As the Covid-19 pandemic has been spreading worldwide, India has joined other countries in adopting lockdown measures since 24 March. At the time of this report about India’s situation, confirmed Coronavirus cases surpassed 5 million with more than 80.000 deaths, putting India in second place of the most hit countries after the USA. Data shows a terrible scenario for India although strict measures were imposed much earlier compared to other countries.
At the beginning of the lockdown, the outbreak caused large economic disruption across the country with many labourers deprived of income and millions of migrant workers left stranded. These informal workers constitute the backbone of the big urban agglomerations after escaping poverty in their villages. It is estimated that 100 million of them usually live in squalid and congested urban ‘ghettos’. As all travel by air and rail remained shut nationally, these informal workers became migrants overnight desperately trying to return to their villages.
According to some, they “would rather die from the virus in their own village than starve because of no work in the city”. Many were also arrested for violating the lockdown while others died of exhaustion, accidents, and police violence. In May and April, the Government finally responded to the migrant crisis with various measures to help them (e.g relief camps to stop exodus), and arrange transports for them.
The government’s response to the pandemic involved the announcement in May of $260 billion relief package by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However, women, who make up around half of the national population, remained largely absent from the government’s Covid-19 policy to the extent that the government had to be reminded that feminine hygiene products were essential items during the lockdown.
This underlines the already complicated situation on menstruation for girls and women in India. Many myths around menstruations afflict women who are subject to restriction in their daily lives. Such taboos impact on girls’ and women’s emotional state, mentality, lifestyle, and most importantly, health. Girls tend to drop out of school when they begin menstruating. Over 77% of women and girls in India use old clothes, which are often reused. Further, 88% of women in India use ashes, newspapers, dried leaves, and husk sand to aid absorption. Poor protection and inadequate washing facilities may also increase the risk of infections.
Evidence from past epidemics indicates healthcare resources are often diverted from routine health services. This further reduces the already limited access of many girls and young women to sexual and reproductive health services, as well as maternal, newborn and child health services.
More than half of women living on or below the poverty line are likely to be excluded from the cash transfer program. As data showed that, in fact, 176 million women lack a PMJDY (Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, the financial inclusion program of the Government of India) account (53% are excluded from PMJDY cash relief) and 70 million lack a ration card which typically grants access to the central food ration system (21% excluded from aid tied to ration cards).
Health workers are not spared from the challenges of the pandemic in India. Around 900,000 female community health workers (which occupy 70% of the healthcare workforce and are therefore the majority of Covid-19 first responders) are at higher risk as India is facing a severe shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) available to nurses and doctors who remain unprotected. In addition, female healthcare professionals are poorly paid and vulnerable to attacks and social stigma such as verbal abuse, fear of infection, spits, and chasing away from homes.
As a response to a 100% increase of domestic violence, the National Commission for Women (NCW) India launched a Whatsapp number making it easier for women to ask for help, alongside a helpline and email options. However, it must be noted that only 29% of Indian women have access to the internet, according to a recent UNICEF report, and that women often have less access to phones during the lockdown. Shelters for victims of abuse remain unsafe and inadequate.
Some non-profit organisations found creative ways to support women, like hiding phone numbers for domestic abuse hotlines inside food rations. According to UNFPA, the pandemic could reduce the progress against gender-based violence by one-third. Also, unequal access to technology and internet connection will fuel other gendered differences in education and employment, since girls are less likely to have access to the internet than boys.
Women are also still suffering the disproportionate burden of unpaid work and unequal share in caregiving responsibilities since Indian men continue to not help in the household. An OXFAM India’s survey showed that 41% of participants found it acceptable to beat a woman if she failed to prepare a meal or care for children.
According to UNESCO, approximately 0.32 billion students in India have been affected by school closures due to Covid-19 pandemic. Of these, 84% reside in rural areas while 70% attend government schools. The inevitable economic backlash of the lockdown is likely to reduce the earning capacity for many poor households and may increase the opportunity cost of sending children to school, especially in rural India.
As a result, children may be pushed into the labour market but especially girls could bear the harshest consequences as their education could disproportionately decrease even more as India is already seeing girls spending half as many years in schools as boys. Girls may also be required to undertake additional household responsibilities as parents increase their own labour hours to cope with economic distress.
