National Webinar Report

Plight of Rural Women and Covid-19

I. Satya Sundaram

Even now, women in India continue to be harassed and exploited by insidious and invidious ways. The situation worsened because of Covied-19. Our progress on the technological front has bypassed women, particularly rural women.

A two-day (December 22 & 23, 2020) national webinar on the theme, ”Impact of Covid-19 on Rural Women” was organized by the Department of Economics, Maris Stella College (Autonomous and A College with Potential for Excellence), Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh. The Principal was Dr. Sr. Jasintha Quadras. The Seminar Director was Dr (Mrs) Josephin Sandhya Rani. The webinar had four technical sessions.

At the Technical Session I, Dr. I. Satya Sundaram has extensively discussed the current economic status of rural women. He said that unemployment and under-employment are   major problems.  Around 92 per cent of labourers work in the informal sector. And, the informal sector is dominated by women workers. How to provide productive and durable employment for them is a real challenge.

It is clear that in the economic sphere, men and women do not have equal work opportunities. If they have equal opportunities, according to some studies, our economy can get an additional benefit of $ 770 billion or 1.8 per cent of GDP by 2025.

Rural female workers work mostly in the self-employement sector which accounts for 60 per cent of rural female workforce; 23 per cent work as casual labourers and 11 per cent get regular wage payments.

There is the problem of occupational segregation. Rural women are confined to specific activities. Any strategy to uplift the rural women should take into account this reality. Dr. Sundaram underscored the need for enhancing work opportunities for rural women. Women work participation rate is not up to the mark. In 2018-19, 19.9 per cent of women in rural areas were part of the labour force.

Women are discriminated against in the payment of wages. A Report by Oxfam (March 2019) stated that women get nearly 1/3rd less than men. The gap is higher in non-agricultural woks.

A class of women entrepreneurs has emerged. But, it is facing a number of problems. In rural India, 78 per cent owned enterprises are managed by men; only around 22 per cent are managed by women. If we take into account total business, only 8 per cent of it is in the hands of women.

Some studies revealed that micro-loans granted to women entrepreneurs were spent on the husbands’ businesses. To provide them finance, the Government set up the Bharatiya Mahila Bank. Also, the women entrepreneurs generally wish to start their business units near their homes/villages.

At the Technical Session II, Dr. Sonal Mobar Roy, Assistant Professor, Centre for PG Studies and Distance Education, National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj (NIRDPR), Hyderabad, has spoken on the impact of Covid-19 on gender. She said Covid affected men and women differently. Women are nearly two times more vulnerable because of Covid -19 compared to men. Roy said during the Covid period, crimes like sexual assault have increased. Women’s safety has become a big issue. Of course, there are some positive effects of Covid. Innovative ideas and projects emerged.

At the Technical Session III, Dr (Mrs) A. Bhavani, Project Consultant, Centre for Entrepreneurship Development and Financial Inclusion (CEDFI), NIRDPR, Hyderabad, regretted that millions of women the world over are missing. She said in the pre-Independence India, trade unions took care of women’s welfare. At present, the contractors and middlemen are powerful. They decide everything.

Today migration has become inevitable. There is labour migration from rural to urban areas, and also intra-regional migration. There is reverse migration because of Covid- 19. In the informal sector, Government assistance and incentives do not reach the actual workers. Dr. Bhavani said we have to work towards reducing gender gap in all spheres.

Violence against women is on the rise. The situation worsened during the Covid period. Also, not all cases are reported. Dr. Bhavani said that demand is not a problem, but the problem is with unemployment and low purchasing power.

At the Technical Session IV, Dr. J. Rani Ratna Prabha, Assistant Professor, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, School of Social Sciences, University of Hyderabad has dealt with the problem of social exclusion. She said social exclusion continues because most rural women workers are in the informal sector. They are also victims of the machinations of middlemen. Dr. Ratna Prabha said that during the Covid period, the sanitary workers played an important role in controlling Covid.  She said that during the Covid period, domestic violence increased

During the Covid period, for rural women, livelihood and survival have become difficult. Most rural women cannot understand, because of illiteracy, agricultural extension programmes. The situation worsened because of lockdown. Dr. Prabha also pointed out that most rural women are not able to use digital technology.
Effects of Covid

All sectors and sections are affected by Covid. The worst affected are in the informal sector. The lives of migrant labourers became miserable. The Government has no data about deaths caused by reverse migration. They should have been shifted to their native places and provided some work. MGNREGA and surplus food-grain stocks should have been used properly.  The help came too late. Some migrants were held back by employers, not allowed to visit their villages.  Migrants were exploited on their way to homes.

There are social costs of Covid-19. There was moral lockdown. Between March 25 and May 31, 2020, women made 1,477 complaints of domestic violence.

There has been sharp rise in supply chain and logistics costs. Now, they account for 14 per cent of GDP ($400 million).

Webinar’s Major Suggestions to Raise the Status of Rural Women:

  • Raising the level of literacy, education and training of rural women is very important. At present, they are not able to understand the importance of agricultural extension and innovations.
  • Stress should be on enhancing work opportunities of productive and durable nature. This requires diversification of rural economy. Sectors like food processing and rural tourism have high employment potential. They have strong backward and forward linkages.
  • Microfinance has an important role in raising the income earning capacity of the rural women. The SHG-Bank linkage has replaced the individual approach by group approach.
  • The problem of missing women should be addressed properly. Good governance can solve this problem.There should be transparency and accountability.
  • The mid-day meal scheme should be strengthened. Even during normal times, it alone can ensure nutrition security and balanced food to the poor children.
  • Reverse migration is a serious problem. It has resulted in deaths, and spread of Covid. Timely assistance is missing.
  • Social exclusion is still there. Even during the Covid period, vested interests denied essential goods and services to the vulnerable sections. There should be political will to end social exclusion.
  • People should be educated about the norms governing Covid-19 control. Post-Covid -19 precautions should be given proper publicity.
  • We have to acquire the dexterity to deal with a pandemic like Covid-19. Mobilising  sanitary workers  and also migrant labourers quickly is very important.

The webinar made one thing palpable: women, particularly rural women, require specific strategies, given the unfavourable power structure in rural India. We have to strengthen  schemes meant for rural women by toning up monitoring mechanisms.

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Dec 27, 2020

Satya sundaram Immaneni

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