Reverse the decline

Women At Work

India has among the lowest Female Labour Force Participation Rates (FLFPR) in the world, and significantly below its potential relative to its level of income and its neighbouring countries, ranking 120 among 131 countries. FLFPR for women aged 15 and above stood at 42.7% in 2004-05, according to the Usual Principal Subsidiary Status (UPSS) definition. By 2009-10, the rate had fallen dramatically to 32.6%, and more recent data from the Labour Bureau indicates that it has declined further to 27.4% in 2015-16.

Women’s employment has declined over chronological time and to a much greater extent in development time. The evidence points to a scarcity of jobs and gender unequal social norms that severely constrain women’s agency, mobility and work. Evidence also points to discrimination against women in the labour market. Labour market inequality in the context of women and employment is far more pervasive than mere numbers indicate and encompasses complex issues including the quality of employment, gender wage gap, informality and the feminisation of work.

In 2015, the government launched the ‘Skill India’ campaign, with the aim of skilling 40 million Indians by 2022. The union budget 2018-19 made a provision for building a skills development centre in every district in India. The campaign has had two main initiatives since 2015: the National Skill Development Mission (NSDM) and the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY), that have combined to create a National Skills Qualification Framework (NSQF) with sector-based skill centres to standardise skills and skilling expectations.

Thirty-three industry sectors have combined to build over 1,000 skill development centres across India. Nearly half of the young people enrolled under PMKVY are women. Between 2011 and 2016, it is estimated that as many as 3.2 million women were reported to have been trained under the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) mission. This begs the question: why, despite the targeted skilling of women, is FLFPR declining? In particular, why is the decline sharper in rural India? If women are being skilled for the explicit purpose of employment, what systemic, cultural and social factors prevent them from entering labour markets?

There has been considerable policy debate on this phenomenon and some recent studies have thrown up stylised facts that seek to explain this conundrum:
increased enrolment in higher education, rising household incomes, and under-reporting of women’s work. However, the demand-side dimensions of the labour market represent the underlying factors that inhibit women at work.

Let me elaborate: first, the structural aspect — if jobs are not being created in locations and sectors that women can access, increased employability will not impact labour market outcomes for women. Second, the absence of agencies for women – in the form of women’s access to and control over resources; freedom of movement; freedom from the risk of violence; decision-making over family formation; and voluntarily engaging in domestic duties -- representing change in social norms that can have a multiplier effect on FLFPR.

In India’s quest for inclusive and sustainable growth, poverty, politics and power matter. Between 2005 and 2012, the Indian economy generated around three million new jobs per year, while adding 13 million working age population each year. During this period, the share of working-age women who work or actively seek work declined by more than 10%, with a particularly pronounced decrease in rural areas (from 49% to 36%). In urban areas, only one in five working-age women are in the labour force. Raising that rate is a high priority because it promotes women’s empowerment and improved outcomes for children -- core development objectives in their own right.

Full and productive employment of all women will also serve as a growth multiplier. By one estimate, GDP growth could accelerate by 1.5% if India were to close just half its FLFPR gap with Nepal. The ILO has estimated that if India were to close this gender gap in labour force participation by 2025, $1 trillion could be added to the economy, accelerating the nation’s economic growth rate.

Feminisation of skills

In a diverse country like India, there are multiple factors that influence labour outcomes. From the supply-side, the decline is occurring because more young women are pursuing higher education, which augurs well for skill development as well as gender equality. However, most of the observed decline in FLFPR occurred among older women and despite their higher educational attainment. Data from the 2011-12 National Sample Survey, provides voice to women. Over a third of women engaged in housework responded that they would like to work. Unfortunately, the feminisation of skills and gender-based job segregation results in more women engaged in low-productivity, low-paying jobs.

An important dimension in India today is mobility and migration of women in search of work and the safety and security concerns that circumscribe women and work. Safety concerns and social norms about house and care work restrict women’s mobility and participation in paid work. A survey of sexual violence against women in New Delhi found that 75% of the female respondents had faced sexual violence in their neighbourhoods. In a survey of Skill India participants, 62% of unemployed women said they were willing to migrate for work, but 70% said they would feel unsafe working away from home.

India faces a formidable development challenge — over the medium to long term — of gender inequality, thwarting its quest for inclusive and sustainable growth. In its current development path and trajectory, it appears unlikely that India will achieve important decent work and gender equality-related Sustainable Development Goals targets. From a development praxis perspective, it is imperative that the Centre and states address the underlying causes for the declining rate of women’s participation in the labour force. In its absence, the goal of inclusive and sustainable growth will prove elusive.

(The writer, a retired IAS officer, is Director, Public Affairs Centre, Bengaluru)

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