Economic downturns impact women in more ways than they do men. Here's why.

If you stand at a fixed spot on the road leading from Mantralaya, seat of the Maharashtra government, to Churchgate station in south Mumbai at around 5.30 p.m., you are likely to be mowed down by the phalanx of government employees moving out of their offices. If you survive this onslaught, you will notice that the majority are women. They are all rushing to catch the “Ladies special” that transports thousands of women like them to their homes in distant suburbs. This scene also reminds us of the importance of the public sector and government jobs for millions of ordinary women.

India, we are told repeatedly, is not going to experience the kind of economic downturn so much of the Western world has witnessed in recent years. That is small comfort for most people whose fixed and limited incomes are disappearing under the onslaught of rising costs. High growth does not benefit everyone equally. That is self-evident. But the costs of economic decline are born disproportionately by the poor, and also by women.

Hard hit

This is already evident in the UK where the Conservative Party government has started the process of pruning public services in the face of the economic downturn. According to The Independent, London, 80 per cent of the 710,000 workers in Britain's public sector who will lose their jobs in the next five years are women. In the local government, where 75 per cent of those employed are women, an estimated one in every 10 employee is going to receive marching orders. The rate at which women are being rendered unemployed is almost double that of men.

In addition to this, the British government has been cutting down on services, such as childcare that women could use in the past. Now they have to pay more. As a result, many women are choosing to stay back rather than resume work after childbirth. By creating redundancies in sectors where women employees are the majority and cutting back services that benefit women, the British government has delivered a crippling blow to thousands of women.

In India, the majority of women are employed in the informal sector with no job security. They do not know from one day to the next whether they will earn enough to eat. So if there is a problem with economic growth, not only will more women be pushed into the informal sector as they lose secure jobs, but even those already there will have to struggle harder to remain where they are. This is the silent, unrecorded calamity that occurs in the lives of millions of poor women when there is an economic slowdown.

What of the small percentage of women who do find permanent jobs in the formal sector? How much job security do they have? How much of a risk do they face of being laid off or made redundant when there are cutbacks?

Politically, few governments in India can take the unpopular decision of laying off people. In fact, the government is the largest employer in every state and women have benefitted from this. A growing and diverse private sector is also giving many women opportunities. But how secure is the future of women in this sector?

Family pressures

According to the Gender Diversity Benchmark for Asia 2011 report, many women drop off due to social and family pressures even when they have permanent jobs in the private sector. The report looked at women in China, Japan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and India employed in technology, consulting, financial services and consumer goods companies. It found that while in the first five countries, the majority of women dropped out between the middle and senior levels, in India they left between the junior and middle levels. Clearly, family pressure played a much larger role in the lives of Indian women. Few young married women in India have the autonomy to choose to work in a city of their own choice. They must give priority to the husband. And once children come along, then career growth plans come to a screeching halt, or are so badly ruptured that they cannot be resurrected. In any case, few Indian companies have pro-active policies in place to encourage young women to resume their careers. Also, as those in junior positions are more likely than others to be axed if companies prune their workforce, once again women are disproportionately affected.

Economic independence is an important step in enhancing women's status. It does not provide all the answers. For, even when women contribute substantially to family income through paid and unpaid labour, there is no guarantee that they will either be respected or spared violence and abuse within the family. But it does make a difference to the lives of many women. Unfortunately, governments and employers fail to recognise this gender dimension of economics.

sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com

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