The observance of International Women’s Day, which we mark today, is crucial in raising awareness of gender discrimination and the need to advance towards gender equality. It is important in India, a country beset by a range of issues related to gender discrimination despite advances made.
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.” As outlined by the United Nations, “the theme celebrates the tremendous efforts by women and girls around the world in shaping a more equal future and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is also aligned with the priority theme of the 65th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, “Women’s full and effective participation and decision-making in public life, as well as the elimination of violence, for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls”, and the flagship Generation Equality campaign, which calls for women’s right to decision-making in all areas of life, equal pay, equal sharing of unpaid care and domestic work, an end all forms of violence against women and girls, and health-care services that respond to their needs.”
The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on women’s health, women’s rights, and their empowerment cannot be understated, exacerbating pre-existing gender discrimination issues. “COVID-19 has [a] “devastating” effect on women and girls” reads the headline of a Lancet article penned by Sophie Cousins. In the article, Cousins highlights how “as the pandemic spread, many countries implemented tough lockdowns and travel restrictions in a bid to slow transmission. In doing so, some governments did not heed WHO’s [World Health Organization’s] advice, and instead forced sexual and reproductive health services to close because these services were not classified as essential.
“These services include abortion or even, as Human Rights Watch has reported in Brazil, contraception. This decision not only denied women and girls access to time-sensitive—and potentially life-saving—services, but also further distanced them from already difficult-to-access sexual and reproductive health care.”In India, Health Issues India has highlighted in its reporting issues such as the plight of sex workers which disproportionately affects women. “For sex workers, life was hard even before the COVID-19 pandemic – and life has become harder since,” I wrote in May of last year. “Access to healthcare – or lack thereof – is a significant challenge.”
More broadly, I noted in June of last year, “more Indian men are diagnosed with COVID-19 and more COVID-19 deaths are reported among men. However, the case fatality rate (CFR) for COVID-19 is higher in women, as is the proportion of women tested who test positive compared to men who are tested.” Furthermore, India’s women are especially vulnerable to secondary effects. As a Lancet piece outlined at the time, “inequities disproportionately affect their wellbeing and economic resilience during lockdowns. Households are under strain, but child care, elderly care, and housework typically fall on women. Concerns over increased domestic violence are growing.
“With health services overstretched and charities under-resourced, women’s sexual and reproductive health services, as well as prenatal and postnatal care, are disrupted.”
Gender discrimination takes many forms – even before birth. The practice of sex-selective abortion and sex-based discrimination afterwards is a scourge in India and has resulted in generations’ worth of so-called ‘missing women.’ As we previously reported, “the practice of sex-selective abortion – despite being illegal in India – is widespread, resulting in 10.6 million missing girls and women between 1970 and 2017. These factors contribute to the country’s imbalanced sex ratio which, as of 2019, stands at 930 females for every thousand males. India ranks at 191st out of 201 countries on sex ratio and 43rd out of 51 among Asian nations.”
What is vital is women’s empowerment – the theme of International Women’s Day underscores this and, in the exit strategies we deploy in a post-pandemic world, we must acknowledge this. The UN is keen to acknowledge the mammoth contribution of women on the frontlines of this health crisis. “Women leaders and women’s organisations have demonstrated their skills, knowledge and networks to effectively lead in COVID-19 response and recovery efforts,” the organisation writes. “Today there is more acceptance than ever before that women bring different experiences, perspectives and skills to the table, and make irreplaceable contributions to decisions, policies and laws that work better for all.”
Still in India, however, there is an issue of gender discrimination impeding women’s engagement with the workforce – to the detriment of individuals and to the economy. In 2019, we reported, citing The Print, that
“Almost 120 million women who have at least a secondary education do not participate in the workforce. The consequence is that India’s GDP is missing out on more than Rs 30 lakh crore and the chance for a more educated workforce.
“Even if only half of the 120 million educated women without a job received one, The Print reports, the share of workers with secondary-level education would increase to 46 percent from the current figure of just 33 percent. Yet, in the last decade, women’s participation in the workforce has stagnated at best and, at worst, declined…There is a clear economic incentive for India to mobilise its working-age female population but numerous barriers rooted in sex discrimination stand in its way.
“Societal attitudes which disapprove of women who work and a belief that starting a family ought to be prioritised before starting a career are among the issues which hold India back in mobilising its working age female population. Furthermore, there is often systemic gender bias within the workplace. There is a wage gap in India, with women earning on average between 35 percent and 85 percent of their male counterparts’ wages depending on the field of work and education level. Women are, as a report published last year pointed out, “highly over-represented in the low value-added industries as well as occupations, such as agriculture, textiles, and domestic service.”
Female empowerment is a linchpin of societal advancement. The pandemic has underscored this. But there is much work to do. This piece cannot adequately cover the plethora of issues facing girls and women today, which range from maternal mortality to sexual harassment, stalking, and sexual assault – not to mention those touched upon above.
International Women’s Day, at its core, seeks to afford what most if not all people seek: dignity, fair treatment, and fair opportunities to advance. For one individual to be held back on the basis of their gender means we are all held back. Averting this necessitates visibility, engagement, and inclusion in mapping the path forward for gender equity.
“To uphold women’s rights and fully leverage the potential of women’s leadership in pandemic preparedness and response, the perspectives of women and girls in all of their diversity must be integrated in the formulation and implementation of policies and programmes in all spheres and at all stages of pandemic response and recovery,” writes the UN. The sentiment is apposite indeed.