Sanchuri Bhuniya resisted her parents’ attempts to get her to settle down for years. She had no desire to settle down and become a stay-at-home mom.
As a result, Ms. Bhuniya escaped her little town in eastern India in 2019 by sneaking. For $120 a month, she hopped a train to the city of Bengaluru and worked in a clothing factory. She felt freer in her new position. She confessed, “I fled.” It was the only way I could get to my destination.
With the entrance of COVID-19, that life of financial independence came to an abrupt end. Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a national shutdown in 2020 to prevent the spread of illnesses, which would shut down nearly every enterprise. It only took a few weeks before more than 100 million Indians were out of work, including Sanchuri Bhuniya, who returned home and never found a new job.
A worrying statistical point has emerged for economists in the wake of the pandemic: failing to restore jobs for women, who are less likely than males to return to the labor, might result in trillions of dollars in lost global economic growth. Women’s participation in the workforce has fallen so dramatically in India that it is now in the same category as war-torn Yemen.
Listen to The Pay Check podcast this week to learn how the coronavirus contributed to an already alarming trend in China. According to data published by the World Bank, the percentage of working women in India decreased from 26% in 2010 to 19% in 2020. As the number of infections rose, the situation became dire: Mumbai’s economists predict that female employment will fall to just 9% by 2022.
For a country whose economy was already faltering before the outbreak, this is a terrible turn of events. The development of new jobs has been a top priority for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who wants India to aim for amrit kaal, or the golden age of economic progress. He hasn’t done much to help the situation of working women throughout his government. People living in rural areas, where more than half the population lives, are particularly vulnerable to this trend because of conservative values and a lack of employment opportunities. Despite the enormous growth of the American economy, women have had a difficult time finding jobs in the cities.
India’s GDP might rise by nearly a third by 2050 if the gender wage gap between men and women were closed by 58 percentage points. According to a recent study by Bloomberg Economics, this amounts to over $6 trillion in constant US dollar terms. No action will jeopardize the country’s efforts to become a globally competitive producer. Only about 17 percent of India’s GDP is contributed by women, compared to 40 percent in China, despite the fact that they make up 48 percent of the population.
An extreme example of a worldwide phenomenon can be found in India. More women lost their jobs during the epidemic, and their recovery has been slower than that of men. When it comes to gender equality, Bloomberg estimates that policies such as expanding access to education, child care, and flexible work schedules may raise global GDP by $20 trillion by the year 2050.
Sanchuri Bhuniya, a 23-year-old construction worker, was one of the victims of the pandemic. As a result of her job loss, she was unable to buy food in Bengaluru and was forced to return to her little town of Patrapali in Odisha. It’s unlikely that Ms. Bhuniya will be able to escape at any point in the near future. Her family is concerned about her safety as a single lady in a strange city because she no longer has a reliable source of income.
“My mum would curse me if I run away again,” claimed Ms. Bhuniya. “Everything has been depleted, and there is nothing left. There are no jobs in the village, and my bank account is nearly empty.”
In India, the narrative has a reverberating effect. Rosa Abraham, an economics professor at Azim Premji University in Bengaluru, India, kept track of more than 20,000 people during the outbreak. When limitations were lifted after the initial lockdown, women were considerably less likely than men to find new work. This disparity was even more pronounced following the second shutdown.
Domestic obligations, a shortage of childcare options following school closures, and an increase in marriages, which typically limit women’s autonomy in India, are all factors that contribute to the disparity in results.
While women may have a hard time adapting to a financial crisis, “guys have a fallback alternative,” Abraham added. “They can access different types of labor. For women, on the other hand, there is no such safety net. Workplace negotiations are more difficult for women than for men.”
To replace their aspirations of financial security and independence, they took on what she referred to as “distress-led employment,” which basically meant doing unpaid work on the family farm or caring for the house. Women in India care for three times as many people as males did before the pandemic, a difference of nearly ten times the global average.
