The COVID 19 pandemic and the lockdown have resulted in a major shift in all aspects of work and life, everywhere across the world. It has posed a threat to everyone, however, the measures to combat this pandemic has overlooked the position of gender within this pandemic. One will have to understand and acknowledge the fact that women have been the most disproportionately affected lot in this pandemic. Physical distancing and stay-at-home which have become the new normal have had larger implications on women in every sphere of their lives. Like the rest of the country, long standing patriarchal social norms and cultural expectations have put the burden of caring for children, the elderly, and the household on the women from Assam as well. Women are spreading themselves thin as they bear the heightened burden of household responsibilities along with child care and elderly care. The pandemic has brought forth the correlation between the socially constructed moral obligation of care and the well being of the society where one can witness for a fact that the majority of caregivers, at home and in our communities, have been women. This responsibility is not only fulfilled by the women work forces who are trained professionals like our community health workers, but also get extended beyond the boundaries of paid work. Front-line health workers in India as well as Assam (ASHAs and Anganwadi workers) have been exclusively women.They are poorly paid with demanding work requirements. One hand they are not provided with any personal protective equipment and on the other, there are reports about attacks on them as they go on their daily household survey to assess the spread of the disease (Hindu 2020; Mohanty 2020). This makes their work extremely risky,with no compensatory payments or protection.
According to ILO, women spend 4.1 times more time than men in Asia and the Pacific on unpaid care work which involves tending to others, cooking, cleaning, fetching water and firewood and other non-market essential daily tasks with-in households that go unrecognized and unremunerated. Data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows that Indian women do nearly six hours or unpaid care work each day. However, this is only indicative of normal times. There has been an exponential increase in unpaid care work of women at home added with new cleanliness standards and hygiene discipline and at the same time providing for basic provision like food and water for the family members. As care givers, these women are facing higher health risks, increased domestic burden and decreased incomes. They face higher risks due to their disadvantageous position in the society, poor working conditions and also have fewer resources at their disposal to address their risks. This pandemic has brought us to a critical juncture where we need to stop and re-think how we value and recognize women’s care work that has been sustaining communities to survive different pandemics at different point in time in the history of mankind.
Due to the lock down many women are working at home and working from home simultaneously.With the uncertainty over the labor market and jobs becoming scant, women are also likely to be the ones who have to opt to give up their paid job for unpaid care work at home thus diminishing their chances further of a proper job. At the same time, loss of financial independence keeps women bound to violent relationships thereby increasing their vulnerability to experience exploitation and abuse. There has been increased incidence of family abuse, intimate partner violence reported across the country and within the state of Assam during the initial lock down period. Restriction in movement, limited decision-making capacity and lowered social bargaining power as a result of the lock down has further threaten their safety and autonomy at home.It has now become increasingly clear that some of the most marginalized sections of our societies including women and girls providing care within and outside their families are most vulnerable as the state has failed to take adequate measures to uphold their right to an adequate standard of living with almost no guarantee of right to social security. If we look back in to history, we would witness women to be the guardian of the communities as they sustain their families, households and communities during difficult times. However, it is also seen that it is women’s health, both physical and mental, that suffers disproportionately more due to a combination of their traditional care giving roles and re-prioritization and reallocation of resources to the larger good of the communities during such time of crisis. Therefore, it is high time that we acknowledge the ‘invisible’ work of women that encompasses both reproductive and productive work contributing towardsthe larger good of the humanity and economies together, and yet it has remained ignored.
In order to do so, the efforts should be made to reduce and redistribute the burden of care work from women by addressing pre-existing social norms and promoting equal sharing of care work by engaging men through educational systems and campaigns, flexible work arrangements to balance work and family commitments, there-by leading the way for a more resilient and caring economy which will benefit one and all. The governments should make a conscious effort to include and represent women in the economic planning, policy decision-making and emergency response planning. The policy responses by governments to this pandemic must focus more on human, women’s, and labor rights and ensure access to affordable health care and social protection for all. We should use this crisis to fix our existing socio-economic system by recognizing the different facets of women’s work,the need for adequate compensation, putting support structures in place that allow for an equitable sharing of domestic chores and care work, and most importantly, creating favorable opportunities for work and livelihoods within a conscious anti-discriminatory policy framework
Project Lead, NEN, Assam