Patriarchal intra-household dynamics, worsened by the pandemic, has forced women to magnified socio-economic subjugation
"I am on a cooking spree since the COVID-19 outbreak. As everyone is working from home and I am the only one formally unemployed, all household responsibilities fall on my shoulder. Everyone talks about load sharing but that never happens in any real sense. To find a place in the job market, I need to give my hundred per cent. I can't give excuses about the increased household burden to my clients or bosses", says Nilshree, a 32-year-old woman from Pune who is a writer and is trying to re-enter the job market post-lockdown.
Anisha, a 46-year-old woman who runs a tuition centre in Delhi, experienced bouts of anxiety and depression during the first lockdown as she had to shut down her business, and her income stalled. "I still get queries from students. But without domestic help, my household chores have increased, and catering to special needs of elderly in-laws amidst the pandemic has overall prevented me from restarting classes."
Gender in adversity
While both men and women faced adverse effects under the pandemic, the intra-household gender dynamics have placed women at a greater and long-term risk. Women are concentrated in precarious informal jobs; they shoulder the double burden of work and have less autonomy and bargaining power within the families due to lack of education, digital barriers, limited job options, economic vulnerability and restrictive social norms.
State of Working India Report, 2021 revealed that women were seven times more likely than men to lose a job during the national lockdown and 11 times more likely to not return to their work post-lockdown. According to a study by Ashwini Deshpande, based on the CMIE Consumer Pyramids Household Survey, women employed in the pre-lockdown period were 20 percentage points less likely than men to be employed in the post-lockdown phase.
A predominant reason pushing women to the verge of permanently exiting the labour market flows from the actualities of the 'household behaviour'. A household constitutes a dependency relationship between a man and a woman where decisions regarding division of responsibilities and distribution of resources are made. Who gets a better deal in the bargain is often determined by the factors like who is more powerful, who is earning more and who owns the property. Decades of gender inequality and restrictive social practices have made women weak bargainers. 60 per cent of the women in the productive age group in India are engaged in full-time unpaid housework whereas job markets and other income-earning activities continue to be a realm of men. Even where women are working, they hold less secure jobs than men. India has the most unequal division of housework globally.
Shifting intra-household dynamics
The pandemic has further aggravated these gaps by dragging women inside homes and confining them to care roles. Who is more likely to reduce working hours, or leave their job due to increased household responsibilities? Who looks after children as schools remain closed? Who takes care of self-isolating patients and the elderly? The choices and decision of couples during pandemic speaks volume about gender inequalities emanating from the intra-household dynamics. The pandemic-induced disruptions have crippled the autonomy of women besides pushing them to the financial brink. While during the initial days of the lockdown men pitched in to share some household responsibilities, this has declined post-lockdown. Evidence from past epidemics like H1N1 and Ebola also reveal that increased domestic responsibilities had differential effects on men and women. Urvashi Bhutalia, a feminist writer also discussed how it is difficult for women to create a sense of workplace at home. Simple workable requisites like table and chair, a quiet place to sit and work are also usually reserved for males, a woman working from home has to move from place to place and use whatever is available – a bed, or a dining table.
In rural India too, migrant workers returning to their villages implied increased care work for women in terms of cooking, cleaning and other tasks. Due to the invisible nature of domestic work, women's works remain undervalued despite an increase in 'time use'. This reduces the time available for small income-earning activities and downgrades women's bargaining power within the household. This, in turn, has implications for the welfare of children, especially the girl child. A CSO survey (2020) reported that 62 per cent of households with return migrants have reduced the number of items consumed per meal. In poor homes, where girls and women are expected to eat at the last, they tend to get fewer calories and proteins than boys and men. These intra-household nutritional inequalities stem from the social norms embedded within the household and have negative implications for the well-being of women.
In some situations, reduced household income, financial strain and disconnection from the social support system have fostered gender-based violence. Many psychological studies find that stress and social isolation raises the risk of domestic violence and child abuse. In normal times too, spousal violence is significantly higher in India if men are unemployed and women lack significant assets or income. The pandemic exacerbated this effect. According to a research study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), cases of domestic violence increased by 131 per cent, and those related to cybercrime against women jumped by 184 per cent in red-zone COVID-19 districts as compared to green-zone districts in India during the lockdown. For some women, the worst part is that while the lockdowns end, the confinement within the home drags on. The isolation due to the pandemic and social distancing measures has shattered support networks, making it far more difficult for the victim to escape. The lockdown measures have given way to a 'shadow pandemic' which could exacerbate an already declining female labour force participation rate and further subjugate women.
Like any other global health emergency, the COVID-19 pandemic is widening gender inequalities by exposing and diminishing an already feeble fallback position of women, mainly by affecting the social arrangement of production within the household. Hence, it is not just the state's response but also the household's response to the conflict of interest arising from the crisis that will determine women's long-term welfare. Achieving fairer outcomes for women requires looking at the patriarchal household arrangements and; recognising and addressing specific contours of disadvantage by investing in care infrastructure and policies for a gender-equitable COVID-19 recovery.
Views expressed are personal