Gendered Experiences of COVID-19: Women, Labour, and Informal Sector

Gendered experiences of COVID-19 are shaped by the intersection of inequalities in the labour markets, intrahousehold power relations during stay-at-home and lockdown orders in the matters concerning care, stress and domestic violence; working from home along with housework, gendered experiences of household responsibilities, domestic violence, sexual violence and child sexual abuse in camps/shelter homes, mental health issues, personal care and frontline healthcare service to the family members. Differential impact of COVID-19 infection and resultant mortality and morbidity rates by gender, caste, ethnicity, and class was also due to arbitrary nature of the state intervention for food security, absence of shelter for migrants workers rendered homeless due to inability to pay rent, inaccessibility of testing for coronavirus and highly inadequate social protection responses to COVID-19. 

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered lockdown in its four phases (Phase 1: from 25 March to 4 April, Phase 2 from 15 April to 3 May, Phase 3 from 4 May to 17 May and Phase 4 from 18 May to 31 May 2020) completely devastated informal sector workers. Unlock 1.0 (1—30 June) and Unlock 2.0 (1—31 July) added insult to injury with reverse migration of millions of migrant workers of the informal sector who were forced to leave the urban centres due to loss of livelihood, eviction of rented dwelling places, hunger and starvation. Unlock 3.0 (1—31 August), Unlock 4.0 (1—30 September), Unlock 5.0 (1—31 October) and Unlock 6.0 (1—30 November) have witnessed return of nearly one-third of the migrant workers to the urban centres, as their extended families in the rural areas are facing similar situations of precarity. The pandemic has highlighted major challenges for the informal sector workforce, not only in the public health system in India, but also in terms of the inequalities and vulnerabilities in all sectors of the economy and society.

Gendered experiences of COVID-19 in the labour market have been shaped by the intersection of inequalities of caste, class, ethnicity, religion and gender. Differential impact of COVID-19 infection and resultant mortality and morbidity rates by gender, caste, ethnicity, and class was also due to arbitrary nature of the state intervention for food security, absence of shelter for migrants workers rendered homeless due to inability to pay rent, inaccessibility for testing for coronavirus and highly inadequate social protection responses to COVID-19 pandemic.

Gender Stereotypes and Discrimination in the Labour Markets

During the period of unlocking of the Indian economy, starting from July 2020, the dynamics of the labour market have had differential impacts on employment of women and men workers. If we examine rural–urban breakdown of 1.1 crore jobs lost, most of self-employed in the urban areas and most of the casual workers in the rural areas who have lost everything, we find that they are predominantly women (Deshpande 2020). While small traders, hawkers, vendors and daily wage earners are facing severe losses, there has been a more lasting impact on salaried employees. In addition, women hold many of the risky, hazardous and stigmatised jobs. Deshpande also points out that the lockdown increased hours spent on domestic work for both women and men.   
Those in precarious jobs or in the informal economy are hit hardest by the sharp economic downturn, because livelihoods that disappeared overnight have not come back, and informal workers are not protected by social security and social protection. The situation of casual migrant workers in India whether they are in sugarcane fields in Maharashtra or recycling workers in the urban areas of India (Banerjee 2020), construction workers in mega cities such as Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Gurugram, Ahmedabad or Mumbai are currently working under deplorable circumstances as employers have enhanced intensity of work, disruption in public transport and requirement of physical distancing in the production process as a safeguard from the coronavirus infection. Women are hit the hardest, because they are overrepresented in the most precarious jobs in manufacturing, service, recycling, construction and sanitation and agricultural work (Jadhav 2020). In agricultural and construction work, due to the jodi (couple) system where the workers are hired as a couple (of a man and a woman), only a man is recognised as a worker and the woman is invisible (Roli Srivastava 2020; Jayaram et al 2019). In the jodi system, a woman worker is treated as Ardha Koita (Marathi term, its English meaning is “half the sickle”). Thus, she loses social protection, insurance against accidents and also has significant implications for women’s work.

Currently, women make up 70% of front-line workers in the health and social sector across a range of occupations such as doctors, nurses, accredited social health activist (ASHA) workers, auxiliary nurse and midwives (ANMs), Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) workers, school teachers distributing public distribution system (PDS) grains and COVID-19 detection (Siddharth et al 2020). The pandemic has intensified stress and violence against women, women’s unpaid care and domestic workloads, while the economic impact places women’s livelihoods and economic security at significant risk. Women in the most vulnerable forms of informal work have been the worst affected (Banerjee 2020). 

The Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation Time Use Survey (2020) showed that during 2019, India’s overall participation rate in unpaid activities was 63.6% and that the average time spent by a person on it was 289 minutes. The participation rate in unpaid activities for rural women was 85%, while that of urban women was 81.7%. In the same category, the participation rate for rural men was 47.8%, while for urban men, it was 35.1%. An average Indian woman spends around one- fifth of her time every day in unpaid work including housework and caregiving as compared to just 2.5% of time spent by men. They also do over three times the amount of childcare as men. The unpaid care work of women in the informal economy has increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as schools, balwadis, anganwadis of ICDS centres have been closed. This has also affected their paid and routine unpaid work resulting in very high physical and emotional stress and domestic violence.

Employment and Gender: Intersectional Marginalities

Based on the national-level panel data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) Consumer Pyramids Household Survey (CPHS) database, Deshpande (2020) has studied the first effects of COVID-19 induced lockdown on employment and compared the employment status of 37,000 individuals before and after the lockdown. She argues the reduction in employment is gendered and caste related. 

Even in the Unlock 6.0 phase, COVID-19 has had dire implications for the socially excluded and economically vulnerable populations; women headed households, people with disability, pregnant women and homeless people, lonely elderly, socially stigmatised transgender community, sex workers, prisoners and inmates in overcrowded shelter homes and makeshift tents (Oxfam International 2020). The daily wage labourers, head-loaders, construction workers, street vendors, domestic workers, security guards, small-scale manufacturing workers in recycling, scrap and garment industries, platform-based workers, employees of beauty parlours and gyms, barbers who managed their survival by daily income have nothing left due to unemployment resulting in exodus of millions of migrant families from the metropolis and cities to their extended families in native place and one-third of them returning to the cities due to lack of opportunities in the rural areas resulting in circular migration (Srivastava 2020). Shadow pandemic of gender-based violence took a heavy toll on women with no financial security and the ones who were economically dependent were subject to more abuse in rural and urban India. Exponential increase in forced marriages and child marriages, trafficking of and sexual violence against women and children has posed a major challenge to the women’s rights movement because of the COVID-19 induced lockdown.

As women in the informal sector have suffered disproportionately more job loss, for the majority of them, the choice seems to be between unemployment or stigmatised and hazardous jobs. Most of the frontline health workers, Anganwadi workers of ICDS, ASHA under National Rural Health Mission, ANM and sanitation workers employed are women. As they are not regularised, they are not even treated as workers. Moreover, even after working for long hours and under direct exposure to health hazards and possibility of COVID-19 infection, they do not get even minimum wages stipulated by the government and have to work for paltry sums labelled by the state as “honorarium” (IWWAGE 2020). 

Structural discrimination, including the persistence of gender stereotypes and gendered expectations, norms, and attitudes, remain major barriers to have perpetuated super exploitation and discrimination in terms of gross violation of labour standards, long working hours, unequal wages, non-payment of dues of migrant women workers in the farm sector. Furthermore, the lack of access to sexual and reproductive rights and services deny women the opportunity to make autonomous decisions about pregnancy and childbearing, which has an impact on their employment outcomes and their unpaid care work responsibility. 

Interstate Migration: From Reverse Migration to Circular Migration

Migrant domestic workers are often marginalised as migrants working in the informal sector, where they exist in precarity with heightened risks of wage theft, violence, harassment, and abuse. For migrant domestic and care workers, gender-based discrimination is compounded by further discrimination, among other things, based on their legal status, ethnicity, race, class, or caste identities. Migrant domestic and care workers are also vulnerable to human rights violations in their country of origin, for example exploitation by brokers. After reverse migration, they faced stigmatisation, when they reached their native place and the villagers refused to allow them in, saying, “You are bringing coronavirus here” (Srivastava 2020).

Self-employed Vendors: The state announced a stimulus package of Rs 5,000 crore for nearly 50 lakh vendors, acknowledging the grave impact of their loss of livelihood in July 2020 (Majithia 2020). The provision for vendors of an initial working capital of Rs 10,000 for all vendors has not benefited women vendors due to male bias at an operational level (Unni 2020). Instead of credit, the government should think of converting it into direct income benefit, a cash grant, as livelihood support to start the income activity in a regular way. There is an urgent need to conduct surveys and register more vendors for access to government benefits and to ensure that all vendors are able to access social security benefits and financial aid during this period of crisis (Majithia 2020).
Increase in Child Labour: More than one crore Indian children between 5-14 toil in farms and factories, or clean restaurant tables and shine shoes, a situation exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), a children’s rights organisation has reported that over 1 crore children aged between 5-14 are forced to work (AFP 2020) as a result of COVID-19 imposed loss of livelihood coupled with hunger due to the stoppage of midday meal scheme under ICDS. A recent rescue operation was undertaken on 6 October, 2020, where raids were carried out on several roadside restaurants (dhabas), and automobile workshops. Before the pandemic, several of the boys had been attending school (Ellis-Petersen and Chaurasia  2020).

Reproductive Health Needs

Women workers in informal sector who started working in the unlock period, starting from 8 June 2020, faced difficulties in accessing healthcare services, forced to use dirty toilets due to lack of sanitisation activities in the residential areas as well as at workplace by local bodies, and due to inadequate contact tracing in the areas where active cases were identified. Non-availability of sanitary pads had serious consequences for women workers such as construction workers, vendors, micro small and medium industrial units, garment manufacturing firms, e-commerce, platform-based service jobs, who had to spend 12-16 hours a day, away from home, due to demanding work conditions and highly inadequate and irregular public transport system (Jahan 2020). The impact of shift in priorities of the public health services regarding non-coronavirus patients resulted in total neglect of pregnant women in need of reproductive healthcare services resulting in maternal and neonatal mortality and morbidity. Polio and triple vaccination programmes for children and tetanus for pregnant women have been jeopardised resulting in a major challenge for reproductive health care needs resulting in morbidity among women and infants (Motihar 2020). Women workers lost access to family planning services, and there is an anticipation of an increase in unintended pregnancies, child births, and maternal deaths (Kumar et al 2020).


Unless structural and systemic discrimination is specifically addressed, there is a significant risk that future work trends will deepen existing inequalities for women. The approach to date of adding women into the masculinist structure of work and the economy has failed in realising women’s human rights and will continue to do so in the changing world of work guided by massive automation, artificial intelligence and robotics. Creating a world of work where women benefit and contribute on an equal basis with men requires reimagining the structure of work and the economy, with women’s human rights placed at the centre. Given that women are bearing significant costs of the COVID-19 fallout, the relief announcements by the government definitely need a second version that duly acknowledges women’s contributions in fighting the crisis and ensures that women as economic agents do not fall through the cracks. The food and financial stimulus offered by the state is highly inadequate for all categories of workers. Poor urban women often lack any source of capital (land, house) to rely on during a crisis (IWWAGE 2020). Reduction of socio-economic inequality through engendered public economics policies and gender responsive participatory budgeting, protection services to deal with violence against women and children, safe transportation for the migrant workers demand urgent action. 



A version of this paper was first presented at the webinar series on Gender Equity and COVID-19 organised by the Women’s Development Cell, University of Mumbai in association with Nirmala Memorial Foundation College of Commerce and Science on 14 May 2020. The webinar series was conceptualised by Gita Chadha and Meher Bhoot.

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