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Payal Khatoon, second from left, 11, makes bidi, a type of cigarette, with her family in Aurangabad, India on Sept. 17, 2020. Former students are taking illegal and often dangerous jobs in India and other developing countries, potentially rolling back years of progress in social mobility and public health. (Atul Loke/The New York Times)

ATUL LOKE/The New York Times News Service

As days turn cooler, the coming festive and tourist season is usually the busiest time of the year for the 2,000-member women’s collective of embroiderers at Urmul Desert Crafts in the state of Rajasthan, India.

Not this year. With the pandemic-induced downturn, work has come to a near standstill.

“It’s an enormous crisis for the artisans. With the demand and production cycle destroyed, it will take at least two years to recover," said Arvind Ojha, chief executive of Urmul. "It’s a question of survival now, and many of them are scrambling for whatever work they can find – in construction or firework factories – which is a huge loss of dignity and income for skilled artisans.”

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Women across the world have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, data show, raising concerns that it will set the battle for gender equality back a decade. Between layoffs and decisions to quit paid work to handle the increased load at home, women’s careers are increasingly being sidelined.

The effects of an economic downturn that some are calling a “she-cession” are especially damaging in India. Even before the pandemic, female participation in the country’s work force was already alarmingly low, at just 20 per cent, according to a World Bank report.

At least four out of 10 women in India lost their jobs in April and May, and 39 per cent of women reported a loss of employment compared with 29 per cent of men, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. Oxfam India estimates the economic loss from women becoming unemployed during the pandemic at about US$216-billion, which makes the country’s GDP 8 per cent poorer.

“Women are losing more jobs because they were anyway more vulnerable. They are at a lower level in the hierarchy with precarious conditions of work and poor social security,” said Neetha N., a gender and labour expert and director of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies. (She goes by one name and an initial, a common practice in some parts of India.)

Aamina Siddiqui, a beautician based in Gurugram, a city just southwest of New Delhi, knows this precariousness only too well. Until March, she was working with a home-services company that connected her to customers through an app.

“I was earning about 50,000 rupees [about $900] a month till the lockdown. The company resumed services a few months ago, but I decided it was too risky to go back to work," she said. "I was not offered health insurance and was told to purchase safety kits from my earnings. Since then, we have been dependent on my husband’s income. Our savings are nearly over and we have just about enough to cover essential bills, forget any luxuries.”

The numbers are rapidly stacking up against women. Female employment in April was at 61 per cent of the prelockdown yearly average; for men it was 71 per cent, according to a research paper by Ashwini Deshpande, an economist at Ashoka University. After the reopening of the economy, women who had been employed before the lockdown were 23.5 percentage points less likely to be employed than men.

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In India, women face enormous challenges stepping out to work: lack of safe public transit; widespread violence against women; poor work conditions and shifts; and limited child-care facilities. The pandemic has deepened these vulnerabilities. It has also magnified the burden of unpaid care work, a responsibility that weighs far more on women than on men.

A new report from the National Statistical Office shows just how disproportionate the situation is: Indian women on average spend 243 minutes a day on domestic work, almost 10 times the 25 minutes that the average man spends on housework.

Navneet Singh, founder of Avsar, an HR services company, cites this care burden as the main reason women are locked out of jobs more than men at this time.

“The reverse migration, where many employees went back to their villages after the lockdown was lifted, left many companies in the cities frantically looking for workers, particularly female employees in retail and hospitality," he said. "But we have more men than women available for jobs at the moment because women are staying home to look after their children and housework.”

Young working women are reeling under more pressure than anyone else.

Working from home has meant a stressful juggle for a 32-year-old Mumbai-based finance professional: between office work, house work and primary care for her toddler son. (The Globe and Mail is not identifying her so she can speak freely about her employment conditions.)

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“I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I think of quitting my job every day,” she said. “Our nanny migrated back to her village. A new part-time helper is risky and we can’t hire live-in help due to lack of space."

To add to her troubles, her company has announced a pay cut of 30 per cent for those who continue working from home. Daycares remain shut. Her husband will return to the office soon; she will take the pay cut.

The impact of the pandemic is even graver for women lower on the economic strata who work in blue-collar jobs or informal sectors. Work from home is not an option for these women, who make up 94 per cent of the total female work force.

“Women tend to work more in service sectors [than in manufacturing], which have been adversely hit due to rules around social distancing,” said Soumya Kapoor Mehta, head of the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE) at Krea University’s LEAD research centre.

During the pandemic, women’s self-help groups and ASHA workers – accredited social health activists, who are considered volunteers and paid modest stipends – have been at the forefront of health care efforts in rural areas. They have been tracking patients, leading door-to-door campaigns around heightened domestic violence and running community kitchens for migrants in quarantine centres. However, they aren’t being paid on time or facing pay cuts, Ms. Mehta has found.

In the past few months, ASHA workers have gone on strike and staged protests across the country, demanding better and more timely pay, regular medical checkups and PPE kits. Workplaces employing primarily women that reopened after the lockdown, such as clothing factories, kept their creches shut, which forced many workers to opt out of their jobs.

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A majority of domestic workers, estimated to be three million women, have lost their jobs since the lockdown and have not been called back to work for fear of the virus being passed on to employers, spurring a #hireusback campaign on social media.

“With women’s low participation in the work force already a huge concern prepandemic, women’s employment has gone from one crisis to another, with new tensions and new issues,” said Neetha N., the gender and labour expert.

Those with access to the internet – just 16 per cent – find some opportunities opening up.

“The texture of jobs for women is changing at this time,” said Sairee Chahal, founder of Sheroes, a networking and jobs platform for women. “There is an uptick in the availability of remote jobs, which is beneficial, and micro entrepreneurship is mushrooming, with about 30 million women self-employed.

"The challenge is finding full-time work opportunities. The pandemic has made sections of corporate jobs redundant that have been broken into gig jobs,” she said.

Experts say the gig culture could make work for women more unstable. “It may be beneficial for companies but not the female work force because it doesn’t offer social protection and benefits,” said Mr. Singh of the HR services company.

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To stem the damage of the she-cession, several strategies need to be fast tracked, says Ms. Mehta of IWWAGE.

“Our first call has been to expand wage employment opportunities for women, and also ensure their food and nutrition security," she said. "Plus, emergency cash transfers, and an expansion of formal child-care centres.”

It will take years to fill the widening gaps and it is an issue that needs long-term attention and an urgent shift in attitude, Neetha N. says.

“In all policies, the underlying assumption is that women are secondary earners. The state needs to accept that women have equal status as workers.”

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