The ongoing pandemic has adversely affected women around the world in a number of ways, including through employment and income loss. The countries within the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) have also suffered from its effects. These countries had made some improvements in terms of women's empowerment over the past years. Women's participation in the labour market, educational qualification, and participation in decision-making jobs have increased in these countries. However, the gender gap is still wide. The recently published Human Development Report 2020 of the United Nations Development Programme shows that in terms of the Gender Inequality Index, Bangladesh ranked 133rd, Bhutan 99th, India 123rd, Myanmar 118th, Nepal 110th, Sri Lanka 90th, and Thailand ranked 80th among the 189 countries in 2019.
The World Economic Forum revealed that in 2020, out of 153 countries, five BIMSTEC countries such as Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Sri Lanka ranked outside the top 100 in the Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI). Bangladesh ranked 50th and Thailand 75th on the list. All these countries have slipped in the GGGI 2020 compared to the 2018 index due to the coronavirus pandemic. Compared to 2018, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Sri Lanka lost two positions each, India and Nepal four positions, Bhutan nine positions, and Myanmar slipped down by 26 positions. The GGGI is prepared based on four indicators such as economic participation opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. One of the reasons for this drop is the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on women.
The impact of the pandemic has been disproportionately felt by certain sections of people. Women are among the most vulnerable sections who have been the worst victims of the pandemic. The impact of the pandemic may have long-run implications on women's empowerment across countries.
Women in the region have been hit hard by the pandemic as they are mostly engaged in low-paying informal activities. As a result, as soon as the pandemic broke out, they were the first ones to lose their jobs. Those who are still employed have to accept reduced working hours and lower income. The pandemic has also increased the burden of household activities. They have experienced higher reduction in employment and working hours compared to men in most economies in the second quarter of 2020, compared to the same period in the previous year.
One of the most important sources of female employment in a number of BIMSTEC countries is the readymade garments (RMG) industry. Readymade garment manufacturing is the largest employer of women among all industrial sectors in some countries in the region. Roughly one in seven women are employed in the sector in Sri Lanka and one in nine women in Bangladesh and Myanmar. Therefore, as global buyers cancelled orders due to economic recessions in their countries, not only did the manufacturers face losses, but the women workers also had to bear the brunt of it. Many of them have been dismissed or given leave without pay from their jobs.
In the service sector, the tourism industry has suffered due to the pandemic. In Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Nepal, the share of employment in the tourism sector is 9, 8.1, and 6.8 percent, respectively. Women's participation in the tourism sector in these countries is higher than that of men. The pandemic has forced them to either go on unpaid leaves or accept lower wages; many have even lost their jobs.
Women who are self-employed in micro, small, and medium enterprises are facing serious challenges to stay afloat during the pandemic. Demand and supply disruptions have led to income erosions and even business closures in some cases.
Consequently, governments had to adopt certain policy measures in response to this. In India, 200 million women with Jan Dhan accounts were to be given an amount of Rs 500 per month for three months. Additionally, the Indian government has also announced that it will provide free LPG cylinders to women in 83 million families below the poverty line for three months under the Ujjwala scheme. In Bangladesh, an amount of Tk 20,000 crore has been allocated for the cottage, micro, small, and medium enterprises. Besides, the government has also announced that it will provide Tk 2,500 as cash support to 50 lakh (5 million) households. As of October 2020, a total of about 35 lakh (3.5 million) households (70 percent) received this support, out of which 75 percent were male-headed and 25 percent were female-headed households.
Despite the increased adverse effects of the pandemic on women, support measures by governments for them have been insignificant. There is a need for increased support to reinstate women's businesses and to create income opportunities for them. The stimulus packages in the form of liquidity support have been difficult for women to access due to various structural problems. These include lack of collaterals, bank guarantee and necessary documents, and banks' reluctance to provide loans to small businesses.
The nature of business is also rapidly changing. The pandemic has expedited the use of technology in work and in business. E-commerce has been flourishing. However, women are not being able to use this opportunity not only because of a lack of funds but also of skills. So, providing women all the necessary support to benefit from this opportunity will require upskilling and reskilling them. Clearly, women in the region will require support from the governments, the private sector, and the non-government organisations to be able to catch up with the emerging nature of business and the new dynamics of the labour market.
Dr Fahmida Khatun is the Executive Director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue.
Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of her organisation.
The article was originally published by the Observer Research Foundation.