India’s Union Budget 2021-’22 is of distinct importance, given that the country is still reeling under the Covid-19 pandemic, which has worsened its already weak economy. At the micro-level, women were the first to face the brunt of the economic slowdown, loss of livelihoods and weakened income capacities.

With women constituting almost half of India’s population (48%), their economic contribution to the GDP stands at around 17%. As traditional caregivers, most roles played by women are not considered as contributors to the economy.

Gender-responsive budgeting

In order to address the inherent gender disparities, all programmes and policies should be designed to address gender-based problems such as violence, sexual harassment and the wage gap.

In India, gender-responsive budgeting was first introduced in 2001 and mandated in 2006, with the aim of gender inclusivity at all stages of policymaking. The gender budget is prepared in two parts – Part A, which lays out allocations to schemes and programmes that are exclusively targeted to benefit women and girls, and Part B, in which at least 30% allocations are earmarked for women and girls.

The total allocation of the gender budget in 2020-’21 was Rs 1,43,461.72 crores. Of this, Rs 28,568.32 crores were allocated under Part A and Rs 1,14,893 crores under Part B. This is a general trend in gender budget where allocation in Part A, which caters exclusively to women and girls, is approximately one-fifth of the total gender budget.

In 2020-’21, the gender budget was 4.7% of the total budget expenditure, which is a 0.6% decline from 2019-’20, while it was 4.1% of the total budget in 2018-’19.

Even though the gender budgets aim to empower women, more often than not, many ministries report schemes under part A, that do not translate to gender equality. For instance, gas connection to poor households, which is cemented in the belief that women are the sole caretakers of the family. This defeats the purpose of women empowerment. Budget 2021 should go beyond mere allocations towards women and address issues like health, livelihoods and education that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Out of the total health budget of 2020-’21, only 4% was allocated for women and girls as per the Gender Budget Statement. Closure of outpatient departments and Anganwadi centres due to the pandemic has caused problems for expectant mothers and parents having children up to five years, with a drop in health care for pregnant women and vaccinations for children.

A woman worker carries bricks on her head at a kiln outside Mumbai. Credit: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

While we have schemes like Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana that give cash transfers to expectant mothers for the first live birth and scheme for adolescent girls that look at their nutritional needs, the budget allocations need to drastically increase to create any real-time impact on the health status of women and girls.

The per capita allocation for these two schemes combined comes to around Rs 42 per female, which is abysmally low. Schemes like the National Nutrition Mission need to be focused upon to meet the demands of nutrition, especially for women and girls, in a country that has close to half of its women anaemic.

Addressing the issues of health and jobs

Access to health has become even more problematic with the loss in jobs. Reports suggest that women have disproportionately lost their jobs, and even when employed, continue to remain in activities that make them more susceptible to the virus or are stigmatised.

The gender budget for 2020-’21 has allocated Rs 147 crores towards the livelihood of women, which is around 1.3% of the total allocation towards schemes for livelihoods. Women employed before the lockdown are 23.5% less likely to be re-employed compared to men in the post-lockdown phase.

It will therefore be pertinent to boost financial aid via the self-help group model through schemes like National Rural Livelihood Mission, which, in turn, provide a sense of solidarity to the rural poor and services for social security in the areas of health, nutrition and gender.

With respect to the impact of the pandemic on education, an estimated 27 crore children in India have been affected as a result of school closure. This is worrisome since, in addition to learning, government schools provide mid-day meals to children, which is an essential factor for vulnerable children and girls to attend school.

Likewise, with the shift in classes to the digital mode, it will particularly be more difficult for girls to access education mainly because of increased expectations to contribute to household chores. Access to education is also impacted because of poor access to technology, wherein only an estimated 28% women have access in rural India, while in the urban areas, access is estimated to be 33%.

Out of the total allocation towards education in 2020-’21, a mere 0.4% was allocated to women as per the Gender Budget Statement, which is less than sufficient to meet the growing challenges of access to education in light of the pandemic.

In a country with 48% female population, a gender budget statement that is less than even 5% of the total Budget reflects the low priority that women empowerment holds in our policies. Priority should be given to sectors of education, health and livelihoods, and the government should set up monitoring mechanisms to ensure effective implementation of gender-responsive budgeting.

More importantly, gender-responsive budgeting should not be seen as the only policy action by the government. Instead, women’s voices need to be heard through participatory governance processes, and continuously integrated with every step of the budget-making process and each legislative decision needs to be looked at through a gender lens.

Apoorva Mahendru is a quantitative research assistant and Vikrant Wankhede is a researcher with Oxfam India.