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A Gender-responsive Policy and Fiscal Response to the Pandemic

It is important to include women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex+ persons in the monitoring and accountability mechanisms of the government. A policy that is based on gender concerns and a gender-sensitive fiscal response to the ongoing health crisis as well as the period after that is the need of the hour.

The Government of India res­ponded to the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic by closing its borders and gradually putting in restrictions on citizen movement until 24 March 2020 when the entire country was put under complete lockdown within four hours’ notice. This was for three weeks to begin with and extended on 14 April to a total of 40 days. A couple of days later, on 26 March 2020, the union finance minister announced a set of mitigation measures from the union government to support the people of the country who had been affected. Wenham et al (2020) have cautioned how important it is that within our response to a crisis, we address patriarchal norms, roles, and relations so that we do not end up reproducing or perpetuating gender and health inequalities and reinforcing economic deprivation of women. The Feminist Policy Collective (FPC), a platform of feminist economists and gender activists in India, sees the current situation as an opportunity to promote a gender-responsive policy framework. We base our analysis on Herten-Crabb et al (2020), who define a feminist economic agenda as one that interrogates power dynamics and peoples’ relative access to resources, and examines how power relations are interconnected with gender inequality and the economy.

Gender Unequal Impacts

Previous research by scholars studying the impact of epidemics of the last decade, namely the severe acute respiratory syndrome, Ebola and others, on women acknowledge that epidemics have gender unequal impacts, and the policy and community responses to such epide­mics also affect differently on men, women and other genders. This is as much a consequence of gendered roles and existing power relations as other social divisions of caste, class, location, religion and status. In the immediate term, women are affected as healthcare workers at the front line, as users of health services and as economic agents in the larger space of livelihoods, and as citizens in the domain of other economic and civil rights. Here, we attempt a gendered analysis of how the economic and public policy response to the pandemic has addressed the needs of half our population, and suggest immediate and long-term ways forward. There has been a slew of policy responses by most state governments to the emergent crisis, but we limit ourselves here to examining the gender implications of the responses of the union government.

The first policy response was to enforce the practice of physical “distancing” through physical lockdowns of cities and specific geographies. At this time, transportation, markets, jobs and services are all blocked, food supplies are uncertain and paid work is unavailable, supply and production chains are disrupted and further held up by overzealous or corrupt policemen. Several researchers, activists, journalists and United Nations (UN) agencies have pointed out that the brunt of this is being borne by the most disadvantaged and vulnerable, including women, girls and transpersons, especially the poor, without documentation or social protection, informal sector and landless workers and those lower in caste hierarchies, minorities, migrants and internally displaced communities, people with illness or disability, and so on.

We observe that the lockdown has gender unequal effects in terms of enhanced workload and reduced economic opportunities, reduced health and nutrition outcomes, reduced health facilities for pregnant women and infants, and increased incidence of gender-based violence. We emphasise the need to acknowledge this gender-differentiated, disproportionate impact on women as front-line responders providing paid and unpaid care to those affected, as those pulling together families and households, as economic agents forming the foundation of every level of the economy, paid, underpaid and unpaid.

For example, more than 85% of health workers are women working as nurses or midwives handling patients (PLFS 2017–18), and in urban hospital settings, it has already emerged that ingrained medical hierarchies may be preventing them from accessing personal protective equipment (PPE). Enormous economic hardships are faced by 94% of women workers1 who are part of the informal sector, as daily-wage agricultural labourers or working at construction sites, or those self-employed micro-entrepreneurs or engaged in home-based production. In cities, this translates into catastrophic wage losses for those without formal employment contracts, including millions of women migrants who are self-employed, casual workers, domestic workers, garment workers, unskilled labourers, and part of the gig economy. The cancellation of all forms of public transport and suspension of regular public services caused them untold hardships, especially for the most vulnerable, including pregnant or breastfeeding women, elderly women, women with disabilities, homeless and destitute women, women and girls in custody and women in sex-work. Transwomen are alarmingly at risk now as most of them depend on sex work or blessing/begging, which is impossible during the lockdown.

