By Soumya Kapoor Mehta, Sona Mitra and Kanika Jha Kingra
Union Budget 2021-22 Expectations by Women: The year 2021 started with a renewed sense of hope, with vaccines for COVID-19 being rolled out across several nations. There is also hope that countries will be able to bounce back to pre-pandemic levels of growth by designing and delivering relief packages that can stave off the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic, and set an off-kilter path back on track. But even as we eagerly await the green shoots of socio-economic recovery, it is important to note that the pandemic has altered in significant ways women’s lives and their livelihoods; their access to nutritious food, health services and education; and the nature of their work and ways of working. This for an economy where low female labour force participation rate (a mere 20 percent) was already a concern. Our hope is that the Union budget 2021-22 can address the disproportionate impacts that women and girls have borne as a fallout of the pandemic.
The first step is to create better opportunities for women and girls. Evidence shows that the recovery since the lockdown has eluded women. Recent research by Ashwini Deshpande at Ashoka University shows that while jobs have returned in the post-lockdown period, women, especially those with young children, have been left out. Several other reports indicate that during the lockdown, four out of every ten women who were working in the previous year lost their jobs. An analysis of MGNREGA data from the second quarter of FY 2020-2021 reveals that women’s share in workdays under the scheme dipped to an eight-year low. An IWWAGE- LEAD study with rural enterprises in July 2020 suggests that three in every four women-led enterprises experienced a significant dip in revenues, with one in every three reporting shutting down temporarily or on a permanent basis. However, there remains a glimmer of hope as some of these enterprises showed signs of recovery
Targeted employment in both rural and urban areas is important for generating decent work for women. Here, the budget could consider expanding the number of days available for women under MGNREGA, expanding public employment opportunities and scheme-based work, and providing financial and institutional support to home-based workers, women-led collectives and women-owned enterprises. Specific sectors such as apparel, electronics, food-processing and other manufacturing, which usually have a large concentration of women, could be incentivised for greater tax and non-tax benefits to employ more women. These could be brought under the Modified Special Incentive Package the scheme, introduced in 2015. By improving the government’s procurement policies, more women-owned and -led enterprises can enter the supply chain, and help provide ICDS supplies, supplementary nutrition, and other essential goods, such as PPE kits and masks.
Besides these direct measures, women may need to be prepared for a future where work may be increasingly digital and accessed through platforms such as those made through gig platforms. Investments in skilling curricula, post-skilling placement and job support, and upskilling of women trainers and teachers are some of the immediate measures that can be considered. There is also a need to offer training to women and girls in non-traditional livelihoods, beyond those offered for care and nursing; beauty, salon and wellness services; tailoring, and embroidery and such other vocations where women have traditionally been employed. By designing curricula that offers training to women to serve as technicians, mechanics, drivers of two and four-wheelers, and by improving their digital and IT skills, new avenues for employment can gradually emerge.
The digital divide has become a chasm during COVID-19 and women continue to be excluded due to their limited access and knowledge of smartphones and the internet. There is a growing need to upskill women to use digital technology which can help them access various benefits and schemes, obtain new knowledge and skills, and expand their businesses by shifting to the digital economy.
Several studies also show that women’s access to opportunities is disrupted due to limited or no access to services and infrastructure that can reduce the time spent on unpaid work. Women in rural households have been spending more time to attend to returnee migrants, mostly men. Women are also spending more time taking care of children and the elderly, cooking, cleaning and tending to other domestic chores. These together reduce women’s access to paid opportunities and even adversely impact access to education in many cases.
By investing in time-saving infrastructure such as – piped water supply, clean fuel, electricity, better roads and transport facilities, housing – more women will be able to free up their time and enter the labour force. Further, universalisation of quality full-day childcare centres and crèches can address the ‘motherhood penalty’ that restricts women from entering or re-entering the workforce. These investments also hold the potential to create several new jobs for women in the care sector.
The opportunities and investments identified above can only work when there is a strong social protection architecture supporting them. It is vital to expand and strengthen social security nets and develop a National Social Protection Strategy through a consultative process. Cash transfers through existing schemes such as the PM Jan Dhan Yojana, PM Matru Vandana Yojana, PM KISAN and the National Social Assistance Program, should continue prioritizing single women, pregnant and lactating women, and women with disabilities.
Unorganised and informal sector workers were perhaps the worst hit during the pandemic. There is a need to expand social security coverage, insurance and pension for such workers. ASHA, Anganwadi and other frontline and scheme workers, who have been at the forefront of the pandemic response, maybe formalised to offer them better job security.
Food security remains central to the discussions around recovery and budgetary allocations for women and girls. The Public Distribution System food basket can be temporarily expanded to include pulses, millets and oil. The PM-Garib Kalyan Yojana for basic food security can be extended through the FY2021-22 which would positively impact a large number of families, easing the burden on women and girls. Similarly, providing supplementary nutrition and hunger surveillance in remote and marginalised settings through channels like SHGs can help identify and reach locations and communities that may otherwise be inaccessible.
Reports clearly indicate an increased incidence of gender-based violence during the pandemic, resulting in the need to consider women and girls’ safety and security in public spaces and at the workplace as lockdown restrictions ease up across the country. Scaling the implementation of provisions under the Nirbhaya Fund and strengthening legal literacy and access under the fund can be extremely beneficial for survivors of violence. They’re also a need for strengthening outreach and violence redressal mechanisms such as the One-Stop Crisis Centres.
Simultaneously, public infrastructure like bus stops, railway stations, roads, parks etc. can be improved upon by way of regular safety audits and measures such as CCTV cameras. Further, livelihood support for survivors of violence can greatly encourage self-sufficiency.
A new hope
The Union Budget 2021-22 presents an opportunity to ensure that India’s economic growth and development is inclusive of the millions of hopes and myriad needs of women and girls. Better and smarter investments and policies can help avoid the reversal of decades of progress made on several measures of gender equality so that India can bounce back quicker and stronger.
(The authors work at the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE), an initiative of LEAD at Krea University. Views expressed are their own.)