Desperate for work, Sabila Dafadar walks every morning from her poor neighborhood tucked behind tall glass and chrome buildings in the business hub of Gurugram, 32 kilometers from New Delhi, to a busy intersection where day laborers wait for contractors who come to pick up construction workers.
After she migrated from her village 10 years ago, she easily found jobs both as household help and in an office as a cleaner. Like millions of other women, she lost her job last year during a stringent lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although Indian businesses and factories have reopened, it has been tough for Dafadar to find work as the economy struggles to recover.
“I have only managed to get work for 15 days during the last three months,” the 35-year-old said.
While women around the world have been hit harder by job losses than have men during the pandemic, the impact on women in India has been particularly severe, experts say.
Even before the pandemic, women made up only about 20% of India’s labor force – far below the global average and lower than is the case in such South Asian countries as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Many of them work in India’s vast informal sector.
Now there are fears their space will shrink further, particularly for women from poorer households.
“Women are in distress in terms of reentering the labor force, especially urban women who were the worst affected,” said Sona Mitra, principal economist at Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy in New Delhi.
“Many who worked or ran small enterprises such as beauty or tailoring services and tiny shops used up their savings during the shutdown and could not restart work when the economy reopened. Others were concentrated in sectors like the garment industry and call centers where workers have less safeguards and can be hired and fired easily.”
A report by the Center of Sustainable Employment at Aziz Premji University this year said more women and younger workers lost jobs during a stringent lockdown last year and that even after jobs recovered, fewer women were able to return to the workforce.
While women are again picking up work, many have had to turn to lower-paid and less secure employment.
“For example, when small private schools in cities shut down, teachers went back to villages and joined unskilled work,” said Amarjeet Kaur, general secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress, one of India’s largest trade unions.
“So, the direction for many women during COVID and even post-COVID has been from skilled to semi-skilled and unskilled work,” she said.
‘Opportunities simply are not there’
Although the formal sector accounts for a much smaller percentage of India’s overall female workforce, here too women were disproportionately affected because industries such as hospitality, tourism and retail that employ more women were the worst-hit.
Six women were among employees laid off last year by a food delivery company in its New Delhi office – women made up a majority of the staff.
“It has been very hard for them to find work,” said a former manager who asked that her name not be used.
“The opportunities simply are not there,” she said.
The women who had lost jobs would not speak on the record.
Experts say the pandemic has highlighted a paradox that women faced even earlier – a steady decline in their participation in the workforce despite rising levels of education and a growing pool of women with college degrees.
From a little over 30% in 2011, their share in the workforce fell to about 20% in 2019.
“The pandemic simply magnified what was already happening. The big employing sectors have not been creating jobs and everything just became much more bare in the job market,” said Sairee Sahal, founder of SHEROES, a portal for female job seekers.
“In retail for example, what has been growing is e-commerce where women’s presence is marginal and not brick-and-mortar retail that employs a lot of women,” she said.
The public health crisis that has kept schools closed for the last year and a half also worsened the situation.
“Social norms in India put the primary burden of household chores and child care on women and put restrictions on their mobility,” Mitra said.
Calling shrinking opportunities for women a wake-up call, she said policymakers must spur expansion of labor-intensive sectors such as garment manufacturing, where women have more opportunities.
“While some work is coming back, we see it coming in the lower rung of the economy,” she said.
Those working on women’s issues say the shrinking space for them will affect not just the economic but also the social position of women in a country where they have struggled to break free of patriarchal norms.
“When they lose their earnings, they lose their independence and status. We have seen that happening during the pandemic,” Kaur said.
“And women who have no support system find themselves struggling to make ends meet,” she added.
Dafadar is aware of that situation.
“In the past year and a half, I have cut back on whatever I could, including food by half.” she said as she looked into the road, hoping for a day’s work.