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India@75: Exploring women, work and their freedom

From the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, India has had an eventful journey. Elaborate plans coupled with many trials and errors have helped it carve its status as the largest democracy and the sixth largest economy in the world.

But is the much-cherished freedom enjoyed by everyone in this country, particularly the 'second sex'? How many more years are needed for the seeds of gender equality to take root in free India envisioned by our freedom fighters?

If India hopes to become a world leader it cannot ignore the security and needs of a largely productive section of the labour-force hiding behind the walls of patriarchy.

The positive signs

The country has undoubtedly come a long way for women when looked at from the point of variables like female infanticide, foeticide, and maternal mortality.

While the sex ratio was 946 females for every 1,000 males in 1951, it is an impressive 1,020 females for every 1,000 males in the country in 2022.

The sex ratio at birth for children born in the last five years (females per 1,000 males) has also improved steadily. From 914 in National Family Health Survey 3 (2005-6), it has risen to 929 in NFHS 5 (2019-21). The corresponding figures are 1,047 and 951, respectively for Kerala.

Meanwhile, the total fertility rate (TFR) has reduced from 2.2 in 2015-16 to 2 in 2019-21.

But when it comes to a quality variable like Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) of females, women in free India are still bound by the shackles of patriarchy, religion and other socio-economic constraints.

LFPR, or employment rate, is a measure of how many able and employable people in the economy are actually looking for work.

Rural women of Jharkhand are becoming self-sufficient with Lemon Grass cultivation.
File photo: IANS

The 'invisible' workforce

Driven by a fall in demand for work by rural women, women’s LFPRs have declined from roughly 32 percent to 18 percent from 1993-94 to 2017-18. This is in tandem with the overall drop in India's employment rate to 42 per cent. An interesting point here is that the negative trend began much before the outbreak of the pandemic.

The LFPR levels for women have dropped below 10 per cent in the Hindi heartland including states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, indicating a serious issue.

When the LFPR of women dropped in the late 2000s, experts attributed it to the higher education and procurement of skills by women. But the fact that this drop was not counter-compensated in the following 10 years shows that depressed demand for work from women stems from more serious issues like unpaid domestic chores, lack of social support, and absence of care economy.

Depressed demand for work from women stems from more serious issues like unpaid domestic chores, lack of social support, and absence of care economy.

The preceding national surveys show us that most women are willing to work if employment is available near their homes. A study by Ashwini Deshpande and Naila Kabeer in seven districts of West Bengal concluded that household chores and care-giving for offspring and elders limited women from taking up jobs that were outside a particular radius of their homes.

Based on these surveys, it would be wrong to conclude that women are not working. A large proportion of women working without pay falls outside the definition of 'work' as outlined by statisticians.

working women
Representational image. Shutterstock

During 2019-20, an additional 4.75 crore individuals joined the workforce despite the pandemic (3 times more than the 2017-2019 period). Of these, 63 per cent were females. However, 75 per cent of these women workers who joined as 'self-employed' were under unpaid family labour. Even when women are part of the workforce, they fail to achieve the much-needed financial independence received from a job. Even if they are actively contributing to family enterprises, they are seldom involved in the decision-making process or even considered workers of the entity by themselves or the family.

Trends also suggest that more women enter the less paid, informal sectors like agriculture as opposed to men as they have fewer job options compared to their male counterparts. Among the new workers in agriculture in 2019-20, females account for 65 per cent.

The unemployment issue

Another issue of concern is that the unemployment rate (17 per cent) is higher among women than their male counterparts (6 per cent). This implies that even if women are interested to work, they are unable to find work due to inflexibility in working hours, location, and types of jobs.

File Photo: IANS

Education and skills

Though the gender gap in female literacy rate has narrowed to 70.3 per cent, the education and procurement of skills have not improved significantly for many women in India.

The increasing dropout rates among girls indicate that many households choose to limit women's education as the opportunity cost of foregone labour is more compared to educating her. Even if households incur the education expenses of a girl child, the inability to reap the financial dividend after their marriage prevents them from investing in her education. The social stigma attached to an educated, married woman providing for her family is another reason preventing her financial mobility.

Representative image: Manorama

Crimes against women

Amongst crimes against women, domestic abuse still features as a top contender signifying that the lack of respect or regard for women begins at home.

According to a study by BMC Women’s Health on the National Crimes Record Bureau, the reported rate of 'cruelty by husband or his relatives' in India increased from 18.5 in 2001 and 28.3 in 2018 per 1,00,000 women aged 15–49 years, marking a significant increase of 53 per cent over this period.

A total of 1,548,548 cases were reported under cruelty by a husband or his relatives from 2001 to 2018, with 554,481 (35.8 per cent) being registered between 2014 and 2018.

As long as families agree to the abuse against women, they are unlikely to support women to join the workforce or become financially independent.

Representational image: Mohammad Shahnawaz/Shutterstock

132 years to gender parity

The Global Gender Report 2022, which includes the Gender Gap Index, says it will now take 132 years to reach gender parity. India ranks 135 among a total of 146 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index 2022.

The index benchmarks gender parity across four key dimensions or sub-indices economic such as participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.

At 146th rank, India is the worst performer in the world in the “health and survival”.

The issue of gender pay gap is also very relevant in this context. When it comes to wage equality, India ranks 122. Wealth gaps remain 11 per cent for frontline operational workers and 31 per cent for professional and technical workers. For senior and management workers, the pay gap generates an average wealth gap of 38 per cent.

If the country intends to soar above the rest of the world, it has to break women free from the socio-cultural constraints that hold them back. And gender equality in terms of equal opportunities, financial independence, equal access to education, and job is the way forward for achieving this. India will need to have a targeted approach to lure more women into the labour force.

A McKinsey Global Institute recently pointed out that improving women’s status and initiating gender equality in India could add $12 trillion to global growth. Increasing women’s labour force participation by ten percentage points could add $700 billion to India’s GDP by 2025. The country will do well to capitalize on this.

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