It is regrettable that the decision to work is often not up to the individual woman, Abraham remarked.
Some of the drops in workforce participation can be explained by cultural factors. Families that could afford to keep their ladies at home began to do so, believing that it was a sign of social rank. Those at the bottom of the social ladder, on the other hand, are nevertheless considered as having the ability to earn. However, they are more likely to labor in low-wage employment outside of the official sector. Their work is not included in official statistics.
Patriarchal values and a negative view of girls continue in many rural communities. Abortions based on a woman’s genitalia, even though they are against the law, are all too common. Gender equity advocate and senior program manager Akhina Hansraj says Indian men typically believe it’s “not very macho” if their wife contributes to the household income.
Hansraj stated, “They aim to develop this dependency.” It is widely held that a woman’s education could lead to her becoming more financially independent, which could lead to her disobedience and disrespect for her family.
In India, where most marriages are still arranged, the subject of marriage is a contentious one. The most popular Indian matrimonial websites saw a boost in new registrations after the first lockout in 2020. Some states saw an 80% increase in the number of marriages between youngsters and young adults, many of which are unlawful under Indian law.
There are three child marriages that Madhu Sharma might intervene in each year at her school, the Pardada Pardadi Educational Society for Girls in the northern town of Anupshahr. When the campus was closed due to the pandemic, the number of students surged by a factor of three to four.
Children and instructors had been in constant communication prior to the implementation of Covid, according to her. “Staying in touch with the kids after Covid was difficult because they had to stay at home.”
When it came to money, marriage was generally a better option than divorce. Parents might organize smaller, less expensive events at home rather than the multi-day celebrations that are frequent even in the poorest sections of society because of social alienation and warnings against mass gatherings. In the midst of the pandemic, several families married off their daughters because they couldn’t afford to feed another person’s family.
Ms. Sharma’s students can alter their futures if they get married while still in school. When a woman marries in India, she and her spouse and in-laws often move in together. A lack of economic possibilities and policing of choices might make it difficult to leave isolated villages.
It’s our goal to teach our students, Ms. Sharma explained. “If they study hard, they’ll be in an excellent place. If they don’t, we’ll go over what it’s like to be in their shoes. After then, we leave it up to them. You get to decide how you want to live your life.”
It was in 2015 when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a campaign titled “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” (Save Our Daughters, Teach Our Daughters). Keeping girls in education and decreasing sex-selective abortion are the main goals of this program. Efforts have also been made to eliminate child marriage. According to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration, a proposal to raise the legal marriage age from 18 to 21, which is the same for men, was enacted in December of 2013.
But in many rural areas, the rules of the land are little more than a distant memory. Local panchayats, essentially a group of elders, are still in charge of setting and enforcing local norms. The official audits of Modi’s effort to educate India’s daughters have discovered that many of the funds allocated to the initiative have gone unused.
There is a tremendous amount of pressure on women even in the most literate cities, where literacy rates are far higher and employment opportunities are plentiful.
Anjali Gupta, a Mumbai resident, said she was clinging to life. Their modest grocery business was destroyed by the coronavirus lockdowns, and they had to use up all of their funds to survive. After that, Gupta’s parents began pressuring her and her three sisters to find husbands out of concern that they would be left penniless.
Gupta tried to persuade them to change their minds. In order to pursue a master’s degree in pharmaceutical and nutritional sciences, she had already invested $1,300. As part of her training, she worked with a homeopath. She aspired to have a job. According to Gupta, “I stated that my situation and my generation are different.”
Gupta’s father begged her to drop out of school when an uncle died from the coronavirus, a thought that triggered migraines and interminable fights. Her parents began bringing in potential suitors. Gupta is concerned that her inertia would soon overcome her.
‘It shouldn’t be this way,’ she remarked.’ “I’m itching to get out there and do new things while also expanding my knowledge base. Twenty-two is a relatively young age for me.”