The year 2020 compelled the entire world to recognise the urgent need to review everything using collective wisdom. The year was also a landmark in the history of gender rights. It saw the confluence of very important milestones — a quarter of a century since the path-breaking Beijing Platform for Action, five years of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and the beginning of the Decade of Action to achieve the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals. The year saw governments, politicians, practitioners and people strive and struggle to meet the twin mandate of protecting past gains on gender and creating a future that is more equal. At the centre of this is the compounded task of holding the purse strings in a way that economic relief and respite reached the last mile and the economy remains afloat.
The Union Budget 2021, therefore, is an exercise that will have a bearing on the decades to come. It will need to address the need to propel more favourable developmental outcomes for the country. The most critical requirement on the road to recovery will be addressing broader economic vulnerabilities while also attending to the necessities of those who we must not leave behind in the journey forward.
In doing so, it is imperative that the budget have a strong gender content. This does not imply that government allocations be divided according to gender. It also does not mean a separate budget for women. It means looking at the entire budget-making exercise from a gender equity perspective to assess how it will impact women, men and persons with other gender identities differentially. It implies that the budget considers the varied impact of the pandemic that has worsened pre-existing gender and economic inequalities. It should be founded on the premise that rebuilding the economy will not be possible without prioritising women’s economic recovery and well-being.
The government of India’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been prompt, given that the challenge was to manage one of the world’s largest lockdowns. It has been premised on the mission of self-reliance, self-dependence and inclusive growth.
With increasing evidence, there is greater acceptance of the fact that the impact of the crisis has not been gender-neutral. A socio-economic impact assessment of the pandemic by UN Women has revealed that the feminised sectors are hit the hardest. Globally, 72 per cent of domestic workers — largely women — have lost their jobs during the pandemic. With plummeting economic activity, women in the accommodation, food services and care sectors, where they have a significant presence, have been more vulnerable to pay cuts or loss of livelihoods.
To move steadfast on the road to recovery, it is vital that the budget addresses women’s distinct economic roles, recognises their contributions and constraints and takes this opportunity to put them at the centre of investment. Government expenditure on up-skilling and reskilling of women needs to be increased to keep women in the workforce and bring back those who have left. An important task will also be putting more money in the hands of women through schemes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, under which the majority of the beneficiaries are women.
Given the pandemic’s deep impact on women, the budget also presents an opportunity to renew focus on issues like nutrition and access to education. There should be a special focus on frontline healthcare workers, especially nurses, midwives and community health workers. For a more sustained recovery, more women need to be included in the post-pandemic decision-making processes. The role of almost half the population in pulling back the economy and society needs to be recognised.
Ground realities in this colossal rebuilding endeavour point to the longstanding need to inject more fluidity in the system. Debatably, the most important part of the recovery will be cushioning small and medium enterprises, a notable percentage of which are women-owned and managed. Given that these have been traditionally considered as high-risk by financing institutions and tend to not have all the required collaterals for getting loans, developing a new scheme to meet the financing needs of women-owned businesses will be critical. Promotion of women-owned businesses in public procurement processes will require incentives and concession, especially with regard to the entry criteria. The government could also consider affirmative action in procurement similar to South Africa, where rules demand that government contractors’ subcontract to certain marginalised groups. For example, priority can be given to businesses which employ 50 per cent women or which source from women-owned businesses.
Budget 2021-22 is going to be a historic one in many ways. It presents the government with an opportunity like never before to not just recover but build back better and equal. Hopefully, the paradigm shift from women in development to women-led development will be initiated at a time when we risk reversing much of what we had considered won.
The writer is Deputy Country Representative, UN Women, India, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka