India’s fight against COVID-19 is at a critical juncture. Against the backdrop of recent economic reforms by the government, and significant stimulus packages, recovery measures are poised to lift millions from this unprecedented economic and health crisis and tackle widening inequalities. The recovery is offering India two golden opportunities: one, to build climate resilience for the most vulnerable by ensuring that stimulus measures are green; and two, to meaningfully address long-standing gender equality issues.
The pandemic has exacted a heavy toll. Fragile health systems and frontline health workers are overburdened and lives and livelihoods impacted. The poor, Adivasis, migrants, informal workers, sexual minorities, people with disabilities and women all face a greater brunt than most. Beyond this, the causes and effects of climate change — stressed agriculture, food insecurity, unplanned urban growth, thinning forest covers, rising temperatures and shrinking water resources — have also hit vulnerable groups disproportionately.
Women in particular have their work cut out for them. Greater demands of unpaid care work during the pandemic and rising rates of reported violence are a stark reminder of the work that remains to be done. According to the India Voluntary National Review 2020, female labour force participation rate for the 15-59 age group is showing a declining trend and stands at 25.3%. This is one of the lowest rates in the world.
Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund estimates that equal participation of women in the workforce will increase India’s GDP by 27%.
The Indian government has invested nearly $22.5 billion in COVID-19 recovery. Strengthening social protection using targeted and appropriate fiscal and policy measures is a good start. Aligning these recovery packages with India’s commitments on climate change by investing in green jobs will improve lives and make our planet healthier. These green investments ought to be reflected across agriculture, urban planning, energy and the health sectors and in climate-resilient civil works, including under MGNREGA.
Women, particularly those from indigenous and marginalised communities, play a significant yet unsung role in various sectors. Comprising more than 50% of the agricultural labour force, and nearly 14% of all entrepreneurs, women’s relationship with the environment and the informal economy can be a useful lever of action to transform the lives and livelihoods of their families and communities.
Equipping women with skills
Disha, a UNDP initiative supported by the IKEA Foundation, has reached one million women and girls with skills and livelihood opportunities. This initiative has shown the benefits of investing in local jobs for women and vulnerable communities. These investments energise local economies, reduce carbon emissions, enhance climate resilience and disrupt social norms and behaviours that restrict women’s participation in the workforce. Another example comes from an initiative by the Self-Employed Women’s Association and the Electronics Sector Skills Council of India, and supported by the UN Environment Programme. By training young rural women to develop a cadre of 15,000 solar technicians for the maintenance of solar pumps in remote locations, the initiative will not only introduce clean energy options but also reduce production costs. Accelerating the transition to renewable energy will lower carbon footprints and can help provide sustainable livelihoods to poor women.
Creating the right financial incentives, fostering sustainable public-private partnerships and enabling women entrepreneurs to access markets, training and mentoring will be critical in scaling up these approaches. The Asian Development Bank projects that India’s GDP growth rate will rebound to 8% in 2021-22. Putting women at the heart of this recovery will make it faster, just and inclusive.
Shoko Noda is UNDP Resident Representative in India; Atul Bagai is Head, UN Environment Country Office, India
This article was originially published on The Hindu.