GENDER insights

COVID-19 opens unknown chapter on rural women’s plight in India’s migration saga

Photo of women in rural India Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT.

For decades, millions of Indian men have migrated away from rural areas to seek employment in cities. Now that the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing men to go back home, a reverse migration crisis is exposing risks to rural women’s resilience.

The Indian government has taken stringent measures to arrest the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). A complete lockdown of the vast country seems to have been a successful strategy. At the same time, the government has come under flack for not anticipating the consequences this lockdown has had for the large number of rural migrant workers, mostly men, who have been left stranded in cities throughout the country.

One group that is receiving woefully little attention, however, is rural women. Given the ongoing large-scale return of men back to rural areas, it is relevant to ask what impacts this reverse migration will have on women, on farm productivity and on food security in the short, medium and long term.

In this post, we set out to shine a light on this blind spot and lay out potential risks that require immediate attention from researchers, practitioners and policy-makers to protect women’s health, jobs, income and well-being as the reverse migration crisis unfolds.

A reverse migration crisis

More than 450 million Indians have reportedly migrated within the Indian continent in pursuit of employment and higher incomes. Due to the high unemployment in rural areas, the not-so-profitable agriculture sector and the hugely inequitable societal structure, it is mostly men and youth from poor, smallholder and socially marginalized groups who migrate to cities to take up work.

While these men’s migration has in many cases helped rural families supplement their meager incomes and ensured food security, it has also increased rural women’s work burden. They have taken on more farm work and responsibilities, but without any corresponding increase in access to technology, inputs or knowledge. While you might think women would enjoy higher decision-making power with the men being away, that’s not always true.

Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered massive layoffs in India, with hundreds of thousands of mostly men migrants currently stuck in cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Surat. But with the economy at a standstill and opportunities for wage employment drying up, these men are expected to eventually return to their rural homes.

Big questions are looming when one thinks of the consequences of this reverse migration for women and men in rural areas. Are rural areas ready to provide employment for the large numbers of returnees? Will farmers be able to live off their land and feed their families? Moreover, will women be particularly exposed to risks?

Pressure points for rural women

While it is impossible to predict the impacts of this unprecedented reverse migration crisis, past evidence on gender inequalities in rural Indian society and households can help us identify top risks that rural women may soon be facing.

First, it seems almost certain that rural households, particularly those with migrating family members, will lose out on income due to reduction in remittances and limited employment opportunities in the short term. Evidence shows that in such circumstances, women may resort to distress sales of their assets, such as livestock, or will be forced to take usurious loans from informal moneylenders.

What’s more, what little progress has been achieved on improving the incomes and independence of rural women might be in jeopardy. In recent years, national programs such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) have provided opportunities for women to convert their informal, unpaid work on their farms into paid work. Women have taken advantage of this program, claiming more than half of the employment opportunities it offered. This has significantly improved women’s control over household decisions, their economic and social status, and their independence. Now, women might not be able to retain such advances when men return in large numbers.

In addition, evidence indicates that gender gaps in access to nutrition are highest among socioeconomically vulnerable groups, typically including families with migrants. For example, we know that due to prevailing social norms, women eat last and the least nutritious food during times of shortages. Such dynamics might exacerbate the already high incidence of malnutrition among rural women.

Lastly, frustrations within households during challenging times could lead to an increase in domestic violence, with potentially significant implications for agricultural production and food security. Evidence from South Asia shows that in the absence of their husbands women might face less domestic abuse, and that they have freedom of physical mobility and opportunities to explore their own potential in an otherwise dominantly patriarchal society. What will happen once the men return and the women cannot leave remains an open question.

Radical measures against inequality needed

It seems likely that the COVID-19 crisis will exacerbate existing gender inequalities and pose significant risks to rural women in India. A huge gap in empirical evidence is emerging, with uncertainty on the impact of the reverse migration crisis on gender roles within food systems and the implications for health, nutrition and prosperity.

New research is therefore sorely needed, but so are more immediate efforts to include rural women. While cash grants and food distribution interventions are important, they can only alleviate hardship in the short run. Along the same lines, digital strategies like e-commerce platforms to provide information and market linkages have been proposed, but we need to mind the digital divide and ensure that women are not left out.

In the longer term, we need measures that can build the resilience and decision-making of rural women and vulnerable households so that they can withstand shocks in future.

Focusing on supporting women and women’s collectives to start enterprises that can strengthen local food systems could enhance women’s resilience, and help bolster food security. Women and their collectives can play a major role in recalibrating supply chains, by becoming part of the food processing and distribution chains. Systems need to be put in place to ensure that women’s enterprises can access capital, technology and markets.

Such initiatives will be particularly important now that rural women will have to compete with men for scarce remunerative jobs, and will face many other risks. We ask that we consider gender barriers and inequalities not only in the immediate relief efforts, but that we also understand this crisis to be a call for radical measures to address the structural barriers that continue to hold back rural women in India.