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Intra-household bargaining in times of Covid 19

The unitary model of family treats a family as if it was composed of a single person. The unreasonable assumption they make is that family members have the same preferences and goals and collectively agree to pursue that goal. There is ample evidence that this assumption does not hold. When various individuals are a part of the household, conflicts of interest may arise. Bargaining is a necessary part of navigating through conflicts. In a bargaining situation, people have a different standing which is affected by various factors. Bargaining power is the relative capacity of any party to influence the other party in a negotiation. In the intra-household scenario, the bargaining power is determined by ‘threat utilities’ or the ability to thrive outside the household. In the Indian context, women usually have a lesser say in major household decisions. This is due to various reasons such as unequal asset ownership, lesser access to credit, restrictions on mobility, care work responsibilities, gender norms amongst many others. Given the lockdown due to the pandemic, there have been several gendered effects on educational opportunities, access to health facilities, etc. as everything has moved online. What are the various effects of this shift on women’s status in the household? In this article, we are going to explore the effect of the pandemic on the bargaining power of women in the household. We will focus on a few factors such as internet access, education and health services, labor market outcomes, and domestic violence which have been drastically impacted by the pandemic and evaluate their effects on women’s bargaining power in intra-household bargaining. 

Internet Access 

One of the biggest changes has been the heavy reliance of all industries and sectors on the internet. The question at hand is that is everyone able to access the internet to access education or health services? The ‘digital gender gap’ has existed since time immemorial. Women in most countries have lower access to the internet. The internet is a powerful tool, isn’t it? The internet has rapidly grown to inform, connect, enable, and empower. It can be a great equalizer and yet access to it isn’t equally distributed. Most internet users in India use their smartphones to access it. Reports show that in India, women are 20% less likely than men to own a smartphone and have less autonomy and agency in smartphone acquisition. Even when they have phones, only 20% of women have phones that can be used to access the internet. The use of the internet can enable women to find online jobs, gain access to online retail services, and connect with people. Especially, when everything has moved online it is pertinent that women have access to the internet. Studies have found that internet access benefits women in many ways and may significantly improve their bargaining power.  

Labor market outcomes 

The most prominent effect of the pandemic has been on employment. People have been laid off from their jobs. Many companies have had their employees take pay cuts. The shift to a work from home culture has not been a breezy transition. In India, almost 94% of women are employed in the informal sector. They also participate in non-mobile jobs such as agriculture, construction, beauticians, cooks, paid domestic household work to name a few, wherein social distancing is not feasible. Their jobs cannot move online and hence, they must remain unemployed or take up an alternative job till things return to normal. Many women are expected to drop out of the labor force due to the increased burden of household chores and technical constraints. In a survey conducted 66% of respondents indicated an increase in unpaid work at home and 36% reported an increased burden of child and elderly care work during this period. Even though male participation has gone up in care work, it is still not enough. There may also be an opposing effect. Companies have adapted to work from home policies. Since there is greater acceptability of working from home, women who left work due to childcare responsibilities, lack of flexible hours, and had restrictions on movement out of a home may have the opportunity to join the labor force. Some women may be pushed into the labor force for subsistence purposes. Considering these changes, the effect of the pandemic seems ambiguous. Nevertheless, the increased constraints on women in terms of housework and unavailability of jobs would reduce their bargaining power in the household.  

Impact on education 

The lockdown has led to the closure of schools indefinitely. It has destabilized the education system as they try to quickly adapt to this unexpected change. As most schools shift their classes online, several considerations come into play in India. Firstly, there is a wide inequality in access to the internet and devices used to login to the classes. The NSS 75th round shows that internet access is disproportionately spread across states, urban/rural areas, social groups, and genders. Even in this inequality, girls are worse affected as they also must lend a hand in daily chores which takes away a chunk of their day and they do not attend classes. Even if the household has access to the internet, it is usually via a smartphone. Mobile data is an added expense to the family and hence the use is limited. The dropout rates may increase if the lockdown persists because a lot of underprivileged children are sent to school because of the mid-day meal schemes. Another effect of dropping out may be that young girls are at risk of early marriage, pregnancy, and violence. Additionally, the rapid increase in unemployment will make families want their children to work and earn money as they have little to no savings. Funds are being reallocated from education to addressing the pandemic. Younger children need personal attention to learn and this support may be absent from parents who are not educated or have work commitments which will hamper their learning. A decrease in the level of education will lead to poorer labor market outcomes in the long run and turn lower their bargaining power. The threat of early marriage and unwanted pregnancy also put them at a great disadvantage in a bargaining scenario. 

Access to health services 

Restrictions on mobility due to the lockdown are a huge barrier for women to access health care services. Experts found that only 37% of women got access to health care, as compared to 67% of men. There is widespread job loss which means decreased income. This may lead to increased neglect of health and nutrition which would affect women more. Reports have found that the pandemic will have adverse effects on reproductive health services. The lockdown has led to limited access to contraceptives, pregnancy kits, and family planning services. A lot of women and girls are facing sexual abuse which may lead to unwanted pregnancies. Along with these considerations, mental health levels are also at an all-time low. Fear of losing jobs, staying away from loved ones, stigma towards infected people, and being locked at home indefinitely are some reasons which are impacting people’s mental health. The additional pressure of handling chores, children, and jobs if they are combined with the lockdown have adverse effects on women’s mental health. All in all, the reduced access to health care services harms women’s bargaining power in the household. Poor physical and mental health may also have damaging effects on their employment prospects. 

Effect on domestic violence levels 

According to NFHS-4 2015-16 data, one in three women suffers physical and sexual violence at home. The levels of domestic violence are at an all-time high. In the March-May period, 1477 complaints of domestic violence were made which is the highest in the past ten years. The rise of domestic violence has been referred to as the ‘shadow pandemic’. Many women are trapped with their abusers and have nowhere to turn to and ask for help. Domestic violence has detrimental impacts on women’s mental health and emotional wellbeing. 52 percent of women and 42 percent of men believe that a husband is justified in beating his wife. This often leads to blaming the victim and even the victim rationalizes the abuse. People who can recognize that this is wrong have very few avenues to turn to due to the lockdown. Complete isolation from social circles causes several women to endure the abuse. Most women who stay in abusive relationships do so as they aren’t financially independent, or they lack a support system. The sense of helplessness drastically reduces their bargaining power. They are always at a disadvantage as the abuser uses the threat of violence to get their way. 


The pandemic has upturned our lives. With strict lockdowns imposed worldwide to prevent the spread of this novel virus, we have seen a series of changes in lifestyles, jobs, education, etc. When we apply a gendered lens to analyze the impacts of the pandemic, we see that women are at a greater disadvantage. In a patriarchal society like India, women were already handicapped due to the strong gender norms and the effects of those norms on other outcomes. This pandemic is proving to have a regressive effect on women’s position. As we have seen in the article, most of the outcomes mentioned are adversely affected by the lockdown. It has the potential to undo years of work on improving female education, labor participation, and autonomy. The level of impact will be determined by individual and social characteristics as the pandemic seems to be exacerbating existing inequalities. 

Ipsita Chatterjee is a third year Economics and finance student at Ashoka University.

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