Within homes, women and girls who already do more than six times unpaid work than men, now shoulder the responsibilities of subsistence at times of crisis and scarcity, and absorb the additional roles of feeding and caring for children and all care work for quarantined, elderly, sick or disabled family members. The closure of schools and day-care facilities further exacerbates the burden of work on women and girls. The incidence of gender-based abuse and violence (GBV) is a “shadow pandemic,” as highlighted by heads of UN Women and the World Health Organization (WHO). Women, girls and transpersons will experience higher risks of violence exacerbated by stress, enhanced workloads and scarce resources, including physical abuse, sexual and reproductive violence, and mental abuse. Given the patriarchal controls on women and the surveillance of their families, many women and girls may not have access to a mobile phone, computer, or internet, therefore, reporting gender-based violence will be difficult. The close monitoring by the perpetrator and other family members and zero mobility situation makes it even more difficult to reach out for help beyond the household.

The finance minister’s announcement referred to a variety of beneficiaries, especially those who will likely be the hardest hit by the economic fallout of the lockdown measures, including food ration recipients, farmers, women in self-help groups (SHGs), Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) workers, construction workers and vulnerable groups, such as widows, elderly people and those with disabilities. However, a closer reading of the components of the Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY) cash transfer announcement reveals that many of these are airbrushed schemes already in operation, and the actual numbers of existing beneficiaries have also been inexplicably reduced, such as the routine Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (PM KISAN) Yojana instalments, the benefits under the Building and Other Construction Workers’ (BOCW) welfare funds2 or the `20 increase against inflation in MGNREGA wages. The collateral-free loans to SHGs or withdrawals from Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) are not exactly “cash transfers” as they will increase the fiscal liabilities of the beneficiary. The special provisions of cooking gas cylinders free of cost for three months for women who benefit from the Ujjwala scheme could be of great help, but it is doubtful whether the supply chains can be kept running to reach those 80 million households on time.

It is our observation that the entire package announced by the government misses on crucial aspects being negotiated by women, especially in the context of unpaid work within households, managing food scarcity and undocumented or unregistered women workers in the informal sector. Given the high proportion of women’s engagement in the informal sector, universalisation seems to be most fit for this purpose, since targeting and identification of “appropriate beneficiaries” is a meaningless exercise, as this invariably excludes the most vulnerable in the absence of the necessary documents and proof of address. The most appropriate actions now would be, in addition to immediate emergency relief, to provide universal food/nutritional security, universal emergency cash transfer, protection from gender-based violence and universal health coverage.

Recommendations for Policy

Beyond the emergency relief, it is possible that the union government may consider a second budget, or a revision of the PMGKY given the enormity of the humanitarian tragedy. We propose a set of five immediate actions with additional suggestions for medium- to long-term policy to ensure that the state response to the pandemic can actually move ahead with redressing some of the prominent gendered impacts of the crisis.

Address imminent hunger: Universal food security is a critical issue for women in India where around 45% of all women are already underweight and 53% are anaemic (IIPS and ICF 2017: 330, 333). The looming prospect of hunger and starvation would be unacceptable in a country with Food Corporation of India stocks of over 70 million tonnes of food­grains (which will cross 100 million tonnes once rabi harvests come in). The proposed food security scheme (Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan Anna Yojana) leaves out those vulnerable groups who cannot produce ration cards and get excluded. The simplest in administrative terms would be to have universally accessible and adequate food for all, through rapid and systematic distribution in public distribution system outlets or anganwadi centres without leakages, and putting aside beneficiary identification, conditions and targeting during this crisis. The quantities so far announced by the finance minister are insufficient; 5 kilogram (kg) of cereals and 1 kg of dal given free in a month will not go very far within larger households with migrant men returning, and so women and girls will inevitably have to make do with less nutrition.