Similarly, these economic shocks are likely to have a greater impact on children from communities that are marginalized on the basis of their caste, tribe and religion, and already experience higher dropout rates. Dropping out, in turn, may lead to increases in child marriages, domestic violence, early pregnancies and a plethora of other development issues.
Along with this, malnourishment is likely to increase for girls who are more dependent on the mid-day meal programs given the gendered nature of nutrition in households which sees women eating the last and the least of the already limited resources.
To cope with the situation, local solutions by several state governments have been implemented, but there is scope for much more. Home delivered meals/dry ration to school and Anganwadi children in certain southern states (Kerala, Telangana, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh) have benefited millions of children. Other measures including data packages for students, TV broadcasted classes and regular SMS/IVR to parents for daily activities with children are currently underway.
In India, women are usually earning less, engaging in contractual, temporary, and insecure jobs. The overall unemployment rates before the pandemic were around 7%, and now it reached 18%. In the post-pandemic world, women are predicted to comprise of major-share of lay-offs by corporations. Women getting back to work after a lay-off may see an impact because of the cut in jobs and budgets, a shift in employers’ attitude and inclination towards hiring male employees leaving them in more economic troubles than ever.
On the human trafficking front, a rise is expected globally in the aftermath of the crisis as the economic fallout of the pandemic deepens and exacerbates vulnerabilities. In India, in some cases, traffickers returned hundreds of children to their villages and not a single trafficker was arrested during these operations. The problem is that, in the majority of cases, the trafficker is from the same village as these boys, and is known to them. Following the spread of the pandemic, the child labourers are desperate to get home as they too are terrified of being infected.
Mahadev Debanghi, a centre coordinator with Childline in the eastern sector, cites the example of a 12-year-old who was rescued at the Madhubani railway station. He had been taken to Jaipur on the promise that he would be allowed to study and would have to work for only two hours daily to make Rs 3,000 every month. However, neither he nor any of the other children received even one rupee in salary while being forced to work up to 18 hours a day.
The trafficker, on the other hand, received from the owners of small workshops a monthly `honorarium’ of Rs 1,000-2,000 per month for every child working in these clusters. That is why he has a stake in bringing these kids back home. Whenever the industries restart, many of these kids will be taken back to these places, said Debanghi.
The numbers will be large. India has over 10 million child labourers, according to Census 2011, but this is the first time in decades that children are being brought back to their homes.
The problem is that, technically, none of these rescued children falls under the category of bonded labour, which would entitle them to compensation. Only children rescued from their workplaces are entitled to receive state compensation.
According to other activists, little actions have been taken against the traffickers or the parents anyway. Convictions are few because children are often intimidated and refuse to testify against them in court. Child activists are terrified at the post-Covid-19 situation which has rendered millions of workers jobless and this will intensify the exploitation of children under the threat of traffickers. Young, vulnerable children will be forced to spend their childhood and teenage years in suffocating sweatshops without nourishing food or payment for their hard labour.
As the pandemic continues to severely hit the country, India has shown the world the fragile current system in which its society is built on. Lockdown measures only intensified already existent gender-based issues leaving women and girls more vulnerable than ever. Gender-sensitive policies are urgently needed to cope with the increasing violence, gender disparities, school dropouts and malnutrition among girls, child labour, and women’s disproportionate unpaid work and caregiving responsibilities.
 For more information on migrants conditions, see:
- Across the country, migrants still forced to walk thousands of miles
- Coronavirus lockdown: 12-year-old Indian migrant worker walks 100 km, dies just 11km away from home
- 42 Migrant Workers Died in Road Accidents While Trying to Return Home during Lockdown: Report
- Gujarat Police to Probe Allegation That Migrant Workers Were Forced Into Container Trucks
- Migrants’ deaths on the tracks a wake-up call for India
- Auraiya road accident: Two more migrant workers die, toll rises to 26
- ‘Lionhearted’ Girl Bikes Dad Across India, Inspiring a Nation
 Alvi, M. & Gupta, M. (2020). Learning in times of lockdown: how Covid-19 is affecting education and food security in India. Food Security, 12, 793–796. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12571-020-01065-4