As countries across the world implemented lockdowns to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, both women and men have been largely confined to their homes but with differential impacts. In this post, Nikita Sharma discusses the pre-pandemic restrictions on the mobility of women in India – on account of social norms and safety concerns – as well as the dangers they face at home. She contends that the situation is unlikely to change post-pandemic unless effective measures are taken to make public and private spaces safer and more accessible for women.
Editor's note: This blog is part of our International Women's Day series.
For the most part of human history – Indian and otherwise – women have largely been sequestered from accessing public spaces for work, learning, or recreation. Their entry into public spaces has only been recent, some hundred years ago, but since then has been clouded and hindered by threats to safety, social norms, and familial expectations. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns, women and men, who previously enjoyed varying degrees of freedom outside, were now seemingly similarly restricted to their homes. Yet, this had different implications for women and men with the former being further burdened with increased domestic work and care responsibilities, risk of losing employment, and even violence within their home.
The first nationwide lockdown was imposed in India on 24 March 2020, and now it is well on its way to vaccinate its people. It can be argued that in time, the country would lapse back into the pre-pandemic ‘normal’. However, this pre-pandemic ‘normal’ entailed India being ranked the world’s most dangerous country for women, regressing four places in the global gender gap index from 108th in 2018 to 112th in 2020, and has a labour force that has been de-feminising in the recent decades. Underpinning this poor performance on gender indicators, is also a matter of mobility – girls and women have had to struggle for safety and freedom to pursue work and education, and there is a certain possibility that this will continue even after the pandemic is over.
Paths to education
In India, 39.4% of adolescent girls (15-18 age group) are not attending school. A drop in enrolment is especially pronounced at puberty, during the transition to secondary schooling. There are a multitude of factors deterring girls from pursuing secondary education – the expectation to help out with the household chores and look after younger siblings, low familial aspirations from a girl’s education, the norm of getting her married early, lack of toilets, and threats to safety in and on the way to school.
In addition to these deterrents, distance from schooling also plays a big role because while most villages have a primary school, only a few of them tend to have a secondary school as well, and when these secondary schools are further away, there is an increased perceived risk of being harassed on the way. In Bihar, Muralidharan and Prakash (2017) find that such logistical and safety concerns can be overcome through innovative policy solutions such as providing girls bicycles to reach schools, thus enhancing access and mobility. By making it conditional on continuing with secondary education, the policy intervention saw a 32% increase in girl’s enrolment in secondary schools and a consequent reduction in the gender gap by 40%.
COVID-19 restrictions compelled education to move online, bringing with it a fresh set of obstacles for female students. A study conducted in the states of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, and Bihar, revealed that in addition to the deep digital divide impeding access to online classes and other resources, girls were called on more often than boys to contribute to household chores (cleaning, cooking, washing clothes and utensils) and to take care of younger siblings, with only 27% of them being able to devote most of their time to their studies.
Survey findings have revealed that 95% of women aged 16-49 years feel unsafe in the public spaces of the national capital city of Delhi. In order to avoid the psychological burden of being harassed and retain their sense of safety, women incur additional economic costs such as hiring a private vehicle or taking a safer (but more expensive) mode of public transport (such as metros over buses), not going out alone at certain times, or even not going out at all. Borker (2020) finds that these economic costs extend to the attainment of human capital with female students of Delhi University willing to attend a lower-ranking college that lies on a route that is considered safer. She also estimates that they are willing to pay Rs. 18,800 more per year than men (almost twice the yearly tuition) and travel 40 additional minutes to travel safely to their colleges.
Hence, girls not only have to struggle against social norms and prejudices, and risk their safety, in their pursuit of education, but also have to spend more money to do so. In the reality of families with limited means and social preference for sons, cycles to school or safer routes to college might prove to be more expensive and harder to secure than their actual cost.
Perceived threats to safety in working outside
India presents a conundrum: on the one hand, women are securing more university degrees than men, and on the other, the female labour force participation has been declining and was 18.6% in 2019, the lowest in South Asia. Fletcher et al. (2017) cite early marriage and the expectation of prioritising domestic chores and care work as some of the reasons impeding female labour force supply. For instance, Sarkar et al. (2020) find that a new-born child can be associated with a 3 percentage point increase in the likelihood of women exiting the labour market, from which they are already 6 times more likely to exit than enter.
The entrance of women in the labour market is further impeded by perceived threats to safety. Perceived threats to safety intensify with the greater entrenchment and internalisation of patriarchal norms. In their research, Chakraborty et al. (2017) find evidence that women are not only less likely to work in areas where the perceived threats of harassment are higher, but in their decision to work outside their homes, they face a trade-off between the opportunity cost of working (wage) and the stigma cost of harassment and having to defy social expectations by working outside. Additionally, Siddique (2020) shows that when these perceived threats and reportage about sexual assaults are spread through media channels, they can reduce the probability of a woman working outside her home by as much as 5.5%.
While the pandemic has heralded a new era of ‘work from home’, this can only benefit a select few women who possess digital skills, access to internet and digital devices, and other relevant support at home (space, care and domestic services, etc.), as well as work that is amenable to being done remotely.
At an individual level, literature suggests that when women work, they are able to wield higher decision-making power within the households (Qian 2008), and delay age of marriage and childbirth (Sivasankaran 2014); and when they are local leaders, it also reduces rates of sex-selection in the villages (Kalsi 2017). Moreover, for the country as a whole, the economic gains could be immense. McKinsey reports that should India adopt thorough measures to drastically improve the security and mobility of women to achieve gender parity, its GDP (gross domestic product) could grow by US$ 700 billion by 2025. These make it imperative for the country, as it emerges from vestiges of lockdown restrictions and opens up almost completely, to ensure that its women and girls are not just able to study and work freely, but also simply live safely and peacefully.
In a pre-pandemic India of 2018, 103,272 women reported having faced “cruelty by husband or his relative”. As the country crept into lockdown to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the grim fear of the heightened vulnerability of domestic violence victims and the creation of new victims – in the mentally and physically challenging months of restricted mobility, and financial and employment insecurity – loomed all too clearly. Within the first 18 days of the lockdown, the National Commission of Women received 123 complaints of domestic violence. Preliminary findings of Shah and Ravindran (2020) show an interesting play of the matter of mobility – by May 2020, restrictions on women and men’s mobility had contributed to a 131% increase in cybercrime and domestic violence, while simultaneously reducing complaints of rape and sexual assault by 119%. These effects became stronger with the stringency in lockdown restrictions and attitudes of both women and men who thought domestic violence was justified.
Privilege as mobility
The social norms we follow, the attitudes we maintain, the work and education that empower us, in part derive benefit from the privilege our mobility endows us with. When we go out, for how long, where, and with whom are not just mere matters of choice but a consequence of unequal and unjust systems that perpetuate the differences in our ease of access and extents of mobility. As India and the world begin to emerge from the grips of this pandemic, we will need to take a hard look at the many ways in which we hold women back – the barriers they face in pursuing work and education, and the safety threats within their own homes. The situation warrants decisive and drastic steps towards making public and private spaces secure and better connected, and our minds open and respectful, so that women may build for themselves full, creative lives of their own choosing in an equal and inclusive world.
This post was published in collaboration with Ideas for India.