Poverty as a Non-traditional Security Threat in the Indian Context: COVID-19 Times

 By Anjali Shekhawat


The concept of security studies has represented the core of international relations which became even more prominent after the Second World War when issues of war and peace were synonymous with Strategic Studies. The concept of security was distinctly focused on military sectors, security challenges, and external aggression for the longest period. With the end of the cold war, rising globalization, degrading environment, international terrorism, and communication revolution catapulted the narrow scope of security studies to include Non-traditional Security issues with much enhanced non-traditional security studies.

The non-traditional approach is radically different from traditional as it focuses on issues comprising of health, environment, food, poverty, which indirectly affects the national security due to the changing security environment and nature of threats. The non-traditional approach began engaging in multiple referents and non-military sectors like political, economic, and societal security issues shifting the paradigm of security. Non-traditional security paradigm reflects new threats and challenges to security mankind it a multilateralist, broad base concept wherein primary objective is to ensure the survival of people.

In the wake of the pandemic, these non-traditional security threats have been most visible than ever before, being a harbinger of a new and changing security landscape. COVID-19 has exacerbated the existing security issues, which has been a warning signal for what lies ahead. The pandemic has affected various aspects of life like the economy, climate, health, relationships and also brought into focus the paucity of gender-sensitive policies in the wake of the crisis. The importance of human security issues as an approach entered the canon through the report by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 1994 on Human Development. The report advocated the need for a shift in focus from territorial security towards people and their security dilemmas.

Human security Context

Mahbub ul Haq drew attention to the concept of ‘human security’ under the purview of non-traditional security in UNDP’s1994 report where in security study was looked from the lens of an individual instead of the state. The report argued that the idea of security has been very reductive because it was only understood in terms of territory versus external aggression or as protection of national interests in foreign policy. Under this concept, the legitimate concerns of individuals within those territories like security against poverty, unemployment, diseases, malnutrition and environmental hazards, have become more prominent during the pandemic. Human security, as defined in the 1994 report, is more people-oriented and works towards the security dilemmas of ordinary people. The components of human security are interdependent where it believes that any instability in one region can affect other regions too and is upstream in its approach as it ensures timely prevention than later intervention.

The perspective of human security is multidimensional because it looks into humans’ physical and material needs and considers poverty as a root cause of individual vulnerabilities. Yet many feminist critiques find the conceptualization and categorization of the “human” part problematic as it is conceptualized under the systems which are exclusive. The definition of “human,” which encompasses both men and women, overlooks the categories of dependent humans, primarily women, children, and people with disabilities, which are then rendered invisible from the purview of policymaking.

Many scholars and policy experts had identified the need for attending to the new categories of threats that affect the invisible categories of people in the face of COVID-19. ‘Women’ are one such category, who have been facing asymmetrical effects in the past year. Lockdown has ravaged many lives as it multiplied the effects of existing vulnerabilities leading to the economic crisis, health crisis resulting from lagging medical infrastructure, food crisis, migration, and unemployment leading to poverty. The differential impact of a pandemic on women is due to lack of gender-sensitive data, over-representation of females in poverty, male dominance in policy framework, which has laid bare the gender inequality continuum, and the fault lines in ongoing relief responses towards vulnerable groups, especially women.

Analyzing Poverty:  Women Context

The effects of any crisis are never gender-neutral and tend to hurt women in terms of social and economic fallout. These effects have been reflected in the wake of COVID-19 with the on-ground challenges women are facing, like loss of jobs from informal sectors, gender care burdens, occupational segregation, gender pay gaps, reduced working hours, and women being the primary caretakers at home. These challenges suggest that the gains made towards eliminating poverty have been rendered futile as the positive trends are reversed. According to the Labour Force Survey 2017-18, nearly one-fourth of female workers in India were working in manufacturing sectors. This sector is marked by less secure jobs, employment risks and fewer earnings for women, which increases their inequality and will further push them towards extreme poverty leading to financial insecurity and loss of agency given the month-long lockdowns.

The hardest hit is the women working in the informal sector during the lockdown, leaving them out of jobs, restricted to their homes with negligible income, running out of food and shelter. A developing country like India further faces social problems like lower levels of education, persistent poverty, unemployment, malnutrition, poor standards of living, and poor socio-economic conditions, which hamper their progress. The worst hit due to these social evils is the poor women in the region who also suffer the insecure employment, lower-skilled occupations, and migration due to work which have aggravate their situation as the economies have hit a recession. India’s female labour force participation rate has fallen from 27% in 2010 to 22% in 2020, which is to say that most women in India are out of a job or are not seeking one. The women labour class of India has fewer skills and lower levels of education; they are thus mainly employed in domestic care, businesses such as hospitals, hotels, salons, construction sites, and other informal jobs which cannot accommodate working from home. These are the jobs that are not compatible with social distancing and are, in fact, at greater risk of exposure to human interaction and touch and, subsequently, COVID-19. However, it doesn’t end at greater risk of health and income consequences but also extends to inadequate coping mechanisms like an unclean environment, no space at home for social distancing, lack of access and inability to afford healthcare, negligible savings that can sustain them and lastly insufficient social security system which has heavily endangered the community and personal security.


  • Policy frameworks need to be aligned with non-traditional security threats, especially for women in the wake of COVID-19- The government needs to incorporate a gendered lens for design and implementation in the policy framework with the system of gender budgeting and gender impact assessments.
  • Mandatory equal representation in working groups, task force, and committees working towards emergency management and relief projects.
  • Establishment of national-level funds specifically for women who are adversely affected due to pandemics. This fund can be used to provide aid to women who have lost jobs, special loan facilities, provide capital to rebuild business for self-employed women.
  • The world around saw a global rise in domestic violence, which calls for its prevention and protection towards gender-based violence as an integral part of COVID-19 response plans by incorporating telephone helpline numbers, online legal portals, and multi-sectoral services to the survivors.


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