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Impact of COVID-19 on Women in South Asia

CANBERRA, Australia, Jun 12 2020 (IPS) - Prior to the onset of the coronavirus crisis South Asian women participated only sparingly in the labor market. Even though South Asia was and still has the potential to become one of the fastest growing regions in the world (post COVID19) female labor force participation rates were low at 23.6% compared to 80% for men (World Bank figures).

Raghbendra Jha

The principal reasons for low female labor participation rates are (i) relatively low literacy rates for women as compared to men1 although the gap between the two is falling and both rates are rising; (ii) gender norms that view household work as women’s work and work outside the house as men’s work,. Again these norms are changing, especially for educated women; (iii) lack of electricity. In rural areas acts as a deterrent to female employment.2 This constraint has also been eased considerably with the electrification of all villages in India, although this may still be a problem in other countries; (iv) poor physical connectivity which impairs access of women to markets and other work places; (v) laws that restrict women’s employment in certain areas (e.g. occupations involving lifting) and the hours of the day in which they can work. These laws have recently been amended in India. (vi) work places that are not family friendly, e.g. with poor maternity leave provisions.

Many of these constraints are being eased. But there is quite a way to go. Some economists argue that globally female employment has a U-shape in the employment income per capita space. When family income is low women have to work because they need to augment the family resources. At high levels of income women work in elite professions. At intermediate levels of income female employment is low.3 If this is true then the drop in female employment is actually a reflection of rising income. It should increase when incomes have risen sufficiently. However, female employment is needed for the sake of gender equity and because women bring in a different set of skills and also because working mothers are good managers of their households.

The onset of the COVID-19 crisis has seriously shaken up this state of affairs. Men and women particularly in the services, manufacturing and non-formal sectors will have experienced serious job separation issues. Many of these women and men have returned to their villages where agriculture is already quite feminized.4 How this reverse migration affects incomes and employment will depend on the ensuing recovery. If the slowdown is protracted these workers – both male and female – will have to be accommodated in the non-formal or rural sectors. This means that alternative sources of job opportunities will need to be created on a large scale.

The government of India has pumped in an extra ₹400 million into the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Program for fiscal year 2021 in addition to the amount already budgeted.5 Similar initiatives have been taken in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Non-agricultural rural employment would need to grow fast if the downturn is drawn out. It is likely that in some of these occupations (e.g. handicrafts, khadi and other work involving some amount of processing) women will find employment whereas men will be take in for more onerous work. But, it is hard to see total employment rise for women because of these activities. However, some states in India (e.g. Uttar Pradesh) have begun skill mapping of returning migrants so that they can be employed locally and do not have to go back to cities and large towns.6 Since women will rarely migrate back to cities and towns without men folk they will have to make do with whatever work is available at the local level, if they work at all.

Whenever full economic activity resumes and these workers and their families return to towns and cities their employment will depend on the speed of the recovery. On balance, it is difficult to imagine that most men or women will get back to positions similar to those they had prior to the onset of COVID. In the case of India generous loans for entrepreneurial activities have been made available and some families may get involved in these. So, one can foresee a strong move toward self-employment in the post COVID era. Ironically, this may see an improvement in women’s employment as many of them will be involved in family enterprises.

All told, next few months will be a testing period for workers in South Asia. Women workers have been adversely affected more than men and face an uncertain future whether they remain in the cities or have reverse migrated to their homes. This period of adjustment will test many of these workers. If the pace of recovery is rapid and geared towards low value-added, low skill intensive jobs or involve considerable self-employment the labor market will recover soon. However, if the recovery is slow prospects for female employment will remain weak.

1 Accessed 12th June 2020
2 Accessed 12th June 2020
3 Accessed 12th June 2020.
4 The concept of feminization of agriculture refers to a phenomenon when men go to work in towns and cities and women stay to work on the farm. See Accessed 12th June 2020
5 Accessed 12th June 2020.
6 Accessed 12th June 2020.

The author is Professor of Economics, Australian National University and Executive Director Australia South Asia Research Centre


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