Covid-19 has been visualized by many as the “great equalizer” but the reality is anything except, especially in terms of gender roles. With the universalization of the new phenomenon of Work from Home in formal sector, the women have been on the receiving end of more work and exploitation compared to men.
Before proceeding to the current situation, it would be of help to contextualize the issue. Women have, since time remembers itself, seen as a dependent entity. Under the long history of patriarchy, societies have always subjugated women into believing that they are incapable of work and produce wealth, at the same time make them do all the daily chores without payment. Women have been the victim of suppression, oppression, exploitation, discrimination, perversion, abuse, and unpaid work. Even in modern society, the patriarchy still survives in terms of the gender pay gap, motherhood penalty, and gender discrimination. As per the Fox report of 2019, only in the US, motherhood penalty cost women $16,000 per year in lost wage. Reproductive labor, as modern feminist economists call the work done as a daily chore, including child care, homemaking, cooking, washing is productive works, but they are overlooked in daily economics because they do not produce wage.
Women in India have a long history of Work from home. They form the traditional work from home paid laborers. Lower class women prefer to base their work from home even though it pays less as they can perform their reproductive labor with more ease. Women employed in such work which include stitching, garment tailoring, preparing raw material for big firms is sure to get affected as the recession follows due to the pandemic. There are other types of unpaid work from home women, those who work at the family business, pack food for delivery, work on the fields, and share labor in selling goods. They do all this while doing their “assigned” reproductive labor.
But in the new world order, in the cosmopolitan society of formal labor, where women are paid and they are recognized as “working women” (although it remains a mystery which women do not work), the pandemic has leveled their status with the traditional work from home Indian women. In the absence of maids and domestic help, they have to bear all the responsibility of child care, washing, cooking, and overall maintenance of the house. Male do work, but they share is considerably less.
Due to the lack of empirical data in the Indian context, we can only estimate based on the finding of the United States (US). As per the report published at CERP Policy Portal, the lockdown and the closure of the school in the US has shifted the responsibility of the mothers. In a survey conducted on 2,200 adults, 70% of the women say that they are fully or primarily responsible for housework and 66% say they are responsible for childcare. On homeschooling, 80% of the women surveyed believe that they share more work at home-schooling their children. Nearly, 46% of males believe they are working more in educating their children. Interestingly only 3% of women believe this finding.
In the struggle against COVID-19, the frontline workers are dominant women, which include Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) and Anganwadi workers. The lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and other necessary equipment make them the most vulnerable group. Also, if males were the majority who lost their jobs economic recession in 2008, this time its most probable that females will bear the brunt as this recession is going to affect mainly small scale industries, restraints, and malls and the dominant workforce at such places are women. The demand for domestic help has also vanished considering the nature of the virus. There are also reports on the rise in the cases of domestic violence and harassment in quarantine. As families are spending more time together, hotlines are lightening with abuse reports. Other health-related issues of women are also on the surge, mainly reproductive rights. UN Population Fund has issued a statement that the pandemic has “severely disrupted access to life-saving sexual and reproductive health services”. There is a growing need for medical help in case of pregnancy and abortion-related issues.
Women have always deprived of their due status in society and whenever there is a break in the monotony, the brunt of it is faced by the women be it explicit or implicit. The need is for reforms in the way productive works are thought in daily economics, for which sensitization on the issue is required. The government should generate a support base in the society through which the traditional work from home laborers are safeguarded better and paid their due. Only when we can recognize women labor in its multi-faceted dimensions, empowerment is possible.
Nafis Haider studies Political Science and Philosophy at Aligarh Muslim University. He blogs at The Memoria. Views expressed here are personal.