Bangladesh economy is being severely affected due to the onslaught of Covid-19 pandemic. Many people are losing their jobs, but the rate of joblessness is worse among women compared to their male counterparts. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has warned recently that the risks of women losing jobs are much higher compared to men. As a result, the modest progress achieved in the area of gender equality over the past few decades may have evaporated. The experts have also cautioned that it would not be easy to bring back to the mainstream those women who have lost their jobs.
Womenfolk in Bangladesh typically find employment in the garments industry, the services sector including hotels and restaurants, as well as agriculture, handicrafts and household work. But they are fast becoming unemployed both in the formal and informal sectors. The female small entrepreneurs are also retreating in the wake of capital scarcity. Besides, many expatriate female workers are returning home after being retrenched or forced to give up jobs.
According to ILO figures, about 40 percent female workers numbering about 510 million have been adversely affected worldwide by the pandemic. This rate is 36.6 percent for males. There is no possibility of the situation getting back to normal before 2021. The Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) has found through a survey that about 13 percent of the country's labour force has become unemployed due to the novel coronavirus outbreak. It conducted this survey among 30 thousand respondents in all districts of the country during June.
A similar survey by BRAC in May also found gender variations with regard to economic vulnerability owing to the pandemic. Compared to male-led families, female-led ones suffer more due to economic lockdowns in Bangladesh. About 57 percent of the latter earned zero-incomes compared to 49 percent for the former. The NGOs 'Steps towards Development' and 'Gender and Development Alliance' (GaD Alliance) revealed that 80 percent of small female entrepreneurs in villages had to shut down their businesses owing to lockdowns.
In a blog-post released on 21 July, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned that the pandemic threatened to roll back gains in women's economic opportunities by widening the gender gap, which persist in developing countries like Bangladesh, despite previous 30 years' advancements. However, well-designed policies can foster recovery by mitigating the negative effects of Covid-19 among women and prevent further setbacks. And what is good for the womenfolk is ultimately beneficial for addressing the wider income inequality and challenges to socio-economic growth cum resilience.
There are several reasons why Covid-19 has disproportionately upended the economic wellbeing of womenfolk. Firstly, they are more likely to work in social sectors compared to males - such as the services and retail sectors, tourism and hospitality that usually require face-to-face interactions. But these sectors have been hit hardest by social distancing and mitigation measures. Only about 12 percent population in low-income countries can work remotely, where tele-working is not an option for most women.
Secondly, women are more likely to be employed in the informal sector compared to men. Often remunerated in cash with no official oversight, this informal employment leaves them with lower pay. In addition, there is no protection from labour laws, and benefits like pension or health insurance are virtually absent. Therefore, the livelihoods of informal female workers have been severely disrupted by the pandemic. For example, women's poverty in Colombia has worsened by 3.3 percent because of the shutdowns. According to UN estimates, the pandemic is likely to increase the number of people living below poverty line in Latin America and the Caribbean by 15.9 million, many of whom are females.
Thirdly, women tend to do more unpaid household work compared to men. They bear a lion's share of family-care responsibilities that result from lockdown measures like school closures, as well as precautionary care for the vulnerable elders. Besides, they are traditionally slower to return to full employment even after shutdown measures are lifted. For example, the May jobs report in Canada showed female employment rising by only 1.1 percent against 2.4 percent for males. This is mainly because of persistent childcare issues. It has been found that among parents with at least one child under the age of 6 years, men were three times more likely to return to work compared to women.
Fourthly, there is greater risk of women losing their human capital during pandemics. Many young girls in developing countries are forced to drop out of schools and undertake work to supplement household income. For example, the proportion of girls not attending schools nearly tripled in Liberia following the Ebola outbreak, and girls were 25 percent less likely than boys to re-enrol in Guinea. Leading matrimonial websites in India have reported 30 percent surge in new registrations during the pandemic, as families arrange such marriages for securing their daughters' future. These girls suffer a permanent loss in human capital without education, thereby sacrificing their potential productivity and perpetuating a vicious cycle of poverty and lesser income.
It is therefore crucial for policy-makers to undertake measures for limiting the scarring effects of Covid-19 on women. These may include a renewed focus on extending income support to the vulnerable groups, preserving employment linkages, providing incentives for balancing work and family-care, improving access to healthcare and family planning, and extending support to small businesses and the self-employed.
Eliminating the legal barriers against economic empowerment of women can also be prioritised. Some countries have already made moves to adopt some of these policies. These can also be designed for the long-run to address gender disparity by creating conditions and providing incentives for women to work. Effective moves in that direction include gender-responsive fiscal policies like investing in education and infrastructure, subsidising childcare, and sanctioning parental leaves. Apart from being vital to lifting the constraints on economic empowerment of women, these policies are essential for promoting a gender-inclusive recovery in the post-Covid-19 era.
The writer is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly;