June 28, 2020

Women and the Covid Lockdown: Some Aspects - I

Brinda Karat

INDIVIDUAL stories of suffering and of heroism often reflect a wider social reality. There have been many such in this period of lockdown.

Jyoti Kumari, a 15 year old dalit girl cycled 1200 km from Gurgaon to Darbhanga with her ailing father riding pillion to take him home. In an interview she said that her mother had mortgaged whatever little jewellery she had to buy them the cycle as there was no other way they could get home. The truth is that thousands of women family members of male migrant workers sold or mortgaged whatever little they had in the way of assets, to pay for their men to come home. The refusal of the government to arrange free transport has this additional dimension too.

The story of Jamlo Makdam, the 12 year old adivasi girl who had migrated from her village in Bijapur, Chhattisgarh along with a group of women to pick chillies in neighbouring Telangana: Stranded by the lockdown, they trekked home. Exhausted and starved, the child died a few kilometres away from home. But short term migration such as of this group is uncounted in government statistics which does not include measurement of circulatory or short term migration which is dominated by women.

The story of Aveena Begum who died of hunger and thirst on the Muzzafarpur platform and whose baby tried to wake her up, pulling down the shroud covering her:  A woman, Aveena, abandoned by her husband forced to migrate to Gujarat with her small children where she worked in a garment factory, Aveena stranded with no money after the lockdown lost her battle to survive. How many other female headed families have suffered in this lockdown? There is no count.

The impact of the pandemic along with the anti-people policy approach of the Modi government has impacted on women in India at multiple levels. Quite a lot of literature from the work of women’s organisations, research groups, surveys, official statistics and analysis by women economists of this impact is in the public domain. In spite of this, the specific issues for women foregrounded by the pandemic, are concealed by the opaque curtain of patriarchy. This invisibilisation of the specificities of women’s experience also weakens the joint resistance required today.  If the demands and requirements of the female half of the population do not feature in the resistance or do so only as an afterthought, this weakens the movement as a whole. For the resistance movement to be strengthened, a wider understanding is required. This is equally true for all class and mass organisations as it is of women’s organisations.

The CPI(M) understands the issue of women’s secondary status in a capitalist society, dominated culturally by patriarchal norms such as in India, at three levels: the double exploitation and oppression  faced by women as members of the working and labouring classes; the denial of equal citizenship rights to women caused by structural discrimination, most importantly the caste system; the specific oppression and vulnerabilities she faces, including of sexual and domestic violence because she is a woman. The pandemic and more particularly, the approach of the Modi government has intensified existing social and economic inequalities. This is a function of capitalism which seeks to further its drive for profits utilising a crisis. In this period the most striking feature has been the all-out assault on workers and on the right to work. This has also a disastrous impact on women.  It is in this period that class contradictions are intensifying affecting all social relations.

In this article I look at some of the issues arising out of the pandemic and the lockdown impacting on women. This part deals with women, work and the lockdown impact.


The pandemic and lockdown hit women in the world of work at a time when  female labour force participation in India according to the 2018-2019 periodic labour force survey shows that it is at a low of just 18.3 per cent. This reflects a flawed methodology which has led to a major undercounting and underestimation of women’s labour, primarily an undercounting of women’s unpaid labour which contributes to the household economy such as in family enterprises and family owned farms. This is one aspect. But more importantly, it is a cultural framework which assumes that women have withdrawn from the workforce out of choice whereas lived reality points to the desperation for paid work among women. For example, this is reflected in the over 50 per cent participation of women in hard, low waged manual work in the MNREGA worksites. If there was no search for paid work, why should women choose this kind of backbreaking work? So we have to look at the impact of the lockdown on women’s work in the framework of women’s right to paid work and to employment which even going by official statistics is denied to her.

