COVID-19 has devastated India’s self-employed women. Here’s how to support them

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Mirai Chatterjee, Chairperson, SEWA Cooperative Federation, Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA)

  • Self-employed women in India have been facing the brunt of the pandemic.
  • The informal sector plays a pivotal role in the Indian economy – accounting for 55% of GDP.
  • The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) is working to support informal women workers in India.
  • Lasuben Shivlal Raval is a 70-year-old grandmother from Ahmedabad in India. She has worked as a ‘headloader’ – a goods carrier – in one of the city’s biggest wholesale cloth markets for decades. Her work was always tough, but life became immeasurably harder for Lasuben and her fellow workers when Covid-19 struck and business slumped. Yet she has not given up, and in her position as the leader of the local headloaders she has helped coordinate assistance for her sister workers.

    The efforts of Lasuben and thousands of aagewans, or local women leaders, has been crucial in the current crisis. Embedded in their communities, they have been pivotal in providing health education and awareness about coronavirus, as well as linking people to basic medical care.

    The impact of COVID-19 in India has been devastating, and the burden has not fallen equally. Women employed in the country’s huge informal economy have been hit disproportionately hard as millions of livelihoods have become even more precarious or evaporated completely. As the world looks beyond the current crisis to a post-pandemic future, it is essential to ensure lower-skilled workers like Lasuben are not left behind by the shifting tectonic plates of the global labour market, and that they have the tools to achieve self-reliance.

    The task is daunting. Women employed as domestic workers in India’s cities – frequently migrants from rural areas – have lost work in vast numbers, forcing many to return to their home villages. Those working as street vendors could not sell their goods due to lockdowns and manual labourers have also seen demand for their services disappear overnight.

    This dire situation is made doubly hard by the increased demands on women to provide unpaid care to the sick, the elderly and young children during the health emergency and prolonged lock-downs. With schools and childcare centres shut for over a year now, the challenges are manifold.

    This loss of work and rise in care demands has left many women and their families struggling for survival. Unsurprisingly, it is the poorest and most vulnerable households that are the worst affected, with many now going hungry and having to cope by cutting back their food consumption.

    The problematic combination of informal work, poverty and gender bias is common in many developing nations, but it is particularly acute in India, given the structure of the economy and society. The country has one of the world’s highest rates of informal employment – and the pandemic has increased this further, leaving the vast majority of citizens outside the protection of labour laws or any social security net. Today, an estimated 93% of the workforce, or 500 million people, work informally in India, compared to a global average of 61%.

    With unemployment rising in both urban and rural settings, the situation is particularly severe for women, who tend to have lower-paying and less secure work than men. As result, women have suffered more livelihood losses than men during the pandemic, as pre-existing gender inequalities exacerbate an already difficult situation. What is more, the experience from India’s first wave of COVID-19 was that men are the first workers to be taken back as lockdown restrictions are eased.

    Faced with this erosion of livelihoods, there is an urgent need for a cooperative approach to help women – both to help them survive the crisis in the short term and to get them back on their feet to find gainful employment in the longer term.

    My organization, the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), has half a century of experience in organizing women through a joint strategy of union and cooperatives. Inspired by the values of Mahatma Gandhi, it brings together 1.8 million informal women workers across 18 Indian states in a national trade union. Today, we are putting this collective strength to work to fight the devastation caused by the pandemic.

    We support women like Lasuben and Ayeshaben, a garment worker turned health worker. She first joined the cooperative movement without being able to read or write but is now a key member of a healthcare cooperative that disseminates information on sexual-reproductive health and provides COVID-19 relief. We have provided community health kits and food boxes to self-employed women leaders, as well as teleconsultations with doctors and counsellors in half a dozen different languages.

    Women prepare community health kits
    SEWA has provided community health kits and food boxes to self-employed women leaders during the pandemic Image: SEWA

    At the same time, we must look to the future, given the structural obstacles facing informal women workers in India. Unfortunately, the pandemic has added to several labour-market changes already underway that disadvantage women, including a shift to greater mechanization of farm and construction work, which has traditionally been done by hand by women.

    The pandemic has also exposed a growing digital divide in society. This division needs to be addressed as a priority if the accelerated shift towards online working is not to exclude millions of workers without the skills or resources to participate.

    Yet despite these problems, there are also opportunities for women microentrepreneurs and female-owned collective enterprises to tap into, if they receive the right support. Examples include artisans who have switched to making protective face masks; a health cooperative producing Ayurvedic medicines that is now supplying hand sanitizers and immune system boosters; and catering businesses that are providing tiffin (packed meal) deliveries for isolating individuals and families.

    What is the COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship?

    The COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship is a coalition of 85 global leaders, hosted by the World Economic Forum. Its mission: Join hands in support of social entrepreneurs everywhere as vital first responders to the pandemic and as pioneers of a green, inclusive economic reality.

    Its COVID Social Enterprise Action Agenda, outlines 25 concrete recommendations for key stakeholder groups, including funders and philanthropists, investors, government institutions, support organizations, and corporations. In January of 2021, its members launched its 2021 Roadmap through which its members will roll out an ambitious set of 21 action projects in 10 areas of work. Including corporate access and policy change in support of a social economy.

    For more information see the Alliance website or its “impact story” here.

    In the agricultural sector, meanwhile, women are joining together to protect and improve the food supply chain – an essential component both for food security and to ensure a sustainable livelihood for farmers.

    We must now build on these successes to help women’s enterprises explore new strategies and provide them with the right training, digital tools and working capital to succeed – whether they are based in cities or the countryside.

    Specific ideas include connecting farmers with consumers of their vegetables in local cities via WhatsApp, opening a direct marketing link that cuts out middlemen, or supporting a city-based cooperative to establish a deep-cleaning business for offices to meet today’s more stringent requirements.

    One thing is clear: the informal sector plays a pivotal role in the Indian economy – accounting for 55% of GDP – and big business, government and society at large must do more to ensure that its workers receive a fair deal. This ultimately means universal health care, as well as social protections like childcare, insurance and pensions.

    The vulnerability of millions of informal sector women workers has been cruelly exposed by the pandemic. But with the right decentralized approach, re-building from the local upwards, we can build a better future for them, their families and their enterprises.

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