Uneven pandemic impact on Nepali women


As Nepal’s economy takes a nose dive due to the global pandemic and faces a looming unemployment crisis, what is often missing in the discourse are the special needs of women who depended on income from the informal sector.

The Covid-19 crisis does not come with a single set of challenges, and nor can its effects be tackled by a one-size-fits-all policy intervention. This is especially true of the impact on Nepal’s women who were either in the pink-collar labour sector, or did unpaid household work.

Estimates show that about 70% of Nepalis were employed in the informal economy in pre-Covid days. Most of them have now been rendered jobless, and among them the percent of women that are less likely to return to such work is higher than for men.

Nepal’s working population above the age of 15 in 2018 was 71.5% of the total 30 million population. Of them, the proportion of working-age females was actually higher with 11.53 million – as opposed to 9.2 million males.

Only 8.5 million Nepalis of working age were in the labour force, either employed or in search of employment. And among them only 2.8 million (22.5%) of the women in the labour force had jobs. The informal sector was the highest employer of workforce (62.2%) of which 66.5% were female while 59.7% were male.

These numbers have been severely skewed during 2020 with the onset of pandemic, especially for those employed in the informal sector. A World Bank Report projects Nepal’s economy to grow by a meagre 0.6% after an average growth of 7.3% for last three years.

Those employed in the informal sector in towns and cities are more vulnerable to such a sharp economic slump, with many of them at a higher risk of falling into extreme poverty – compared to those in rural areas who can rely on subsistence farming for sustenance.

As more young Nepali men leave for the cities or employment in India and overseas, it was projected that the domestic labour force would be feminised. However, the problem in such sectors, apart from the lack of availability of jobs for women, was that they lacked basic facilities to accommodate female workers.

Similarly, women were more likely to cede regular employment opportunities to male members of the family, while they concentrated on household work.

Traditional norms have deprived many Nepali women of agency in decision-making about their education or careers. Often, this results in young women dropping out of school or college, quitting their jobs, or even opting for positions below their preference or qualifications.

Conventionally, women working outside their homes are still considered frivolous. Some are judged to be pursuing a hobby, rather than making an incumbent career move like their male counterparts.

Depending on their socio-economic background, women are either encouraged or discouraged to work outside their homes. Surprisingly, surveys have shown that more women from poorer households are encouraged to bring in income to support their families compared to women in the higher socio-economic brackets.

Typically, it is expected of a woman to give up salaried work or studies when traditional gender roles demand. For many, the choice comes down to financial independence or conforming to such roles and ‘taking care’ of the family.

As a consequence of these perceived gender roles and traditional societal structures, women are trained in certain sectors, often regarded as ‘pink-collar’ jobs. They are then dissuaded from exploring other opportunities which might have better pay scale and growth.

Entering into an industry traditionally dominated by men is a whole other challenge for women with limited experience, and these work spaces lack the infrastructure for female employees and are usually hostile towards them.

With additional burden posed by the pandemic, it is crucial to understand why Nepal needs to increase its female labour force participation rate. Small and Medium Scale Enterprises have been crucial in driving the economy, and with more women employed in such sectors, both consumption and production are likely to increase.

Such growth can pave the way for creation of more jobs. An increase in the financial status at both micro and macro levels would mean the spending would rise, in turn, amplifying the demand for goods and services – leading to a surge of money circulation in the economy.

Employment of women outside their homes would generate opportunities for domestic workers as well. One of the biggest challenges women face for abstaining work is the burden of unpaid household work.

Converting the unpaid labour into an active household employment industry would not just increase the workforce participation rate, but add value to ‘menial’ chores and liberate women from societal shackles. This would further expand the job market.

With the pandemic bringing additional challenges and new uncertainties, it is essential for Nepal to pursue policies and inject appropriate stimulus to avail all such opportunities.

Nepal has roughly 35 years before transiting into an aged society. There is no time to waste if Nepal is to harness its biggest asset: its people. The Covid-19 crisis may be the impetus to encourage great female participation in the work force.

 Isha Sharma is an ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) student in Kathmandu. 

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