Even after the vaccines have been rolled out, they have still not guaranteed security against the virus. COVID-19 has continued to spread far and wide, from the developed world to the global South, rooting itself in various parts of India. The sudden surge in the number of affected people along the months of April and May has had a profound impact on the nation, making it struggle for extra oxygen cylinders, hospital beds, and peaceful burial rites with just the hope for TPR to decrease. This virus has taken a huge toll on humans’ personal, professional, societal and institutional lives all over the world. As rural populations make up more than 60% of the world’s poverty, the impact of the pandemic is most brutal in developing nations.

This mostly affects the women in rural populations, as they are now constrained to managing work, livelihoods and family, all by themselves. The pandemic has already caused an increase in gender inequality and other various pre-existing social disparities. According to a survey conducted by Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi, rural women’s lifestyles have changed significantly due to COVID-19. The research has been conducted with 4500 women coming from rural areas based in over 20 states and the following are some of their key findings compiled with the challenges that women face due to this situation.

Although there has been an improvement in the availability of resources like water and fuel over the years, an increased rate of the product has had the population in a frenzy. 1 in 2 households use tap water for drinking purposes and only 1/4th of the rural area population has continued access to LPG and are able to replenish it.
In the context of the pandemic, the increased demand for care work is deepening already existing inequalities in the gender division of L. The less visible parts of the care economy are coming under increasing strain but remain unaccounted for in the economic response. Being an area still suffering from extreme gender-based stigma and the social difference between men and women, rural places still have a long way to go. Around ½ of the females are unable to attend college which is barely 5 km away and ½ of the married women’s children cannot attend school due to distance. When it comes to online schooling, barely 1/3rd of the total attend due to lack of devices and a stable connection. The pandemic has also worsened gender-based inequity concerning access to education, health and work opportunities.
Health pandemics can make it more difficult for women and girls to receive treatment and health services. Women and girls have different health needs, but they are less likely to have access to quality health services, essential medicines, vaccines, maternal and reproductive health care, or insurance coverage for routine charges and catastrophic health costs, especially in rural and marginalized communities. Many women are still unaware of basic reproductive health and more than 50% do not use sanitary products, especially during the lockdown due to the high pricing of these products. Restrictive social norms and gender stereotypes can also limit women’s ability to access health services. All of this makes a great impact during a widespread health crisis.
Rural women are the backbone of agriculture and the guardians of household food security in their communities. They make essential contributions as smallholder farmers, as unpaid labour on family farms, and as wage labourers, along with working as seasonal and informal workers on commercial farms. Especially as men become more involved in off-farm labour or move to urban centres for work, women are assuming a bigger share of agricultural production beyond their roles as principal household food producers and fuelwood and water collectors. They are also almost exclusively responsible for children’s nutrition.
The COVID-19 global crisis has made this fact starkly visible that the world’s formal economy and the maintenance of our daily lives are built on the invisible and unpaid labour of women and girls. With children out of school, intensified care needs of older persons, ill family members and overwhelmed health services, demand for care work in a COVID-19 world has intensified exponentially.
Women’s unpaid care work has long been recognized as a driver of inequality. It has a direct link to wage inequality, lower-income, poorer education outcomes, and physical and mental health stressors. As women are unable to take part in outside activities (due to social distancing and the return of migrants), they spend more than 90% of their time engaged in cooking, domestic and care work and most of them are forced to stay home since children are not at school. Along with this, there is a significant lack of paid jobs for women in rural areas. More than ½ of them are stuck in debts and the increase in the price of essential goods is not making anything easier.
Restrictions on the movement of people and goods — including border closures, lockdowns and other measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 — are disrupting agricultural value chains and food systems. While this affects rural farmers generally, women face barriers and disadvantages that make them lesser able to recover than men.
The pandemic has also resulted in a comeback of social evils like untouchability and caste-based discrimination. Also, more than 50% of women have reported an increase in violence against them. There has also been an unhealthy increase in domestic abuse and illegal activities involving children. Being isolated from other women and society due to lockdown has resulted in women being more susceptible to domestic violence, usually including sexual abuse and malnutrition. Social isolation and mandatory confinement with potential abusers have also increased the risks of domestic violence.

The challenges faced by women can thus be summarized to:

  • Massive job and income losses
  • An increase in domestic work
  • Additional mobility restrictions
  • Threat of domestic violence
  • An increase in gender divide and stereotypes

A pandemic amplifies and heightens all existing inequalities. These inequalities in turn shape who is affected, the severity of that impact, and our efforts at recovery. The COVID-19 pandemic and its social and economic impacts have created a global crisis unparalleled in the history of the world—and one which requires a whole-of-society response to match its sheer scale and complexity. But this response, whether at the national or international level, will be significantly weakened if it does not factor in how inequalities have made all of us more vulnerable to the impacts of the crisis. Can we afford to choose simply to repeat past policies and fail to use this moment to rebuild more equal, inclusive and resilient societies?

Every COVID-19 response plan, every recovery package and budgeting of resources need to address the gender impacts of this pandemic. This means: (1) including women and women’s organizations at the heart of the COVID-19 response; (2) transforming the inequities of unpaid care work into a new, inclusive care economy that works for everyone; and (3) designing socio-economic plans with an intentional focus on the lives and futures of women and girls. Government should involve women in decision making. Bringing policies that directly benefit women into the mainstream would change the narrative of India’s development while improving the quality of life. Similarly, narrowing gender-based education gaps and ensuring women expand their participation in the formal labour market will play a significant role in providing many economies with the capacity to ‘rebound’ with stronger, more equitable and sustainable growth. Putting women and girls at the centre of economies will fundamentally drive better and more sustainable development outcomes for all, support more rapid recovery and enable the functioning of a far healthier society.

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