It is known that the vast majority of women work in the informal sector, unregulated and low waged work. This is the sector which has been particularly badly affected by the lockdown. According to the employment/unemployment surveys done by the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy, in the period of the lockdown, 12 crore jobs and livelihoods were lost. Among these were women. The average employment for women in March 2019-2020 was 4. 3 crores. In April 2020, this came down to average 2.6 crore women employed – 1.7 crore fewer women employed relative to April 2019. Compared to the absolute number of jobs and livelihood lost by men, this is much less. But that is because much fewer women had employment in the first place. A greater proportion of women who were in employment lost it, further decreasing women’s share of employment.

Professor Ashwini Deshpande in her analysis of the CMIE data shows that the ratio of employment for women in April 2020 compared to March 2019-2020 was 61 per cent for women. For men it was 71 per cent. This means that the fall in employment for women was greater for women relative to their pre-lockdown level than for men. Rural women’s employment suffered the biggest fall as it stood at average 57 per cent of the pre-lockdown level. For rural men it was average 73 per cent of the pre-lockdown level. For urban women, it was average 69 per cent of the pre-lockdown level. For urban men, average 67 per cent of those employed before lockdown.

Another survey done in twelve states by the Azim Premji University, though with much fewer respondents shows the nature of women’s jobs lost. In their survey, they found among respondents who were casual workers in urban areas, 82 per cent women casual workers lost their jobs compared to 80 per cent men. In rural areas, the work loss was much higher at 71 per cent women respondents compared to 59 per cent men. Among the self employed who lost their livelihood, in urban areas 89 per cent women and 77 per cent men reported livelihood loss. According to this survey, the main employment losses for women are among self employed and among casual workers.

These and other studies like the village level surveys done by the Foundation for Agrarian Studies and our own experience shows that rural women have suffered greatly. First, with the lockdown,  agricultural women workers lost out on work during the harvest season. Secondly, in many such families and social groups, particularly among dalits and adivasis, the male migrant members of agricultural worker families could not send any remittances. Thirdly, rural artisans, deprived of markets had no earnings.  Thus in rural India a large number of women suffered on both counts, as workers and artisans losing work and as members of migrant workers families with no remittances.  The indebtedness of this large rural population has greatly increased during the lockdown. There are reports of women selling whatever small assets they had.

In rural areas whereas the demand for employment for women including expansion and increase in MNREGA is essential, with the reverse migration there is an apprehension that the  pressure on providing work will be used by government to cut down on government  expenditure by denying older as well as single women work.  Disabled citizens who have a right to work in MNREGA may also face added discrimination. Thus the demand for expansion of MNREGA has a direct relevance for women.

The expansion should include not just the number of days or lifting the condition of just one member of a family eligible for work, but also the kind of work included in MNREGA. The lockdown badly impacted on the collection of minor forest produce done mainly by adivasi women which accounts for a substantial part of annual income of adivasi families. The lockdown meant a crash in the prices, the lack of markets and distress sales of the produce leading to huge losses. The absence of government purchasing centres was the main reason. If the MNREGA design includes collection of MFP, this will provide a labour subsidy for adivasi women to ensure a guaranteed income.

Within the impact of loss of livelihood for women there is another factor which has been ignored. The data from the socio economic caste census shows that there are 12.8 per cent households that are female headed. In rural India, 23 million households are headed by women of which over 14 million are categorised as “considered for deprivation.” Not even one per cent of these households has an income of over Rs10,000, while ten per cent live on less than Rs 5000 per month. Loss of livelihood for such families has pushed them into acute distress and intensified destitution. Yet there is not a single government scheme which addresses these specific issues.

