Women are bearing the heaviest burden, Jahnabi Phookan asserts, of the ongoing pandemic. While Covid-19 has not been kind to anyone globally, its impact on Indian women is disproportionately more, the president of FICCI Ladies Organisation (FLO), the women’s wing of the Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) reckons.
Representing over 8,000 women entrepreneurs and professionals, FLO works towards promoting economic empowerment and equal opportunities for women. Phookan explains why the pandemic has been cruel for women. In India, women are not only expected to continue meeting the rigorous demands of professional life, but are also expected to simultaneously shoulder additional household responsibilities, which have grown manifold under Covid-19 lockdowns. “So, it’s led to a situation where Indian women no longer have the luxury of a work-life balance during the pandemic,” she says. Women, she adds, are managing a full-blown work-work situation as household responsibilities too constitute significant labour.
Currently, 60% of India's women are sitting at home, and are occupied with unpaid housework. If we look at female workforce participation around the globe, India is on a lower rung with only 23% of women engaged in formal paid work, underlines Phookan. “With unemployment on account of the pandemic increasing in India, I fear the progress that we have made in female workforce participation in India may have some setbacks,” she says in an interview with Forbes India. Ficci FLO, she points out, is seeking partnerships with different ministries on skills development programmes for women in rural areas. “We are also working very closely with the government and other organisations in the creation of job opportunities for women,” she adds. Excerpts:How are you dealing with the current situation?
Our top priority is to create sustainable livelihoods and pave the way for the economic empowerment of Indian women. First off, we need to collect and understand the data before we can put strategies in place. To that end, FLO is commissioning a multi-state field study on impact of Covid on women’s livelihoods in key sectors. The study will analyse their current situation as well as challenges faced by them, before putting forward recommendations or solutions from the district level to the union government.
We have also accelerated our efforts in trying to carve out opportunities for women through our 17 chapters. We are partnering with many social enterprises (one of which is Women on Wings) to focus on supporting rural women in the agriculture, food processing, eco-tourism, textiles, handicrafts, waste management and non-timber forest products (NTFP) sectors and related upstream activities.
Additionally, we are working towards the re-skilling of women who have been unemployed for years, and the upskilling of those who are already in the workforce but want to move ahead in their careers. We are doing this through our national mentorship and incubation cells, and also through webinars and online training sessions on relevant subjects like e-commerce and e-learning. We have also created an MSME fund to help women in the micro and small businesses, providing them with a financial injection to survive the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.You talked about a setback in female workforce participation due to Covid…
Yes. With unemployment on account of the pandemic increasing in India, I fear the progress that we have made in female workforce participation in India may have some setbacks. Women have waited long enough to reach parity with men. However, despite the difficulties that women are facing in the ongoing pandemic, we do also expect a significant change in the coming years as women continue to embrace their empowerment in society and enter the mainstream of the economy across various sectors. It is heartening to see fields like technology, engineering, research, medicine, biotechnology and more fostering women participation, and we hope this continues until there’s absolute parity. Until that has been achieved, there should be non-discriminatory clauses at workplaces to enable deserving women candidates to prosper. We are doing our bit by tying up with India’s best incubators to provide an opportunity to young and budding women entrepreneurs and enable them with the tools to progress further in their careers or businesses.What about handling the mental aspect of the pandemic?
Now it has also become more critical than ever to help women with their mental health too. We are working on programmes to deliver psycho-social training to women, but for those in rural areas, we have to think innovatively on the best way to reach them. Radio is one of the modes we are excited about. Positive stories once broadcasted will create a ripple effect amongst these women. Taking these efforts to the national level for rural women and corporate level for urban women will be my next move.
How are you helping women entrepreneurs tide over the crisis?
Challenges faced by women entrepreneurs during the pandemic are largely related to navigating the regulatory ecosystem, issues with accessing collateral-free loans, market linkages, information asymmetry about government schemes and capacity building. We are working harder than ever to provide additional support to women entrepreneurs during this time. Each FLO chapter is coming forward to help various organizations for the women upliftment.
Moreover, we strongly believe that the name of the game is all about providing women with the right tools and training to succeed–in the case of the pandemic, we recognised that women can still work and contribute to the economy even from home. So we set about identifying the educated unemployed and are trying to reincarnate them into entrepreneurs who can work from home; we are doing this through digital literacy programs; online webinars on building a business, e-commerce, and upskilling; as well as ongoing mentorship.
Furthermore, migrants who are now returning to the cities are being trained in a very structured way so that they can adopt new opportunities. For example, we train girls to be two-wheeler drivers and then bringing 20 girls at a time, we connect them with e-commerce sites (as these are the types of businesses that are surging ahead during the pandemic). With these efforts, migrant women can now become not only financially independent but also physically mobile as the opportunity to drive has transformed them into confident women.