In the video, the woman lies dead, her body laid out on the railway platform at Muzaffarpur, Bihar. A toddler, presumably the woman’s, plays by her side, tugging at the sheet that covers her.

For weeks, a grim nation had watched migrant workers struggle to return home after they found themselves stranded in urban India with no means of survival, due to the abrupt imposition of the strict nationwide lockdown on March 24. Transportation services were suspended until, on May 1, Indian Railways began operating special “Shramik” trains for stranded migrant workers.

On May 23, Arvina Khatoon, the woman on the railway platform, and her family had boarded one such train in Ahmedabad. Early media reports suggested she subsequently died of hunger and dehydration. East Central Railways claimed Khatoon was already ill when she boarded the train.

Eight months earlier, Arvina Khatoon of Srikol village, Katihar district, Bihar, had travelled with family, including her children, to Ahmedabad to work on a construction site. After the lockdown stopped work, she managed to borrow Rs 3,000 for food. The family then took a Shramik train to return home, where at least they would not starve.

Video courtesy: NDTV/YouTube

How did Arvina Khatoon of Katihar, Bihar – identified as one of the 20-most backward districts in the country by the Niti Aayog – end up working on a construction site in Ahmedabad, Gujarat? Behind the tragedy of an individual story, lies the old story of migration for labour.

Many of the problems faced by migrant labour – precarity of employment, lack of social security, poor safety – and by the increasing numbers of women migrating for work had existed for years. The construction sector, for instance, continues to rely on a low wage, poor migrant labourers like Arvina Khatoon, living in hazardous conditions on urban construction sites.

Though men account for over 80% of all internal migration for work, female migration more than doubled in the decade to 2011. Yet the issues particular to migrant women labourers remain largely ignored in policy and programme interventions, studies have shown.

With the uproar following the death of Arvina Khatoon, these problems became a focus of national debate for the first time.

In this first article in a new series, Women@Work 2.0, which will examine the barriers to women’s employment and the solutions, we report that the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the situation of women’s employment overall. Eight months after the lockdown was imposed, 13% fewer women than a year ago were employed or looking for jobs, compared to 2% fewer men, data show. Urban women saw the deepest losses.

Women entrepreneurs are struggling to survive, women employed as domestic help in cities, at construction sites and in call centres, and in handicraft and retail units, have lost jobs, IndiaSpend reported in November.

Women disproportionately affected

“There is a back story of how Arvina Khatoon of Katihar ended up working in construction in Gujarat,” said Indrani Mazumdar, a retired fellow of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies in Delhi. “This is not about an individual case but represents a far more general trend in women’s migration for labour.”

Men account for over 80% of all internal migration for work in India. But between 2001 and 2011, female migration more than doubled from around 4.1 million to 8.5 million, Mazumdar and Neetha N wrote in a paper published in The Economic and Political Weekly in May.

In 2001, 47% of women migrating for work were headed to urban areas. By 2011, it was 58%, Mazumdar told IndiaSpend. “Notwithstanding the visibility of women among these migrants, the gender dimensions of the migrant question and the special conditions of women’s labour migration remained largely ignored or sidelined in the public policy debates and interventions that were pushed to centre-stage by the Covid-19 pandemic,” she added.

The failure of “official macro data to delineate the scope, scale and patterns of female labour migration” and thus incorporate gender in development approaches to internal migration, was also highlighted in an IWWAGE report in May 2019.

These policy failures could prove costly. “Emerging trends underline how the convergence of poverty, gender and marginalisation has played out during the pandemic, to render women, and specific categories amongst them, especially vulnerable,” write Indu Agnihotri of Centre for Women’s Development Studies and Asha Hans, founding director, School of Women’s Studies, Utkal University, Bhubaneswar, in a forthcoming book on Covid-19 and migration.

Women pay the highest price during any major economic shock, said Mahesh Vyas, managing director and CEO of the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, whose Consumer Pyramids Household Survey has collected weekly data at a national level since January 2016 from close to 175,000 households.

In the aftermath of demonetisation, 2.4 million women fell off the employment map while 0.9 million men came into jobs, said Vyas. Thus, it was women who bore the entire pain of job loss caused by demonetisation. The economic shock caused by the Covid-19 pandemic is no different, he told IndiaSpend.

While it has “hit both genders”, in absolute numbers more men than women lost jobs simply because there are more men than women in the labour force, to begin with, said Vyas. “The hit on women, especially urban women, has been disproportionately high,” he added.

The steepest fall in employment happened during the lockdown in April, when employment numbers crashed from over 400 million for January 2019-March 2020 to 282 million in April, according to calculations based on Centre for Monitoring India Economy data by economist Ashwini Deshpande.

From April onwards, job recovery has risen steadily but has been lopsided in terms of gender. For men, the job graph has seen a steady rise, while for women there has been a dip in October and November figures, economist Mitali Nikore told IndiaSpend. Total employment in India for November was 2.4% lower than in November 2019, but among urban women, it was down by 22.83%, according to Nikore’s calculations, also using Centre for Monitoring India Economy data.

Source: Mitali Nikore, Nikore Associates
Source: Mitali Nikore, Nikore Associates
Source: IZA Institute of Labour Economics, October 2020

In November, eight months after the lockdown began and five months after the phased reopening, there were still 13.5 million fewer people – 6.8 million men, 6.7 million women – in the labour force compared to November 2019. In percentage terms, the labour force had shrunk by 13% for women but just 2% for men, found Nikore. This means that 13% of women had dropped out of the labour force – they were neither employed nor looking for a job.

Of the 6.7 million women displaced from the labour force during this period, 2.3 million were rural women while 4.4 million were urban women. In fact, urban women saw the deepest losses with a labour force contraction of 27.2%, said Nikore. For urban men, the contraction was 2.8%.

Death of a dream

Anju Baa, 22, from Ramabahal village in Odisha’s Sundargarh district, arrived in Delhi in January, to take up a new job with agriculture magazine Krishi Jagran.

The only child of a domestic helper working in Delhi, Anju had been brought up in Odisha. In 2018, Anju graduated in arts from a Rourkela college, some 43 km from her village. She then enrolled in various computer classes until she landed the job with Krishi Jagran and moved to Delhi.

Working as a trainee in the magazine’s marketing department, Anju earned a stipend of Rs 6,000 a month. She was hopeful of getting confirmed six months later at a larger salary plus commissions earned on new subscriptions.

Then, on March 25, everything shut down. “I was paid for half the month,” said Anju. “They told us to go home and that they would get in touch with us when corona (sic) was over,” she told IndiaSpend. She never heard from them again.

Anju stayed with her mother in Delhi, with little to do, until July 25, when her mother found out that an acquaintance from their village was going back on a Shramik train. “What was the point of keeping her when you do not know how long this state of affairs will continue?” her mother, Rani Baa, told IndiaSpend. So, five months after she came to Delhi for work, Anju went back home.

At first, Anju helped with the rice crop. Then, there was nothing to do. “I tried to get some work as a data entry operator, but even in Rourkela there are no vacancies,” said Anju.

Some 10 other women from Anju’s village who went to cities in search of jobs were also back home, she said. None of them plan to go back to cities, and none have found employment back home yet.

“Once corona is over, I will come back to Delhi and try my luck again,” said Anju. “I am sure I will get a job there.”

Women are falling off the labour map

The pandemic’s cost to women’s employment has worsened an already precarious situation. India has one of the world’s lowest female labour force participation rates, according to the International Labour Organization.

Close to 25 million women workers exited the workforce after 2011-’12, and if we go back to 2004-’05, the number is 47 million across India and across socio-economic and caste groups, said Indrani Mazumdar. Such a large-scale decline in labour force participation by women is unprecedented anywhere in the world, she added.

In 2015-’16, only 24% of India’s employable women worked, according to the 2018 Economic Survey. At roughly the same time that women were quitting jobs, an additional 24.3 million men went to work, according to a 2017 World Bank report. The labour force participation for women remained at 23.6% by 2018, the Gender Equality Index showed. The decline was sharp even among educated women.