The Covid crisis and the utterly callous and authoritarian lockdown brought into focus the plight of India’s migrant workers. Their long march home was a silent, spontaneous no confidence in the government’s method of the lockdown. As is known and has been widely commented on, India has no data on the current numbers of migrant workers. The report of the Working Group on Migration (WGM) set up by the government and which submitted its report on 2017, had to use mainly old data from 2001 census and the NSSO survey of 2007-2008 and partly from the 2011 census. The Economic Survey and other government estimates range from 10 to 14 crores. The migrant workers are predominantly male and make up 40 per cent of India’s workforce. Employed without contracts they are the face, the muscle and the sinews of India’s low wage economy.  Their labour is extracted at a low cost far lower than the wage required to feed a family. Remittances are sent cutting down on personal costs. Capitalism has thrived and is thriving from the cheap labour provided by migrant workers. A completely different picture is available from Kerala where the Left movement has taken the initiative to unionise and organise migrant workers. This has ensured also payment of minimum wages and better facilities than in most other states.

In this world of extreme exploitation, women migrants comprise around 20-25 per cent such as in construction and brick kiln industries, also as part of family migration. The census 2011 notes the increase in female migration for work over the last decade particularly from rural to urban destinations. However the census does not capture or record short term migration from between one month to six months which has a larger proportion of women, mainly where the origin is rural and the destination is also rural. Therefore the numbers of women migrants are also underestimated.

The very nature of patterns of female short term migration often in groups and almost always through contractors, lends itself to vulnerability with insecure and difficult working conditions including to sexual abuse. The horror of the suffering of migrant workers forced to trek home, after the lockdown also had a gender dimension. With contractors deserting them, with no money, women migrants, such as the group of women with Jamlo, faced a particularly difficult situation.  But the government made no reference to them leave alone work out any coherent policy for women migrants.

Now that migrant workers have returned and are still returning home, the immediate task of reaching out, drawing them into organisations and struggles cannot be emphasized enough. We need to be conscious and sensitive to drawing in women migrant workers. This can be done if we recognise the specific problems they have faced. Also women in migrant workers’ families, who managed the families without any help, going into debt and as happened in the case of Jyoti Kumari’s mother, selling or mortgaging whatever small assets they had, require help and assistance. Drawing them into organisations is also very important.

A sector badly affected is that of homebased work. It is estimated that in India, both rural and urban, there are around 3.7 crore such workers. In urban areas, where the majority are women, it means doing sub contracted, piece rated work using their homes as the workplace. As is known the work is extremely varied ranging from embroidery, cutting threads on garments, additions to cosmetic products, stringing flowers to make garlands, wiring for components in the electronic industry and so on. With the lockdown and shut down of factories, this work essential to manage family expenditure stopped completely.

Also women employed as domestic workers have faced a great deal of injustice. In many cases, employers have refused to pay them for the lockdown period. Surveys being done by AIDWA show substantial numbers have been turned away by employers and are stigmatised because they live in slums considered Covid high risk areas. Without registration with any official agency in most parts of India, this large section of the women workforce in the service sector are denied any benefits. In the last decade, young women have found work as sales representatives, in shops and malls, in hotels and restaurants. These sectors are particularly badly hit and none of the employees are getting a salary.

The pandemic and lockdown has highlighted the necessity for registration of homebased as well as domestic workers. The lack of any employment avenues for this section of workers also points to the urgent requirement for an Urban Employment Guarantee Act which should take into account the needs of women.

There has been talk of the frontline warriors against Covid. In India, women make up around one third of doctors and 80 per cent of nursing staff and a substantial number of hospital staff. Around nine lakh Accredited Social Health Activists, the ASHAs make up the critical teams of community surveillance which form the bedrock of the essential policy of identification of contact, trace and quarantine so essential to fight the pandemic. Anganwadi workers across the country have also been involved in health related monitoring work. There have been numerous cases where women have been attacked for the work they have been doing. All that the government announced for ASHAs is a Rs 1000 incentive which has still not reached all of them. They are denied personal protection equipment. Doctors and nurses have had to resort to strikes in some areas because of the terrible conditions under which they work. Even three months after the lockdown, the Modi government has failed to provide PPEs to medical personnel, putting their lives in danger.

The Supreme Court has had to intervene to mandate that the government should pay wages in time and also ensure proper quarantine facilities for medical personnel.

