Over recent decades, India has made impressive gains in reducing poverty and improving lives and livelihoods, lifting more than 270 million people out of poverty between 2006 and 2016.
Yet, despite these gains, women’s economic empowerment continues to lag. Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, less than one in four women in India was estimated to participate in the labour force compared to more than three in four men. This stark gap was already amongst the highest in the world – and the impact of COVID-19 has only widened it further.
Data from numerous countries shows that women lost jobs at higher rates than men as a result of the pandemic. And even as economies regained momentum, women recovered jobs more slowly. In India, one study estimated that women were twice as likely as men to lose jobs and were far less likely to regain employment.
These findings reflect the fact that women tend to be overrepresented in sectors of the economy that are more severely affected by job and livelihood losses.
Off Balanced Domestic Responsibilities in Pandemic
The COVID-19 crisis also increased care responsibilities making it difficult for many women to continue balancing work and home responsibilities. On average, women are estimated to carry out about 10 times as much household work as men, and with COVID-19 women reported a 30 percent increase in household responsibilities such as looking after children staying home from school and caring for other family members.
Earlier this month, the World Economic Forum warned that the pandemic has widened the gender gap around the world and set back gender parity by a generation.
This bleak assessment makes it clear that accelerated efforts are needed to reverse losses and ensure that women’s economic empowerment continues to be a priority, not just to improve the lives of women and their families but to also ensure a robust economic recovery.
Digital Divide Holding Women Back
One opportunity to accelerate women’s economic empowerment may emerge from our evolving ways of working. By compelling workplaces to move their operations online, the COVID-19 pandemic helped to shift views on teleworking and many employers and businesses are now more open to the possibilities of virtual or remote work.
The pandemic also increased the use of digital technology and opened new platforms for e-commerce and online learning, enabling access to markets that were previously out of reach for women micro-entrepreneurs and women’s collectives.
These changes have the potential to normalise new and more flexible ways of working that could benefit women and address barriers many face in working outside the home, including concerns about safety, mobility and balancing work and household responsibilities.
While digital technologies and digitalisation can open important new opportunities for women, the existing digital divide risks leaving many vulnerable women behind. India’s Fifth National Family Health Survey released in December 2020 reveals that only 43 percent of women have ever used the internet, and for rural women that figure drops to just 34 percent.
Improving digital literacy and expanding access to digital technologies is critical to tackling this digital divide and enabling women from all walks of life to benefit from digital transformation.
How Digitalisation Helped Women in Haryana and Telangana
For the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and our partners, a key priority is expanding economic opportunities for underprivileged and marginalised women, including by investing in skilling programmes that increase digital literacy and familiarity with technological tools and platforms.
Such programmes are essential to enabling teleworking and facilitating access to finance and online markets to expand employment and livelihood opportunities and bolster recovery from the impacts of COVID-19.
Through this type of support, a group of women entrepreneurs from Haryana was able to list their bangle-making business on Facebook helping them to vastly expand their market, recover losses they incurred as a result of COVID-19, and increase their earnings by nearly 60 percent during the festive season.
In Telangana, the UNDP developed a digital platform to provide design and financial literacy training to artisans and connect them to markets for their products. As a result, 2,000 handloom weavers and artisans received trainings and were able to significantly expand their businesses. These are just two examples of how narrowing the digital divide can considerably improve the lives and livelihoods of vulnerable women.
Closing the digital gap and boosting opportunities for women to participate equally in economic life will be crucial to sustaining India’s development gains and enabling a stronger and more inclusive recovery.
(The author is is the Deputy Resident Representative of UNDP India. This article includes valuable inputs from Aarti Dayal, Inclusive Growth, UNDP India.
This was originally published in The Quint.