India is in the middle of a historical election which is noteworthy in many respects, one of them being the unprecedented focus on women’s employment. The major national parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress, have reached out to women, and their respective manifestos talk of measures to create more livelihood opportunities in rural and urban areas, which include incentives to businesses for employing more women.
Currently, the participation of women in the workforce in India is one of the lowest globally. The female labour force participation rate (LFPR) in India fell from 31.2% in 2011-2012 to 23.3% in 2017-2018. This decline has been sharper in rural areas, where the female LFPR fell by more than 11 percentage points in 2017-2018. Social scientists have long tried to explain this phenomenon, more so in the context of rising levels of education for women.
The answers can be found in a complex set of factors including low social acceptability of women working outside the household, lack of access to safe and secure workspaces, widespread prevalence of poor and unequal wages, and a dearth of decent and suitable jobs. Most women in India are engaged in subsistence-level work in agriculture in rural areas, and in low-paying jobs such as domestic service and petty home-based manufacturing in urban areas. But with better education, women are refusing to do casual wage labour or work in family farms and enterprises.
A recent study observed a strong negative relationship between a woman’s education level and her participation in agricultural and non-agricultural wage work and in family farms. Essentially, women with moderately high levels of education do not want to do manual labour outside the household which would be perceived to be below their educational qualifications. The study also showed a preference among women for salaried jobs as their educational attainment increases; but such jobs remain extremely limited for women. It is estimated that among people (25 to 59 years) working as farmers, farm labourers and service workers, nearly a third are women, while the proportion of women among professionals, managers and clerical workers is only about 15% (NSSO, 2011-2012).
However, it is not the case that women are simply retreating from the world of work. On the contrary, time-use surveys have found that they devote a substantial amount of their time to work which is not considered as work, but an extension of their duties, and is largely unpaid. The incidence and drudgery of this unpaid labour is growing. This includes unpaid care work such as childcare, elderly care, and household work such as collecting water. The burden of these activities falls disproportionately on women, especially in the absence of adequately available or accessible public services. It also encompasses significant chunks of women’s contribution to agriculture, animal husbandry, and non-timber forest produce on which most of the household production and consumption is based.
Any government which is serious about ensuring women’s economic empowerment and equal access to livelihoods must address the numerous challenges that exist along this highly gendered continuum of unpaid, underpaid and paid work. A two-pronged approach must entail facilitating women’s access to decent work by providing public services, eliminating discrimination in hiring, ensuring equal and decent wages, and improving women’s security in public spaces. It must also recognise, reduce, redistribute, and remunerate women’s unpaid work.
An ActionAid document, which has compiled a people’s agenda through extensive discussions across States, provides critical recommendations to policymakers on issues of concern to Dalits, tribal people, Muslims and other marginalised communities with a focus on the needs of women. On the question of work, women’s demands include gender-responsive public services such as free and accessible public toilets, household water connections, safe and secure public transport, and adequate lighting and CCTV cameras to prevent violence against women in public spaces and to increase their mobility. Furthermore, they want fair and decent living wages and appropriate social security including maternity benefit, sickness benefit, provident fund, and pension.
Women have also expressed the need for policies which ensure safe and dignified working and living conditions for migrant workers. For example, in cities, governments must set up migration facilitation and crisis centres (temporary shelter facility, helpline, legal aid, and medical and counselling facilities). They must also allocate social housing spaces for women workers, which include rental housing and hostels. They must ensure spaces for women shopkeepers and hawkers in all markets and vending zones.
In addition, women have strongly articulated the need to enumerate and remunerate the unpaid and underpaid work they undertake in sectors such as agriculture and fisheries. Their fundamental demand is that women must be recognised as farmers in accordance with the National Policy for Farmers; this should include cultivators, agricultural labourers, pastoralists, livestock rearers, forest workers, fish-workers, and salt pan workers. Thereafter, their equal rights and entitlements over land and access to inputs, credit, markets, and extension services must be ensured.
Women also reiterate the need to recognise and redistribute their unpaid work in the household. For this, the government must collect sex-disaggregated household level data with suitable parameters. Unless policymakers correctly assess and address the structural issues which keep women from entering and staying in the workforce, promising more jobs — while a welcome step — is unlikely to lead to the socio-economic transformation India needs.
Divita Shandilya works at ActionAid India as Programme Manager- Policy and Research
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