The vaccine for Covid-19 is round the corner; yet, it will take quite some time for the pandemic to loosen its grip on the people and governments of the world. Covid-19 had a strong impact on the society, economy and politics of the developed and developing world. Both lives and livelihoods of people really suffered.
In Pakistan, there has been heated debate on whether to impose a strict lockdown or secure livelihoods. We refer to a draft report of the Institute of Development and Economic Alternative (IDEAS) authored by Faisal Bari et al for The Asia Foundation that maps the gendered impact of Covid-19 on women workers employed in the informal sector.
Back in March 2020, the government imposed partial lockdown in various parts of the country. Gradually, they closed down some leading sectors of the economy as well as educational institutes. This was followed by a six-week national complete lockdown that was lifted in May. Since then, there have been some ‘smart’ lockdowns but not a full one, despite the second wave of Covid-19. The IDEAS research largely focuses on the impact of a complete lockdown on women workers in the informal sector.
It is important to study the informal sector because as per the latest Labour Force Survey of Pakistan (2017-18), roughly 72 percent of non-agricultural employment in the country is in the informal sector. Though women’s labour force participation rate is only 22 percent (World Bank Indicators), roughly 72 percent of women who work are employed in the informal sector.
The question is: why focus on women while studying the impact of Covid on the economy? It was thought that the pandemic would have a differentiated impact on women workers compared to men.
According to Bari et al, “Women in the informal sector tend to earn and save less, have lower job security and have restricted access to social protection. Additionally, women working in non-essential service industries such as food service, hospitality and as domestic workers for housekeeping and child- care are more likely to be laid off or exploited for their labor during the pandemic and resulting economic crisis. The informal sector, which predominantly comprises women workers, is also marked by limited access to capital, credit constraints and high rates of business failures as compared to the formal sector. Gender norms also contribute to the layers of discrimination women experience with access to finance, buyers, networks, and technology. These issues are likely to be exacerbated due to the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Small businesses experienced decreased profits due to the impact of pandemic in Pakistan. Home-based workers endured more than 40 percent losses, arts and entertainment 33 percent, followed by industrial workers with 30 percent losses. Women who worked in the various sub-sectors of the economy also suffered “severe economic shocks” in terms of receiving reduced salary or wages, switching jobs, spending savings, borrowing, and selling assets to cover loss of income. At times, women even had to violate the lockdown to earn livelihoods.
Though the agricultural sector was not subjected to the lockdown, women generally worked for fewer hours than the previous crop cycle. Those involved in livestock farming and management also ran out of food and fodder due to the ban on transportation. Women who produced perishable food items also experienced their produce going wasted during the lockdown since it could not be transported to markets or supply chains. This put further financial strain on women workers and producers in the agricultural sector.
Workers in the informal sector also faced a decline in employment: most of the arts and industry workers temporarily lost their jobs, as did beauticians and domestic house helpers. Home-based workers suffered reduced wages. There were also reduced working hours across many sub-sectors for the informal economy workers during the lockdown. Women reacted to these economic shocks either by borrowing money or reducing spending. There was also uncertainty amongst small women business owners about keeping their businesses sustainable in the medium term. Women workers felt vulnerable and they had low expectations about their future during the pandemic.
In addition to work and financial pressures, the research also looks into the socio-emotional impact of Covid-19 on women working in the informal sector. There was substantial increase in women’s domestic and care-giving responsibilities. Having unemployed or partially working men of the household and children at home due to school closures meant that women had to work more and also home-school their children. This also led to a decrease in their agency and decision-making powers, and increase in gender-based violence in certain cases.
The study also found that most informal workers neither had access to social protection programmes nor much awareness about them. As the informal economy is not documented, it leaves “large gaps” in providing social protection to the workers. Even 10 percent of workers who are receiving some sort of social protection found it to be insufficient. Since women working in the informal sector have low literacy levels, they find it difficult to access government’s social protection; registering through SMS for the Ehsaas programme funding was not easy.
The study makes immediate, medium-term and long-term policy recommendations for business recovery, household work, conflict resolution, and educational issues to deal with the gendered aspects of Covid-19 on women workers and small-scale women business owners. The bottom line is that policymakers need to use a gendered policy lens for issues of employment, financial sustainability, and education, as well as to offer measures to deal with the social impact of the pandemic. The study is a welcome addition as there have been fewer attempts to do the gender impact analysis of Covid-19.
The writer is an Islamabad-based social scientist.
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