A larger basket of free food supplies is needed for every person each month, including a minimum of 10 kgs of good quality cereals, at least a litre of cooking oil, at least 2 kg of additional protein (dal/lentil and soya chunks) and, until the lockdown is completely lifted, some eggs and basic vegetables (potatoes and onions). In addition, decentralised community kitchens at panchayat/hamlet and anganwadi centres are urgently needed so that the elderly or disabled, pregnant and lactating mothers, and young children as well as malnourished infants can get nutritious hot-cooked food close to their homes. Food items like bananas, milk and eggs may be enhanced for tuberculosis patients or those who need additional supplementary feeding, the most vulnerable such as malnourished children, pregnant and lactating women, and school children who depended heavily on school midday meals.

Address loss of incomes: An equally urgent issue is that of extreme poverty, given the total economic disruption, and a universal emergency cash transfer scheme immediately providing a minimum amount3 for low-income families can support them to survive with dignity and mitigate the massive unemployment. The first list could include all those with a ration card, Jan Dhan Yojana (JDY) account holders, active MGNREGA job cards (76 million), PM KISAN registered farmers (140 million) and around 40 million BOCW or other labour board registered workers. The Aadhaar-seeded bank account will avert duplication, and the amount should ideally be calculated ­according to minimum wage based on losses4 since the lockdown, as they were prevented from accessing their regular incomes. For those registered pensioners with disability, age, trans­gender or widowed status (20 million women), the meagre ex gratia amount of `333 per month should be accordingly revised. For all pregnant and lactating women (approximately 35–40 million), the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana should disburse the entire maternity benefits amount (`6,000) as mandated by the law (NFSA 2013) in one instalment without any disqualifying conditions.

Nonetheless, this first list would imply widespread exclusions; therefore, urgent efforts must be made to reach out to other unregistered and undocumented individuals and families. The PM KISAN bene­ficiaries already excluded agricultural labourers (60 million women) or tenant farmers, affecting women listed as unpaid helpers on family farms without land title documentation. Women informal workers who make up almost half the BOCW in India are mostly unregistered. Likewise, the total number of transgender persons who are registered for these elderly/widowed/disabled benefits is clearly underestimated at 1,919 transgender persons for 2019–20. The transfer into JDY accounts first requires that 54% of inactive JDY accounts (Demirguc-Kunt et al 2018) must be activated. The 37 million women who have accessed Micro Units Development and Refinance Agency Bank (MUDRA) loans in the fiscal year 2018–19 (MUDRA annual report 2018–19; MSME 2019) also need a one-year moratorium to be announced on their loans, similar to what the Reserve Bank of India has already done for commercial loans in general.

Beyond the emergency cash transfer, the post-lockdown resumption of economic activities needs greater recognition of women as economic agents. MGNREGA is a promising option since women took up a 55% share of the workdays generated in 2019–20 (with pending wages still unpaid), but once MGNREGA work resumes, the ceiling should be increased to 150–200 days, while the approved work should be expanded to include locally appropriate situations for which labour is required (such as wage support to work on women’s own farms). Crucially, post-lockdown measures must immediately reboot the farm procurement systems and the supply chains. Women in small-scale businesses will be struggling to maintain the broken supply chains of the raw material supplies and market links, which need priority attention now. A large number of “women farmers” would require credit and other farming inputs as the kharif season comes close, and actively seeking support in accessing the minimum support price (MSP) scheme to enable the selling of their produce. Women migrants often work in the informal sector and may
find it difficult to return to work in the post-COVID-19 scenario. Therefore, the state needs to facilitate women’s re-entry into these sectors, with proper remunerations and massive drives for registration and universal social security. The lockdown messaging emphasised ways of “working from home,” and this can be now institutionalised to ensure employee options for flexi-timing, especially for pregnancy and parentalcare responsibilities.

Access and protection: The pandemic has exposed the weaknesses of a notoriously underfunded public health system and the greed of the private players. Access to free testing must be made universally available and accessible, so that early case detection can improve. The insurance cover announced for healthcare workers (86% of whom are women) must be preceded by addressing the very grim challenges they face, given the overall scarcity of essential items like PPE, social discrimination as “infective agents” and workplace hierarchies that discriminate against women workers. Women health staff who need to be quarantined or remain on duty must be provided with adequate and hygienic ­accommodation equal to male doctors, so that they are not exposed to dangers of cross-infection. In community settings, hundreds of thousands of underpaid volunteers like the accredited social health activist (ASHA) and anganwadi workers are spreading awareness and scanning possible cases with insufficient training and inadequate protection; the state has recently covered them through insurance but must institutionalise regular and sufficient compensation for their services.

