Saturday, October 17, 2020

Poverty and the Pandemic

When the nationwide lockdown to curb the COVID outbreak was announced in March 2020, Sharda, a sixty-year old woman living in one of India’s six hundred thousand villages, had little to worry about. She owned a farm, and  for years, the farm had been the source of livelihood and food for her family. But a few weeks later, Sharda had still not been able to sell the produce. Lack of harvesters and farm workers had brought farm operations to a standstill. With reducing farmgate prices, Sharda was now looking at months of enormous hardship.

Vipul is a man in his twenties. He lives in an Indian metropolitan with his wife and his nine-month old daughter. Till March 2020, he used to work in one of India’s leading consumer goods company. But in April, as the country entered into lockdown and the economy slowed down, Vipul,  along with several other  workers lost their jobs. With no income in sight and dwindling savings, survival has been difficult for Vipul and others like him.

The stories of Sharda and Vipul are similar to thousands across the world. According to the latest estimates by the World Bank, the COVID -19 pandemic is likely to push between 88 and 115 million people into extreme poverty in 2020, setting back poverty reduction by around three years. A large share of the new poor will be concentrated in countries that are already struggling with high poverty rates, but middle-income countries will also be significantly affected. Almost half of the projected new poor will be in Sub-Saharan Africa, with an additional 16 million in South Asia.

The economic and social impacts of the pandemic may vary across different groups and geographies. In the past, epidemics, such as HIV-AIDS, SARS, H1N1, and Ebola, have shown that the most vulnerable often bear the heaviest burden. There is a good possibility that pre-existing gender gaps have intensified due to the adverse effects of COVID-19, thus widening inequalities and reversing gains. Vulnerable groups such as migrants, refugees, and people with disabilities now face greater challenges in accessing services such as health, education, and infrastructure.

Considering the varying impact of the pandemic on different groups, a once-size-fits-all policy package will just not do. What we need is a set of flexible policy responses complemented with interventions that consider the specific circumstances and needs of the poor and vulnerable. These policy interventions must act to minimize the potentially devastating effects of the outbreak on the welfare  of the vulnerable groups, and to limit long-term consequences that would lead to deeper poverty and inequality traps. 

Effective policymaking and monitoring in a situation that is so rapidly evolving require  that decision-makers  have access to timely and relevant data on both impacts and the effectiveness of policy responses. Data can also be a powerful tool to effect change in policy and attitudes. Governments and philanthropies need to adopt a data-driven  approach to this crisis. We need to put in place systems that can gather real-time data on pandemic impacts and monitor  policy and program implementation. This will also help healthcare providers, researchers, public health departments, and regulators to have comprehensive visibility into near-real-time data that is critical for saving lives.

The end to this pandemic may not be in sight, not yet. But the emergency has shown that the right information used in the right way can help save lives all over the world. In the following months, our ability to communicate vital information in effective ways and drive change, can become our endgame in combating COVID-19.

Anubrata Basu - Senior Manager - Research & Communications, Sambodhi

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Rural women in a changing world

The last decade saw the barriers holding women back became less burdensome. 

We saw the rise of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. We witnessed better representation of women in political and corporate stages. We also heard women’s voices rise up in a global chorus, demanding equal rights and choices. 

But these developments, however necessary and desirable, have largely remained confined to urban contexts.

On almost every measure of development, rural women fare worse than rural men or urban women.

Rural women continue to be subjected to stereotypical biases based on cultural beliefs. This, along with the imposition of patriarchal and orthodox boundaries on their choices, create barriers to gender equality.

According to 2017-18 data published by the Indian government’s National Sample Survey Office, more than 70% of rural women workers are engaged in agricultural work. In contrast to their high participation, women own 13.9% of landholdings, the agricultural census of 2015-16 found. Additionally, they often have limited access to resources such as fertiliser credit, and training, and spend more time on unpaid work than rural men and urban men and women.

This disparity is visible in other areas as well. For instance, the 2019 report on Men and Women in India, published by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation highlights that a rural woman earns only INR 179 in daily wages as a casual labourer  in contrast to INR 282 earned by her male counterpart.

The gendered limitations imposed on rural women threaten to destroy their productivity and incomes. 

The COVID-19 pandemic too has had a huge impact on women’s work. Data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) suggest that job losses in April 2020, as compared to April 2019, were larger for rural women than men.

The government of India have a few initiatives in place, set to empower rural women and enhance opportunities for them. Flagship programmes like the, National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) and its components such as the Mahila Kisan Sashaktikaran Pariyojana (MKSP), aim to increase women's participation in agriculture and infrastructure and strengthen community institutions for rural women.

Several non-government organizations (NGOs) and Community Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives have also come forward to extend resources and services to the hardest-to-reach rural women. For instance, Google’s Internet Saathi enables internet-savvy women on bicycles to travel to nearby villages with tables and smartphones to improve their access to the internet. So far, they have reached more than 300,000 women in 18,500 villages.

But before we have more reforms and more interventions and innovations, we need more data on rural women. Looking ahead, policy-makers need gender-sensitive data on the lives of rural women to take action and generate the political will to make change. 

Currently, we measure the poverty of households, not individuals, but the reality is that  women and men living under the same roof experience deprivation to different degrees. The persistence of these disparities helps to embellish an image of the rural woman as a victim instead of an agent of change. With the right resources and policy action, rural women could excel as entrepreneurs, investors, and partners with men.

It is estimated that if women farmers had access to the same resources as men, there could be 150 million fewer hungry people through the rise in output.

Governments and international organisations must adopt gender-sensitive metrics which measures individuals on multiple dimensions beyond money, including access to food, clothing, family planning, and freedom from violence. This would help collect more relevant evidence and data to design programmes and policies that are better oriented to serve rural women.

The issue of empowering rural women is not just a challenge, it is also an opportunity, one we must act on quickly.

Anubrata Basu - Senior Manager - Research & Communications, Sambodhi