Event ReportsPublished on Aug 28, 2021
Post COVID Roundtable Series | Gender and Economic Agency: The South Asia Story

Virtual Roundtable Discussion 

Opening Remarks:

Amb. Navdeep Suri Distinguished Fellow and Director of the Center for New Economic Diplomacy (CNED)


Sonia Bashir Kabir Founder, SBK Tech Ventures and SBK Foundation; Vice Chair, UN Tech Bank  Ramani Gunatilaka Independent Consultant; Research Fellow, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Sri Lanka  Radhicka Kapoor Senior Visiting Fellow, Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations  Jampel Yeshey Payldon Ambassador for V-Tob, Booknese, Well Read Bhutan; President, Young Girls Circle; Representative, Youth For Environment Bhutan


Mitali Mukherjee Fellow, ORF
A clear victim of the post pandemic world has been 47 million women and girls who would be pushed to extreme poverty by the year 2021, notes the latest report by UN Women, “From Insights to Action”. The disproportionate impact on women is aggravated as the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and developing economies lie at the heart of gender inequalities such as lower wages for women, fewer educational opportunities, limited access to finance, greater reliance on informal employment, and social constraints. Data from the Azim Premji University's report 'State of Working India' points that a loss of employment due to the imposition of lockdowns has had more severe repercussions for the feminised sectors such as the care economy and the gig economy with only 19 percent of women remaining employed and a vast 47 percent facing a permanent job loss than sectors that employ men in a majority. We focused on challenges to three key verticals in our conversation: The women-led MSMEs, the care economy, and the gig economy. Speaking about the challenges that have presented themselves as an aftermath of the pandemic, Ramani Gunatilaka touched upon the issue of a rapidly ageing Sri Lankan population with high morbidity levels which makes the question of care economy in the current circumstances quite pressing. She further elaborated on the magnitude of predisposed populations that have been exposed to a dearth of healthcare facilities and infrastructures. Radhicka Kapoor’s take on the Indian post pandemic situation, threw light on how the women have borne a disproportionate burden of the COVID-19 pandemic. She backed her stance with data from a recent study conducted by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), which measured the employment trajectories of people pre and post lockdown in 2020, and brought to the fore that women were not only more likely to have lost employment in the pandemic but also were much less likely to have recovered employment as compared to men. She further put across a sectoral picture of women’s employment for India and much of South Asia, as women are employed in a lot of contact-intensive sectors and services like hospitality, paid caregiving, tourism, retail to drive her stand on slow job and economic recovery for women. Ms Kapoor touched upon the lack of social security for women employed in the informal workforce and the gigantic burden of pulling the second shift. Sonia Bashir Kabir explained Bangladesh’s response to increase the female labour force participation and spoke how the pandemic had accelerated the technological transformation of the population by years. She argued the three biggest verticals of health, payments and education went online in three months and forced people to embrace the new normal from a technological perspective. She described it as a welcoming change for the women’s employment journey from isolation to inclusion. She further elaborated on how technology has levelled the playing field for hordes of women by changing the rules and limitations of the physical world and opening them up to opportunities for employment from within their homes. Conversely, she also spoke about the downside to it, while talking about a mental burnout felt specifically by women due to the double burden which is bound to impact their professional lives in the future. Jampel Yeshey Paldon, while sharing her thoughts on challenges posed by online learning as a result of the pandemic, drew our attention to the hard-hit rural pockets of Bhutan, with a lack of technological resource to continue undisturbed despite the best efforts by the government to bridge this gap in education between the urban and rural populations. Circling back to the conversation on the women-led MSMEs, Ramani Gunatilaka painted a compelling picture of female entrepreneurship and its nuances in the Sri Lankan economy. She stated the comparative profitability of loans lent to female entrepreneurs wasn’t much given to the disproportionate double burden on women and the nature of enterprises that women opt for, driven more by flexibility they provide or societal acceptance rather than profits. She supported her argument by highlighting the indispensability of women in the demanding sector of care economy, which often goes misrepresented. Ms Kapoor added her bit to the Indian picture as she explained the phenomena of female entrepreneurship as a livelihood strategy to combat an overall lack of quality jobs for women. She brought attention to a major distinction between informed, dynamic, risk taking women that incline towards entrepreneurship out of choice and others that rely on it as a sustenance strategy. She pointed out that many of these women weren’t aware of the governmental support schemes or might not be literate enough digitally, to access the help available online to keep their businesses afloat. Shemoved ahead to talk about the role modelling effect of female entrepreneurs on other women in addressing an unequal bargaining power and developing the soft skills necessary to scale up their enterprises. Ms Kabir while talking about technological intervention in the field of microfinance talked about the lack of focus on technological readiness and infrastructure that needs to be worked on. She highlighted the importance of resilience and eagerness of women which should be the motivation for governments to start making efforts to link capital, resources, and markets with the help of technology to in turn empower them. According to her, digital literacy is imperative to opening up the digital market space for women but till challenges to access and readiness aren’t tackled with, we can’t expect much success. Ms Payldon joined in the conversation from the young women’s perspectives and opened the crucial dialogue around the perils of cyberbullying and its after effects that creates an overall hostile digital environment specifically for women. She talked about the importance of digital empowerment along with literacy to further enhance the bargaining power of women in digital spaces. Ms Gunatilaka steered the conversation towards the cause of social protection against abuse in digital spaces and pointed out the intrinsic institutional weakness of justice systems. She called attention to targeting and monitoring the social protection schemes well so that they are available to people to access and employ. She raised critical governance issues and later in the conversation signalled towards it being a consequence of the highly uneven ratio of women to men in terms of political representation in Sri Lanka that obviously aggravates the situation and delays recognition and resolution of problems. Ms Kapoor agreed to the criticality of social protection schemes and added that the feminisation of the Informal sector is both a cause and consequence of women not having permanent and standard full time employment that provides them benefits or job security. She quoted the example of a nationwide migrant crisis that India faced after the announcement of the lockdown in 2020, and how the informal workers were the only ones who fell victim to it. Gig economy, according to Ms Kapoor was another form of informal work that failed to provide maternity care to women. She shared the plus side of the emerging dialogue on social security code in India and her reservations about its effectiveness. Ms Bashir resounded that the changes to traditional structures in place would be slow to come by but directed our attention towards the positives of women entering the workforce and adopting livelihood techniques that provide them the flexibility to juggle the double urden. Mitali Mukherjee concluded by going around the panel to collect policy interventions from each speaker to redress the challenges discussed. Ms Payldon suggested that the youth should come together to discover solutions to the urgent developmental challenges the world is faced with today. Sonia Bashir Kabir propounded the need for serious laws against cyberbullying and creating ecosystems for women entrepreneurs as some measures that could be incorporated in policy. She also pressed that focused vocational training, especially targeted at women would go a long way. Ms Kapoor spoke about recognising not just the disproportionate burden of unpaid care work but also forming beneficial policies for those employed in paid care work, such as nurses, Asha workers, and the frontline workers in caregiving. She talked about preparing safety nets like NREGA exclusively for women in urban areas along with boosting sectors like textile to boost female employment. Policies addressing the digital divide would also better adapt women for the new normal. Lastly, Ramani summed up her thoughts around combating the fast increasing divide between the rich and the poor and the developed and the developing economies through policy solutions for better adapted South Asian economies.
Prepared by Avni Arora, Research Intern at CNED
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.