The COVID-19 pandemic has simultaneously exposed and worsened many pre-existing barriers to achieving gender equality. As women face disproportionate risks to their livelihoods and economic security, policy provisions have yet to sufficiently address their needs. Ahead of the Union Budget 2022, I address the pandemic’s impacts on women and propose necessary budget provisions to foster an equitable recovery.
As the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic slowdown continue into another year, the Union Budget 2022 is of distinct importance to ensure social and economic protections for society’s most vulnerable populations. However, while the Government of India (GOI) focuses significant attention on economic recovery, the core components of its recovery plan lack a vital gender lens. To date, special measures for women are missing from GOI’s economic responses to the pandemic. At such a crucial time to address women’s needs through policy, the GOI has counterintuitively decreased key budget allocations to the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD) (18.5% decline between 2021-22).
The pandemic and its economic consequences have exposed pre-existing fault lines to gender equality barriers in India. The existing evidence suggests that the pandemic further worsened prevailing inequalities for women, disproportionately affecting women’s economic empowerment and livelihoods, increasing the burden of unpaid care, and leaving them exposed to acute adversities with inadequate financial security.
Disproportionate setbacks to women’s employment
According to the State of Working India Report 2021, 47% of women lost their jobs and had not returned to work by the end of December 2020, compared to only 7% of men. The PLFS Quarterly 2021 reported that the female labour force participation rate (FLFPR) had dropped to 21.2% in March 2021 compared to 21.9% one year prior. During the same period, the female unemployment rate increased to 11.8% in March 2021 from 10.6% the year before. These impacts have been felt hardest by women in the informal sector. Between March and April 2021, 80% of job losses among rural Indian women were experienced in the informal sector.
An increasing burden of household responsibilities
These figures are compounded by the inequalities present in everyday life before the onset of the pandemic. Pre-pandemic studies show that women in India did 9.8 times more unpaid work than Indian men (nearly 6 hours a day). During the pandemic, Dalberg estimated that women’s unpaid work further increased by 30%. Stemming from the gendered division of labour, the burden of unpaid care work falls disproportionately on women and is directly correlated with women’s participation in the formal economy. Unpaid care work is one of the main barriers for women to participate in the labour force because of the burden of at-home ‘domestic duties’. These duties including cooking, cleaning, fetching water, and firewood collections pushes women to withdraw from the workforce and reduces their contribution to total household income.
The hidden contributions of women’s unpaid care work
Unpaid care work is an important component of economic activity, often seen as the ’hidden engine’ behind the Indian economy. However, it is mostly invisible, undervalued, and unaccounted; the majority of economic analyses and policy formulations do not acknowledge the existence of unpaid care work in the production of goods and services. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), if the total performed unpaid care work were valued at the minimum wage, it would amount to 9% of global GDP (US$ 11 trillion).
Bringing gender equality to the policy forefront
With the increased unpaid care work and adverse economic situation, the pandemic has disproportionately hurt Indian women, pushing them out of the labour force and making it difficult for many to return. Under these realities, economic policies must address the unequal division of labour in unpaid care responsibilities. Therefore, the Union Budget 2022 must go beyond mere allocations towards women and should address issues like unpaid care work that have been worsened by the pandemic. In this context, I outline a few proposals, namely increasing investments in physical infrastructures, like access to clean water and clean energy, as well as social infrastructure such as childcare services.
- Improve access to clean energy (Ujjwala Scheme): Using LPG cylinders (liquified petroleum gas) for cooking enable women to invest more time and effort in productive and income-producing activities. In a recent Oxfam Report, in households with access to the Ujjwala Scheme, women spent 49 minutes less spent on care work and an hour more on paid work. Since the inception of the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY), LPG coverage grew at a remarkable speed and reached almost all low-income households (99.5%) by 1 January 2022. However, according to the latest NFHS-5, only 58.6% of households in India are using clean fuel for cooking, meaning a significant number of households still lack access to clean energy. Despite wide coverage, LPG refills ordered by low-income households have been consistently declining in recent years due to the doubling of LPG prices in the last 7 years. Despite subsidisation, the cost remains significantly high for poor households. The GOI should consider providing further subsidies to women or reducing LPG cylinder costs to decrease the care burden and incentivise women’s use of clean cooking fuels.
- Improve access to clean water (Jal Jeevan Mission): The recent time use survey 2019 shows that women spend on average up to 35 minutes daily fetching water for their households. Providing a steady source of water has immense potential in reducing gender differences in employment, with women benefitting significantly from access to piped water in the house by enabling them to invest more time and effort in productive and income-producing activities. In a recent Oxfam report, in households with access to the government’s National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP), women spent 22 minutes less per day on average on care work and 60 minutes per day more on paid work. To date, 46.06% of households have access to tap water connections. The GOI should improve the provisioning of continuous piped water supply to households for drinking and other purposes through increased allocation to the Jal Jeevan Mission which has the potential to reduce women’s time spent on water collection, particularly for rural households.
- Improve access to care facilities: Investments in and expansion of care services for children have the potential to retain more women in the labour force. The GOI should provide budgetary support for the setting up of new Anganwadi Centres and Crèche facilities in this financial year to enable women to take up economically productive work. The MWCD should also intervene proactively for expanding crèche facilities across all workplaces.
As the country continues on its road to economic recovery, the GOI must ensure that women do not get left behind. Women of this nations are now looking forward to the Union Budget 2022 with hopes that the “hidden engine” receive due recognition in the economic policy formulation. Centring women in the Union Budget can cement the improvements made in women's empowerment in the last few decades fasten our place towards achieving equality.