.

Urban job guarantee schemes must be designed for women

Four states have launched urban employment guarantee schemes to tackle the pandemic-induced job losses, taking the number of states with such schemes to six. Job losses during the pandemic have affected women more than men, and, we reported in August 2021, these schemes can be tailored to support women and thereby tackle urban poverty better.

A 2020 report by IWWAGE suggested how these schemes can be best designed to serve this purpose: provide work appropriate for women and close to where people live; ensure wage parity; offer wages on the basis of jobs completed rather than days worked; provide childcare and ensure worksite is harassment-free; empower urban local bodies for making decisions related to the scheme; and make eligibility cards portable across urban and rural programmes, so that rural-to-urban migrants can access the scheme.

Domestic workers, the most disenfranchised

Nearly 60% of the 795 domestic workers interviewed in December 2020-January 2021 said that their employers did not pay them during the lockdown, as per a survey commissioned by Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA), we reported on September 8, 2021.

The community of domestic workers remained hard-hit, and registered delayed and low levels of economic recovery even in 2021. Increasing fears of transmission and lockdown rules deprived them of wages and employment, even as their own childcare responsibilities increased due to school closures.

The pandemic exposed their particularly precarious existence--since few domestic workers are registered with the labour department or unions, there are hardly any laws regulating their wages, working hours or workspace. All this increased their vulnerability to indebtedness, poverty and harassment.

Our story also highlighted the difficulties domestic workers faced in accessing benefits under programmes such as the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, the Public Distribution System and various state governments' schemes.

Women farmers lose out as returnee migrants claim jobs

"A day's farm work pays about Rs 250 but women earn even less, sometimes around Rs 100. But now that those who work in the cities are back, women's daily earnings are almost down to Rs 50," said Kranti Azad, 27, a farmer from Devlaha village in Ayodhya. Like Azad, millions of women for whom agriculture is the only source of income are out of work, ever since the 2020 lockdown triggered a massive reverse migration to villages, we reported on September 10.

Women in rural India have few employment options, except for erratic and low-paid farm jobs. Over decades, India has witnessed a "feminisation" of agriculture--more than three-quarters (75.7%) of women in rural India are engaged in agriculture, as per the Periodic Labour Force Survey 2019-20. Within the sector, there has also been an increase in the number of women who take on work on farms owned by others, and a decline in the number of female owner-farmers.

In this story, IndiaSpend and Khabar Lahariya reported from Ayodhya and Mahoba in Uttar Pradesh, and one solution it suggested is ensuring women's land ownership.

Women's lives during the pandemic

In August, we partnered with economics research groups Nikore Associates for a podcast on women's lives and work during the pandemic.

Over eight episodes, we examined how the pandemic has decimated women's workforce participation--for instance, by limiting access to transport and increasing women's childcare burden due to school closures, thereby widening gender inequalities. We also discussed gender sensitisation and the challenges of the virtual working environment.

The series also explored the effects of the pandemic on marginalised groups, such as sex workers in red light areas; workers in specific segments such as handlooms; and the various trades that have been differently affected.

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