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In India, the pandemic may turn back the clock on women’s empowerment

Women and girls worry that they will be forced to return to a time before their voices were heard, their potential was recognized, and their contributions to society were valued.

A laborer works at a brick kiln on the outskirts of Amritsar, India, on March 7.NARINDER NANU/AFP via Getty Images

In America, women have borne the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic’s social and economic repercussions, making up the majority of job losses and taking on a disproportionate amount of work in the home. In India, the situation is much more dire: Women and girls worry that they will be forced to return to a time before their voices were heard, their potential was recognized, and their contributions to society were valued.

The expression “It takes a village” is the way of life in India, regardless of your caste, class, or socioeconomic status. COVID-19 has upended the traditional community-based effort of managing a home and family, and centuries-old patriarchal systems place this burden on women. When a family member is lost during the pandemic, that village can’t show up, leaving the family to navigate its grief and loss of income alone. Given the current crisis in India, this is happening every minute. Every minute, a family is losing a mother, father, son, or daughter.


Indian women perform 9.6 times more unpaid labor in the form of care than men, three times the global average. In rural villages, many men have lost their jobs, and their spouses have had to find a way to support their families financially while also managing the household, cooking meals, and supporting children and elders. Women are putting their health on the line to support their families. Many have been eating less so their families do not go hungry — putting themselves even more at risk of becoming ill from COVID-19. But this isn’t even the full price of the pandemic that women have had to pay. In a study published in June 2020, India’s National Commission for Women reported a spike in domestic violence.

With so many families and communities broken by COVID-19, the burden of rebuilding will fall on women and, worse, girls. I am worried about child marriages increasing. The United Nations Population Fund has estimated that an additional 13 million child marriages will occur worldwide between 2020 and 2030 that would have been avoided if not for the pandemic, and one-third of child brides are in India. I worry about families not allowing girls to go back to school, and young women not being able to learn skills that enable financial independence. The traditional conservative structures and roles that hold women back, which we’ve spent decades dismantling, may begin to take hold again. There are even ultra-conservative memes floating around WhatsApp that celebrate girls being at home “where they belong.”


For more than 20 years, the Desai Foundation, the nonprofit that I head, has been working with local women in India to provide access to health care, vocational skills, and menstrual health management. In the 1,000 villages where we work, we’ve managed to make significant progress, impacting over a million lives. However, we know that this pandemic doesn’t just turn the calendar back only 15 months for Indian girls and women, but potentially years — even decades — on the way people think and approach the importance of girls’ education and women’s empowerment. It is estimated that by the end of the COVID crisis, an additional 11 million girls across the globe will have left school — many of whom will never return.


The fate of girls and women in India has implications for the rest of the world. Nearly 18 percent of the world’s population lives in India, so the world’s response to their plight will set a precedent for the value we place on women and girls both in India and abroad. We as a society need to invest in organizations that focus on women, girls, and rural communities to ensure they are not held back. Organizations have been doubling down on COVID relief with supportive infrastructure for COVID isolation and care centers, medical supplies, a hotline to support bereaved loved ones, and more. It is now more vital than ever to collectively recommit to our work of empowering women of all ages across the globe. We need to continue to dismantle systems that keep women and girls out of school, community, and the economy — and ensure that extremist rhetoric doesn’t win during this exceptionally vulnerable time for India.

The world must continue to invest in the women of India. It must continue to bolster the support for women and girls’ global success so that the next time a catastrophe of this scale happens, we do not face a backslide of women’s rights and the lost potential of an entire generation of girls. Not just in India, but around the world.

Megha Desai is president of the Desai Foundation.