The extremely dedicated and important role played by ASHAs and anganwadi workers and helpers during the Covid crisis emphasizes the importance of recognising them as workers and paying them a government salary.

Women’s savings and credit societies have been a source of livelihood through collective or individual income generating activities as well as to fill in gaps for basic consumption expenditure in times of stress. During the Covid crisis, women’s self help groups have played an important role in making masks, sanitizers, running community kitchens and so on. The Kudumbashree self help group movement in Kerala has done exemplary work. But on the whole women have been unable to make any deposits as mandated during the months of lockdown. If the group is not to become defunct it is essential for the government to intervene. Giving collateral free loans is not going to help as it will be very difficult to pay back the loans when there is no income coming in. The government must consider a loan waiver for women’s self help groups.

According to the Nabard report of 2018-2019, there are around one crore self help groups in India of whom more than 80 per cent, that is 85.31 lakh groups are exclusively women’s groups. These groups with a saving of over Rs 20,478 crore in 2018-2019  are a helpline for women in many ways. However there is a big gap between the potential and the realisation. Banks have given loans worth Rs 58,000 crores in that year. According to some estimates the interest on the loans is between Rs 4000 to 6000 crores. We do not have the updated figures for 2019-2020. What we do know is the good record of self help groups in repaying loans.  If one considers the huge NPAs and government generosity to waive off NPAs of corporates, amounting to two lakh crore rupees in the last two years, a loan waiver for women’s self help groups would help over 10 crore households.

If the government gave a onetime loan and interest waiver for self help groups, it would revive the capacity of women to build up income generating activities which have come to a standstill during the lockdown.

The other aspect is that banks provide loans to only around 50 per cent of the women SHGs. The policy of the central government has been to allow the micro finance companies to take over the SHG sector giving these MFIs financial support and easy credit from public sector banks without ensuring any regulations in their functioning and with no check on the interest rates being charged. Many of these companies charge very high rates of interest from the women they give loans to and use violent and coercive methods to collect interest and the repayment of loans. There have been cases of women committing suicide such as in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana because of the pressure of the MFIs. The central government and RBI must step in to control the rapacious dealings of these companies. The loan waiver must extend to the loans given by the MFIs with the government taking the responsibility as a onetime step to tide over the crisis caused by Covid and the lockdown.

In contrast even in this period of Covid, the LDF government in Kerala has tried to ensure some income generating activities for women through the Kudumbashree groups.

The impact of the lockdown on women in the world of work, particularly in rural India has been extensive. The very low savings of the vast majority of the working poor means that in a period of crisis the line between poverty and destitution gets obliterated. The government relief package neither recognizes nor addresses the crucial issues that women face as far as the destruction of livelihood and work is concerned. It is clear that at present the major road to survival will require a regular transfer of cash. The government had transferred a meagre sum of Rs 500 to women held Jan Dhan accounts for three months. This amount must be increased urgently to at least Rs 7,500 for the next three months.

The assault on labour laws and the attempt to turn India’s workforce into slaves with no rights will particularly hurt women workers who are already marginalised. A most important issue for women is the right to paid work and decent employment. The expansion of MNREGA, the enactment of an Urban Employment Guarantee Act, for unemployment allowance for the millions of self employed and unorganised sector women who have lost their jobs and livelihood, are some of the demands. Registration of domestic workers and homebased workers and a special drive to register women in the construction industry is essential.  In addition, the recognition of scheme workers as government employees is the logical step the government must take considering the crucial role that scheme workers are called upon to play in a crisis such as this. The priority to strengthen the protections for nurses, doctors, hospital staff, a large number of whom are women, is clear enough. For income generating self help groups, a loan and interest waiver along with interest free loans, will help a large number of households struggling to survive the devastating impact of the lockdown. Among the worst hit have been the women headed households. A special relief programme for them is necessary.

The next part of this article will look at women and food security, health issues and how Covid has impacted on social relations.

(To be continued)