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Interview With Ms. Rupin Mahiyaria

Ms. Rupin Mahiyaria has worked as Programme Analyst - Gender Advocacy and Social Mobilization at UN Women, Myanmar. With a bachelor's degree in Political Science, she has a Master's degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has worked with different UN organizations and NGOs in various capacities and her area of specialization lies in gender issues, policy, and development programming.

Q1. COVID-19 has shown varied impacts on everyone and this also includes widespread gender-based inequalities. How do you feel this can be corrected and what sort of responses are still needed to tackle the same?

Ms. Mahiyaria: There are several aspects to this answer.

Firstly, we must understand the differential impact that COVID-19 has had on women and girls, and realize women have in some respects been more vulnerable to the harmful effects and side-effects of the pandemic. As UN Women and several others point out- the impact of a crisis is never gender-neutral.

On the economic front, the majority of lay-offs, and job/wage cuts have been in the informal sector and this is where women in the economy are more likely to be found. Women were also engaged in some of the hardest hit and vulnerable occupations, such as small vendors and businesses, retail, hospitality, beauty and wellness, domestic labor, construction work. Women migrant laborers and female-headed houses have been some of the most vulnerable to the crisis. Where employment was not as hard-hit such as in agriculture, there are reports of perceptions of women being expendable and their jobs being taken up by recently unemployed male members of the household (as reported by Mitali Nikore here). In a country where even pre COVID-19, we have had one of the lowest female labor force participation rates globally (24.5% in 2018-19), we can ill afford to have any losses in terms of women's economic empowerment. As lockdowns are opened, and jobs gradually begin retrenching, the hope is to see sustained proactive women-targeted employment policies, social protection, and livelihood strengthening measures. The Government of India was one of the first to undertake a slew of social protection measures for the poor and marginalized (especially women) during the crisis, including cash transfers, easier loans, and free foodgrain. Relatedly, the private sector, in particular, has a great role and social responsibility to play in this, and hopefully, offices and workplaces maintain a 50-50 gender balance at the workplace at the minimum.

Secondly, as households have been in lockdown mode, the “invisible” work that women do which is largely formally unaccounted for, ie domestic care duties- has increased manifold. Pre COVID-19 India already has a huge variance in terms of time spent on care duties, India’s latest time use survey by the NSSO has demonstrated that women spend close to 5 hours a day on unpaid domestic care work, as against a mere 1 hour that men do.

Finally, in addition to all of this, many women have found themselves trapped in households with their abusers (35% of women globally have faced intimate partner violence) and there have been accounts of a worrying increase in domestic violence cases, termed as the “Shadow Pandemic”. Increased vigilance and awareness through one-stop crisis centers and public campaigns, and strengthening local women's support groups through CSOs and NGOs that have networks on the ground, are some measures that have been employed.

All policies that seek to respond to and address COVID 19 adopt a gender-responsive lens. Targeted funding, sex-disaggregated data, data and evidence collection on challenges women face, and continuous consultation with women's groups and affected women must be some strategies employed for any kind of policy- whether it is by government, private sector players, or civil society organizations.

Q2. As per the LinkedIn Opportunity Index 2021, more women in India have experienced the impact of gender on career development when compared to the Asia Pacific (APAC) countries. How do you think this can be changed and where are we still lagging?

Ms. Mahiyaria: What do we know to be reasons that hamper a woman’s career development in India? Here’s a few I can list:

· Sexual Harassment- I list this first because it is truly a grave issue and a national and global shame in terms of just how widely prevalent it is. India has a strong legal and institutional framework to deal with sexual harassment at the workplace, with the Vishakha Guidelines, the subsequent Sexual Harassment against Women at the Workplace Act 2013. However, implementation is still an issue, with many workspaces not complying with the law and a lack of Internal Complaints Committees being formed. I think another practical action that is underrated in terms of effectiveness, is good training. All employers should ensure that staff is oriented on grievance mechanisms, but also that all staff is trained in maintaining gender sensitivity at the workplace. The MeToo movement has also provided both voice and strength to many women, encouraging others to report. While applauding the gains of the movement, we should recognize that these are limited to women with digital literacy and access.

· Discrimination: Discrimination based on gender is deeply ingrained still, and is reflected in a gender wage gap of 34%. This is particularly acute in the informal sector. Social norm-change is a long-term process, and while legal provisions may be in place, large-scale behavioral-change campaigns such as Beti Bachao Beti Padhao are important.

· Maternity and Childcare: Again, India has a very strong and advanced law on maternity leave- The Maternity Benefits (Amendment) Act 2017, along with a wide healthcare framework to strengthen women’s health and nutrition. Such strong legislation coupled with an awareness of rights has huge potential in increasing the workforce participation rate and career development.

· Capacity Building and Skills Development: With rapidly changing technology and increased automation, skills development programs must maintain a targeted focus on women to ensure their employability not just now, but in the near future.

Some other issues that hinder women’s progression include the lack of networks (in many male-dominated spaces) and capacity-building opportunities. More female representation, role models, and mentors can help with this.

Q3. How effective is the gender budgeting of India? How can it be strengthened, keeping in mind the negative impact of the pandemic?

Ms. Mahiyaria: Gender budgeting entails not merely putting aside funds for women-centric programs, but actually, that gender-responsiveness as a principle is mainstreamed across the gamut of the government’s work. The great thing then is that when you earmark funds for gender-responsive work, you are forced to introspect and look at where exactly your department may be lacking and where you can employ new and innovative measures that are gender-responsive. This multi-dimensional approach is completely logical because women's empowerment is a multidimensional issue that needs to be tackled on all fronts.

The biggest achievement I think has been precisely this, that varied departments are thinking, earmarking, programming, and designing from a gender lens. I think one way it can be strengthened further is increased engagement with women's groups at the design stage. Moreover, particularly given the pandemic, issues of intersectionality with other vulnerabilities (caste, age, economic status) could be integrated.

Q4. In today's time with the increasing number of brutal acts committed against women, where and how do you see India in terms of being a largely patriarchal society, even in the 21st century? Are we progressing or going back in time instead?

Ms. Mahiyaria: The answer to this is mixed. While in several indicators such as women’s health, nutrition, education, income, political participation, India has made progress, albeit at varying rates; there remain grave issues, with violence against women and women’s economic status and workforce participation rate standing out. India’s rank today on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index is 112, of 153 countries. Despite progress, harmful practices including dowry, gender-biased sex selection, and child marriage still endure. The core of this endurance is of course an unequal power structure between men and women. To remedy this will take several interconnected steps, including education and awareness, women’s economic empowerment and financial independence, and strong and accessible justice systems. And it is entirely possible, we have seen a tremendous behavioral change in Beti Bachao Beti Padhao campaign districts showing improvement in the child sex ratio; Asha and Anganwadi workers have been at the forefront of improving the maternal mortality ratio, and women’s nutrition; we have seen women grassroots leaders emerge and drive development change in villages through the Panchayati Raj Act. We must leverage progress where it has been made to sustain positive change. Violence against women is an alarming issue. Preventative measures that focus on structural and root issues are important, including engaging with men and boys, social norms change, and increased institutional sensitivity and capacity. All members of society must galvanize and contribute to this effort on mission mode- from educationists to media, to political representatives; it is a question of the survival of half of humanity after all.

Interviewer- Sanaa Munjal

Image Source- Twitter


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