Nepali women survive pandemic economy

A year since Nepal went into lockdown to control the spread of the coronavirus, different facets of socio-political economy are being revisited. Findings of one such recent study, paints a grim picture of women’s economic status.

A large number of women both in the formal and informal sectors faced and continue to face pay-cuts since the start of the pandemic. Many have been laid off.

South Asia Economic Policy Research COVID-19 & The  New Normal for Women in the Economy in Nepal just as its elaborate title suggests, examines the conditions of women and their contribution to the economy in the days since the world braced for a pandemic.

The report released this weekend highlights the already challenging status of Nepali women, that has been further compounded with increased unpaid household work and burgeoning instances of domestic violence and abuse in 2020. 

This study is done by a team of young Nepali women and men in mid-twenties and aims at understanding the current socio-economic situation of Nepali women to pave ways forward, says Shilshila Acharya of the Himalayan Climate Initiative (HCI) which partnered with The Asia Foundation (TAF) on the report.

The paper covers 401 women and 51 private sector firms from all seven provinces and focuses on three major aspects affecting women during the pandemic including economic, psycho-social, and sexual and reproductive health.

“So many women have lost their jobs and income due to the pandemic. To help in their income generation, a lot of skill enhancement trainings, including digital, and entrepreneurship promotion work must be done,” says Acharya.

The study documents respondents’ concerns on issues related to the marginalised communities, mainly women. It highlights how the lack of planning has led womens’ inability to access contraceptives, increased chances of unintended pregnancies, and starkly high maternal mortality, among others. The impact on mental health of women has increased.

This research also included a survey with 51 female employers representing individual employers (households), Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and informal sector employers, and formal sector employers (large industries), including businesses primarily owned by women.

The survey found that 37% of businesses imposed a pay cut on female employees, out of which 58% had inflicted a 50% deduction in salary. More than half of the businesses surveyed had laid off 50% to 100% women employees.

A total of 631,000 female jobs are estimated to be at risk in the higher impact scenario. For women entrepreneurs, the pandemic has led to the closure of businesses, leading to financial distress and insecurity.

In response to the dwindling economic situation, the government announced that it would provide coverage through the Social Security Fund (SSF) to private entities for the month of April 2020 worth Rs.180 million. But, none of the companies in the survey were aware of it.

The report mentions that many rural women farmers who also take informal loans on high interest rates remain excluded from interest reduction schemes of the government, and farmers on credit were struggling to repay loans.

A majority of women tenant farmers cannot access the government’s compensation  schemes, because they have no land entitlement.

To avoid the risk of a permanent exit of women from the labor market, it is important to ensure assistance to the people currently in the informal economy, the report says. Complex bureaucratic vetting and red-tapism have to be replaced by opportunities for direct cash transfers and insurance programs.

The lesson of the pandemic is that the informal economy needs to be registered in the government system and social security schemes for businesses established.  To prevent the progress related to work done on women’s rights from sliding back by decades, strategies are needed to support women not just during the pandemic but also in a post-pandemic world. 

“The research information tells a story of the groundbreaking role women have already played in the pandemic adaptation and response,” says Meghan Nalbo of TAF.  “The data on differential economic impacts of Covid-19 validates a more accurate picture of reality against which policy makers, community leaders, and women themselves can make decisions as part of the economic recovery we now face ahead of us as we crawl out of the Covid-19 recession.”

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