Women workers: addressing constraints to work.

AuthorSudarshan, Ratna M.
PositionBy Invitation - Abstract


Participation in paid work outside the home is critical to the survival for most households. However, women's work participation in India as measured in official data is much lower than that of men, and there has been no significant reduction in the gender gaps in work participation over the last few decades. Activists and researchers have pointed out that this data does not fully capture women's work and economic contribution because much of it is 'invisible' being unpaid, hidden within the home, and mixed into care work. The level and nature of women's work force participation is partly influenced by individual attributes (in particular education and skills); and partly by the need to manage care demands of the household, and cultural and social expectations on women's time. Consequently opportunities for work in the market place are mediated by various institutions including the family and household. Against this background, there is a long history of engagement by the state and non state actors in India to find ways of strengthening women's bargaining power in order to improve the quality of their work participation.

Women's workforce participation rate as measured by the National Sample Survey Organisation is considerably below that of men, and is higher in rural than urban areas. In 2009-10, 81 % of women (and 24 % of men) were reported as economically inactive; female work participation was 36.8 % in rural and 18.3 % in urban areas (against 81.2 % and 73.9 % for men) (Chen & Raveendran 2012). A time use survey carried out in six states by the Central Statistical Organisation in 1998-99 had estimated the weekly average time spent by men on SNA activities as 42 hours compared to 19 hours for women; while for extended SNA activities (including household and care related activities) men spent around 3.6 hours compared to 34.6 hours for women. The accuracy in measurement of women's work can be contested, but the numbers serve to illustrate differences in gender roles as well as perceptions as women often do not view their economic contribution as 'work' (on the measurement debate see for example Jain, 1985; SARH & SCOPE, 1996; Jhabvala & Datta, 2012) Government schemes designed to support women's work and enable empowerment through work, are one example of initiatives taken by a democratic state committed to equality and citizenship. Bringing about 'equality' between men and women is a part of the larger project of making the transition from a hierarchical to a democratic society, and is enshrined in the Constitution. In the words of Andre Beteille, "The Indian Constitution ... is not merely a set of rules relating to governance, but a design for a new kind of society. The older society that had prevailed for centuries and millenia was based on the principle of hierarchy; the new society envisaged in the constitution was to be based on the principle of equality...." (Beteille, 2000: 267)

A review of Plan documents shows that it is in the late seventies/ early eighties that an accelerated effort to mobilize women as workers became much more evident in government programs. This is also the period that significant non government efforts at mobilizing and organizing women workers began to increase in scale. It is also around this time that policies directed at opening up the economy and favoring globalization began to be formulated. It is likely that these reinforced one another. This paper looks at the actual experience with one particular program to argue that prevalent social norms continue to mediate outcomes around women's work and could be more clearly factored into policy making.

Empowerment through Work

The appointment by the Government of India of the Commission on Self Employed Women and Women in the Informal Sector, and the publication of its report, Shramshakti, in 1988, can be seen as the start of a new direction in the plan ning for women's economic empowerment. Shramshakti pulled together data on women's work, its nature and characteristics, and recommended a supportive policy framework. It drew attention to the fact that 94% of women workers were in the informal sector (1) and to the need to find ways of bringing them into the mainstream of economic activity and organising effort. Shramshakti chose to emphasize the economic aspects of women's situation, leaving implicit the underlying social realities and the linkage between social and economic factors.

Government programs can influence women's work participation either directly or indirectly. An improvement in the social and economic infrastructure or in the levels of education and skill and in the overall rate of growth will indirectly influence the level and manner of women's work force participation by changing the environment within which work-related decisions are taken. Programs that directly support women's work do this usually in one of two ways, either by ensuring women's inclusion in general employment generating programmes by specifying a quota or reservation (usually one third of beneficiaries), or through specific programmes that target women workers. For example one third of the beneficiaries of major poverty alleviation programs (such as IRDP, TRYSEM and NREP (2)) are expected to be women. The percentage share of women in IRDP and TRYSEM which are self employment programs shows a steady increase in the share of women beneficiaries to all beneficiaries, from 11.5 % in 1985-86, to 34.16 % in 1995-96 and 57.59 % in 2005-06. Similarly there has been an increase in the share of women in other employment...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT