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No economy for women
March 8, 2017

According to a recent report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), India and Pakistan have the lowest rates of women’s labour force participation in Asia, in sharp contrast to Nepal, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia that have the highest, with richer nations like Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia falling in between. Moreover, even this low rate of labour force participation seems to be declining. The National Sample Survey found that while in 1999-2000, 25.9% of all women worked, by 2011-12 this proportion had dropped to 21.9%. This is in stark contrast to worldwide trends. Of the 185 nations that are part of the ILO database, since the 1990s, 114 countries have recorded an increase in the proportion of women in the workforce, and only 41 recorded declines, with India leading the pack. So what does this tell us about India’s growth story?


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A heartening explanation could be that with rising incomes, women have the opportunity to escape harsh labour in farms and on construction sites, and focus on their families. But a more pessimistic and possibly realistic explanation might be that with declining farm sizes, rising mechanisation, and consequently dwindling labour demands in agriculture, women are being forced out of the workforce. If true, this has serious implications for future policy.


Research has shown that when women have access to more work opportunities, they gladly take them. The India Human Development Survey (IHDS), jointly organised by researchers from the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and the University of Maryland, finds that the provision of work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) has brought more rural women into wage labour. Among MGNREGA workers in 2011-12, a whopping 45% were not in wage labour before the scheme was initiated.


Moreover, the provision of MGNREGA work has far greater impact on women’s paid work than that of men. Increased availability of wage work also enhances women’s control over household decision-making.


Since NREGA work by itself cannot be expected to provide consistent stable employment for women, it is imperative to explore other avenues. From a policy perspective, two main challenges have to be addressed for augmenting women’s workforce participation rates. First, in view of shrinking farm work, we need to create opportunities for women to move from agricultural to non-agricultural manual work. Second, we must foster a work environment that allows more women, especially urban and educated women, to take up salaried jobs.


In her research, Lei Lei, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, finds that in villages where roads were constructed between the first (2004-05) and second (2011-12) waves of IHDS, both men and women were more likely to undertake non-agricultural work but this effect was greater for women. Such work has a cascading effect as construction of concrete roads also improves transportation services such as buses, which, in turn, could facilitate movement of the rural workforce, especially women, into non-agricultural work in neighbouring villages and towns.


At the other end of the employment spectrum, however, there is a need to make it possible for educated women to continue to work even while raising families. In a context where women continue to bear the major share of household work and childcare, the prevalence of a rigid work environment in India and the dearth of family-friendly work institutions create impediments to women’s access to white-collar jobs in the formal sector. Second, long distances between the home and th Download pdf