The Disproportionate Impact of Covid-19 on Women in India — And New Hope for Recovery Efforts

Supporting women’s recovery from the pandemic would be a wise investment for governments and could help mitigate the long-term impact of the pandemic on future generations, a study by Dalberg suggests.

From the outset of the pandemic it was clear that people would experience the crisis differently, and that there would be a differentiated impact between women, men, and other genders. A growing body of global research points to how women shouldered a heavier socio-economic burden, experiencing a greater loss of employment than men, and a far higher care burden.

But according to an extensive large-scale study by Dalberg that illustrates how women from low-income households in India were disproportionately impacted by the crisis, these findings come as no surprise. Dalberg’s research sheds light on the experiences of women during the pandemic that were very likely to happen based on what was seen in past crisis situations. It presents the question that if this is a known issue, how do we prepare accordingly?

Our study makes it clear that government entitlements have proved indispensable in helping women in India navigate the crisis so far and our findings demonstrate how such help can be even more responsive to the needs of specific segments,” says Swetha Totapally, a partner at Dalberg and an author of the study.

The study suggests that approaching response efforts through a gender lens and investing in women’s recovery will help mitigate the generational impacts of the pandemic—but to accomplish this will require a shift in thinking. While government entitlements and welfare programs are typically ongoing, the current relief measures and their extensions—especially where focused on women—should not be viewed as major costs, even though they impact budgets. The study proposes that they should be seen rather as necessary long term investments that will help mitigate the long term impacts of the crisis.

“As leaders—not just in India but all over the world—look to be more responsive to the needs of specific segments, we are guided by our findings on how support can be re-imagined for the longer term,” says Totapally. “Let’s consider what it would mean to ensure that no women or her children go hungry for the next two years. What would be the impact of that? That would help all children growing up right now have a better opportunity for schooling, and allow them to live a more stable life through the pandemic. It would help mothers experience less insecurity and stress-related challenges. Choosing to invest resources like this helps vulnerable people right away when they need it most. The impacts will compound into the future and could be long lasting for younger and new generations, so it’s also about thinking of what we stand to gain as a healthier, more stable society fifteen to twenty years down the line.”

The pandemic’s impact on women in India

In India, women made up just 24% of the workforce before the pandemic, yet accounted for 28% of all job losses as the pandemic took hold. Women on average lost over two thirds of their incomes during the lockdown, and as their unpaid workload increased they were far more likely than men to report a loss of rest. The increased household burden could also make it more difficult for women to re-enter the workforce, leading to economic consequences that will outlast the pandemic. Overall, the burdens of the crisis have been worse for historically vulnerable women, including Muslim, migrant, and single, separated, widowed, or divorced women.

The study found that there were specific consequences to women’s health and nutrition that are poorly understood and documented, which according to the research affect one out of every four women in India with low incomes.

Women tended to absorb the shock of a family’s food shortages and poor food quality, with one in ten women running out of food or limiting their own food intake in the week prior to the survey, and a further ten percent of women worried about having enough food.

Access to feminine hygiene products and contraception was extremely limited during the lockdown and the months that followed—especially for women in rural areas. An estimated 2.4 million (24 lakh) unintended pregnancies were predicted through the first six months of the pandemic, a high proportion of which were expected among low-income women due to their lower levels of access to contraception.

Despite the hardship witnessed in the research, many inspiring stories of women’s resilience emerged in interviews: women supporting entire villages as they navigated the health crisis, spreading awareness, and serving as community lifelines and frontline workers throughout the crisis. Many made difficult choices to keep households afloat, like providing family meals with fewer supplies—at times going without food themselves to ensure children were fed. Some withdrew precious savings to pay for household supplies, food and medicine, as well as internet packages for children’s continued education, where many also had to provide instructional support.

Understanding the experiences of women in India

The study came about because Dalberg recognized a critical information gap in research as the crisis unfolded: the experience of women was not adequately explored. Dalberg set out to uncover and reveal a deeper and wider understanding of this previously under-charted territory, undertaking the largest study of its kind known to date. The goal was to enable the specific needs of women to be sufficiently well-understood and prioritized through response and recovery efforts.

The research offers a unique perspective, highlighting the many ways in which women have been disproportionately affected, while also acknowledging their vital role and agency in supporting families and communities through the crisis. It goes on to provide recommendations for specific and appropriate recovery efforts for women.

Data was drawn from phone interviews conducted across 10 states in October and November 2020. The 17,000 respondents interviewed came from low-income households where government services and social protection programs play a significant role in their lives. It captures their experience through India’s nationwide lockdown (March 24-May 31, 2020) and the months immediately following (June-October).

Because data gathering required access to a phone, the pool of respondents – only half of whom owned their own phones—were likely to experience better outcomes compared to households with even lower incomes who might not have any access to phones. The study’s results, therefore, have limitations and are likely to represent the best-case scenario for women from low-income households, with more vulnerable women falling through the data gap.

Research recommendations and next steps

The research helped identify areas of the most urgent attention, and set out practical, high-potential opportunities for policymakers to better support women’s recovery. These include launching enlistment drives specifically targeted at women and increasing the number of person-days offered (especially in rural areas where recovery has been slower); ramping up family planning efforts to increase contraceptive access and usage, and bundling sanitary pads with food distribution programs; putting in place systems for inclusion of single (separated, divorced or widowed) women under special programs; and building social assistance programs for informal workers, specifically domestic workers and casual labourers.

The extent and disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women has highlighted the importance of anticipating their distinct needs and challenges, especially in times of crisis.

While the government in India played a critical role in supporting women through large-scale welfare schemes, more could be done to account for the needs and barriers they face. This gap needs to be addressed both in the existing government machinery and through additional support systems that could be established to support recovery for women.

This body of research helps build a more holistic understanding of the impact of the crisis and offers a meaningful and relevant addition to the growing body of work globally that points to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women everywhere. In addition, policymakers have access to valuable insights and data to inform recovery efforts—which has the potential to bring hope to the devastation experienced by women, as well as support for their roles in leading families and communities through the crisis.

While this research is limited to women, going forward Dalberg sees the need for further studies that take a more inclusive view of gender, beyond the binaries, to also capture the experiences of sexual minorities. A more complete picture of the impact of the crisis could then be captured and will be key to identifying the areas that need the most urgent attention as well as the practical, high-potential opportunities for policymakers to best support recovery overall.

Dalberg’s studies on the impact of the pandemic in India can be found here.

Dalberg wishes to thank Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies, Ford Foundation, and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for their support in making this research happen, and Kantar Public, who led the data collection efforts for the survey and recruited participants for the qualitative interviews. Dalberg is grateful to these experts whose input into the design, findings, and recommendations made a big difference: Bina Agarwal, Rasmi Avula, Bishaka Datta, Sonalde Desai, Leena Datwani, Anjali Dave, Dr. Ashwini Deshpande, Faiz Ahmad Hashmi, Safeena Hussein, Renana Jhabvala, Nishanth K, Soumya Kapoor, Sujata Khandekar, Sona Mitra, Divya Nair, Dipa Sinha, Mridulya Narasimhan, and to the study participants for their time and perspectives during this ongoing crisis.

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