The lockdown and cessation of regular reproductive health services (including ambulances) for women and other vulnerable groups has enormous impact on pregnant women, especially those who need critical care during labour or for early detection of pregnancy complications or post-miscarriage complications. Women and girls urgently need health clinics to resume for routine services and to access contraceptives to prevent unwanted pregnancy, especially with return of migrants. Many other serious illnesses and chronic diseases need constant treatment and medicines, such as cancer, HIV, kidney failure and tuberculosis; seriously sick people cannot be prevented from accessing care; a fact that has to be conveyed to those engaged in policing the lockdown with egregious violence. Quarantine, distancing and consequent isolation are also leading to neglected mental health issues and depression.

In order to tackle the long-term impact of COVID-19, we must recognise that the burden of other morbidities will be exacerbated, and hence, an expansion of healthcare facilities with universal coverage for both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients from the next year would be essential to ensure a healthy population. It can be done through an amalgamation of the different publicly funded health systems in the country (Central Government Health Scheme, Employees’ State Insurance Scheme, the railways and general public health system) and by increasing spending on healthcare by a substantial amount (at least 3% of the gross domestic product) in the current and the following fiscal years.

Tackling gender-based violence: While the finance minister was silent on this most gendered impact of the crisis and lockdown, it is laudable that the government has subsequently recognised and taken up the issue of gender-based violence (GBV). However, the government needs to declare a response to gender-based violence as essential and emergency ­service and make the police aware about this. Along with other health messaging, ­information about hotlines and safe shelter homes should be widely dis­seminated through state and media channels. All advisories to combat COVID-19 need to include measures undertaken to address gender-based violence in this complex situation. Since reporting is difficult, community support systems have to be set up everywhere for early detection and immediate response in collaboration with front-line grassroots workers, women’s and transpersons’ organisations and law enforcement agencies. The local auxiliary nurse midwives, anganwadi, ASHAs, village councils and development committees, council heads and block officers must be given special instructions to respond and extend immediate help to any aggrieved woman.

A range of crucial support services must be made available with adequate budgetary allocation from the Nirbhaya Fund, including activating confidential helplines, counselling, safe shelters, one-stop centres, mental health services and legal aid 24/7. Transwomen, women with disability, migrant or homeless women are especially vulnerable, and special protocols are required to ensure their access to services. Victims/survivors must also be supported to access comprehensive sexual reproductive and health services during the lockdown, particularly since they suffer injuries as a result of the violence they face, including access to emergency contraception, maternal health services, safe abortion, etc. Close collaboration with civil society organisations would go a long way in ensuring gender-sensitive response and support services. Partnerships with women’s and transpersons’ groups is crucial in this period as they are in close contact with survivors and can extend support to the government.

Beyond the emergency response for the shadow pandemic, the government, in partnership with corporate social ­responsibility and economic forums, needs to ensure that victims/survivors can be provided support for independent livelihoods, proper wages, and loans for self-employed women to restart their work, along with skill training. Schools need to ensure zero tolerance and undertake educational programmes to ensure violence-free spaces for all children. A common pan-India helpline must be set up for survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse. Data should be compiled across the country on domestic violence and other violence cases, including from the states, and shared publicly to enable shaping further responses. A special facility must be available under the Nirbhaya Fund for providing grants to women’s groups, for it is important to invest resources into ­local community women’s organisations, build awareness and ensure service provision to survivors of violence over the long term (United Nations 2020).

Leadership and accountability: We emphasise that the pandemic is amplifying the existing gender inequalities and the intersecting forms of disadvantage faced by women, girls and transpersons who are negotiating crucial aspects of the current crisis in India. However, we note that women’s voices and priorities are not shaping the policy trajectory; there has been no public effort to reach out to include the concerns, perspectives and suggestions of women or transpersons, and no available gender disaggregated data. We observe that even as women are at the front line facing the epidemic, women’s organisations or women workers, including health workers, are not mandatorily included in any policy-making platforms or any relief and rehabilitation committees. The 11 empowered groups that have been set up to tackle the pandemic in India barely ­include any women, beyond a scattering of women bureaucrats.

In terms of accountability to women, girls and transpersons, we also recommend that the government immediately disaggregate available data to provide transparent information on the gendered impacts of the pandemic. It is critical to share gender disaggregated information not just on indicators of COVID-19 infections but, in addition, data on other important gendered economic effects of the lockdown period should be generated and tracked, such as unpaid work, domestic violence, labour markets, livelihood and income generation, as well as enabling access to piped water, liquefied petroleum gas, digital technologies, and relief measures, and so on. The data must record how a pandemic severely impacts women who are especially vulnerable, including pregnant or breastfeeding women, elderly women, women with disabilities, homeless women or those in custody, women in sex work and transwomen.

To conclude, women cannot merely be instruments of state action; policies must enhance their agency and ability to take control over their circumstances. We call for equal space for women’s and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex+ (LGBTQI+) leadership at every level, as well as on consultative and advisory platforms. There must be equal representation of women and LGBTQI+ while developing gender-responsive policies in the post-COVID-19 scenario. Women’s and LGBTQI+ organisations must be part of monitoring and accountability mechanisms. Gender-responsive and data-driven dynamic policy responses will be the most effective in terms of delivering outcomes and formulating the gender-responsive budgets in order to adapt to emerging requirements in the post-COVID-19 world.

Notes

1 As per Census 2011, the total number of female workers in India is 149.8 million and female workers in rural and urban areas are 121.8 and 28.0 million, respectively. Out of total 149.8 million female workers, 35.9 million females are working as cultivators and another 61.5 million are agricultural labourers. Of the remaining female workers, 8.5 million are in household industry and 43.7 million are classified as other workers.

2 The BOCWs have fought a case for 12 years in the Supreme Court to obtain orders that BOCW Cess must be collected and spent on their social security and welfare.

3 In the Economic Survey 2016–17, then the Chief Economic Advisor (CEA) Arvind Subramanian proposed that at `12,000 per month, it would wipe out poverty (based on older 2011–12) estimates. From PLFS data, it is estimated that 81.7% of people in the country earn less than 18,000 per month (68% earn less than `12,000 per month), which is even less than the minimum wage recommended by Seventh Pay Commission.

4 https://labour.gov.in/sites/default/files/Commitee_on_Determination_of_Methodology.pdf. The compensation should be calculated as wage loss; using calculations from Ministry of Labour and Employment’s recent expert group report on wage determination, maybe `375 per day as minimum wage, as proposed by experts and the ministry.

References

Demirguc-Kunt, Asli, Leora Klapper, Dorothe Singer, Saniya Ansar and Jake Hess (2018): The Global Findex Database 2017: Measuring Financial Inclusion and the Fintech Revolution, World Bank, Washington, DC.

Herten-Crabb, Asha and Sara E Davies (2020): “Why WHO Needs a Feminist Economic Agenda,” Lancet, Vol 395, No 10227, pp 1018–20, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30110-0.

IIPS and ICF (2017): “National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4), 2015–16: India,” International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai.

MSME (2019): “Annual Report, Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana 2018–19,” Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, Government of India.

PLFS (2019): “Annual Report, Periodic Labour Force Survey, July 2017–June 2018,” Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India.

United Nations (2020): “Policy Brief: The Impact of Covid-19 on Women,” 9 April, https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2020/policy-brief-the-impact-of-covid-19-on-women-en.pdf?la=en&vs=1406.

Wenham, Clare, Julia Smith and Rosemary Morgan (2020): “Covid-19: The Gendered Impacts of the Outbreak,” Lancet, Vol 395, No 1022, pp 846–48, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30526-2.

 

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