In 2017, IndiaSpend’s year-long Women@Work project investigated the reasons for this decline, despite economic liberalisation, rising female enrolment in school and women’s improved health indicators.

We found a complex network of reasons, including social and cultural barriers to women’s employment. Household work expectations from women, particularly mothers, lack of safe and affordable public transportation and government policy interventions that were not always helpful.

Where does women’s employment stand in a pandemic-hit and post-pandemic world? Women@Work 2.0 will examine the shape and contour of this unfolding situation.

Data tell us that women have already paid a disproportionately higher price both in terms of losing jobs as well as regaining employment during the pandemic. In a job crisis, fewer women tend to look for jobs.

Inadequate mobility and safety and lack of childcare options were restricting women in urban centres from seeking work, according to IWWAGE’s “Impact of Covid-19 on Working Women” report published in August. The threat of returning migrant men replacing women in rural work was also highlighted in the report. In villages, women’s participation in public employment schemes has dipped as men who returned from cities during the lockdown replaced them, IndiaSpend reported in November.

In November, 20 million, or 67% of 30 million unemployed men, said they were actively looking for jobs, according to the latest Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy data. Among women, only 7.2 million of the 19.6 million unemployed – 37% – said they were looking for jobs.

“When economic conditions are tough, women are discouraged from looking for work,” Nikore explained.

And yet, at the height of the pandemic, it was an army of frontline women health workers – one million accredited social health activists, 1.2 million Anganwadi workers and over 200,000 auxiliary nurses and midwives – who took on additional responsibilities at considerable risk to themselves. During the pandemic, many were sent out without protective gear to collect and collate data. Some were met with threats and physical violence from people scared of being identified as Covid-positive and isolated.

Possible long-term changes

How did WFH, that catchy 2020 acronym for “work from home”, impact women in the workplace?

Economist Ashwini Deshpande also looked at how the gender division of housework panned out during and after the lockdown, in a paper for international nonprofit research institute IZA Institute of Labour Economics in October.

Using the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy data, Deshpande calculated that pre-pandemic, a woman with at least one child aged below five spent an average of 6.15 hours a day on housework. For a man with a child aged below five, it was 1.78 hours on average.

By August, as both domestic helpers and their employers returned to full-time jobs, men’s time on domestic chores declined but, noted Deshpande, “did not fully go back to pre-pandemic levels”. Post-pandemic, the average hours spent on housework by the same woman came down on average to 5.82 hours, with the average for men rising to 2.23 hours.

In April, soon after the lockdown was imposed, the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy’s Vyas had been cautiously optimistic about the impact WFH might have on women’s labour force participation, in conversation with IndiaSpend. The lockdown after all saved women valuable time that would otherwise be spent commuting. It made it easier for them to look after domestic responsibilities as well as conduct the business of being employed.

Not everyone, however, was thrilled with the WFH experience. “Earlier when I went to work, I left the house behind and when I came back from the office, I left my job behind,” said Pallavi (not her real name), who works as an in-house counsel for an engineering firm. Now, those boundaries have blurred and work-from-home has increasingly begun looking like live-at-work, she said.

Many states have kept schools and day-care facilities shut, meaning parents, particularly mothers, must also keep overseeing online classes for their children, Pallavi told IndiaSpend. “Helping my eight-year-old with his classes and keeping him busy is itself a fulltime job,” said Pallavi, who now goes to work only twice a week.

The bigger burden of combined pressure of “work from home” with increased childcare, home-schooling, elderly care and housework falling on women was highlighted in IWWAGE’s August report.

Would the economic shock caused by the pandemic result in long-lasting behavioural change in men, and would this lead to greater women’s participation in the workforce in the long-term? Or was men’s greater contribution to housework just a blip, when even the government reinforces stereotypes that housework is a woman’s job? Nowhere in the world is housework equally divided between men and women, but in India, the gender gap for this unpaid labour is particularly large, a 2018 ILO study noted.

“Any such shift in India has significant implications for livelihoods and quality of life,” said Deshpande. “India has been struggling with slowing growth, rising inequality and significant persistent gender gaps. If the pandemic enables the economy to break out of persistent patterns, this would be a much-needed and welcome development.”

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.