International Women’s Day: How India can unblock women’s access to economic opportunities

The piece has been co-authored by Yamini Atmavilas, Saachi Bhalla and Sabah Hamid.

 |  5-minute read |   07-03-2019
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Fewer Indian women are participating in the labour force year on year.

India’s GDP grew at 8.6% between 2004-05 and 2011-12 — but in the same time period, a World Bank report using last declared National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data, found that 19.2 million fewer women participated in the labour force.

At a time when fertility is declining, educational attainment and economic growth rising, the shrinking of women’s participation in the workforce is a perplexing reality.

wom-690_030719054127.jpgThe share of Indian women in workplaces is shrinking. Given that fertility rates are falling and education rising, this is a puzzle. (Source: Reuters)

What adds to the puzzle is that according to the National Sample Survey 2011, over a third of the women engaged primarily in housework say they would like a job. That number rises to nearly 50% among the most educated women in rural India. Some factors that could explain this include broader macroeconomic challenges to job creation, the burden of unpaid work, low demand for women’s labour, increased attendance in educational institutions, higher household income levels, and increased mechanisation of agriculture.

There is also a lack of ‘suitable’ jobs — the burden of unpaid care work combined with constraints of mobility, and concerns around safety lead to a preference for flexible jobs close to home. As women’s education improves, the demand for more aspirational jobs increases. The match is difficult to find.

There is much that can be done to address these challenges, and there is enough evidence to show what measures would have the most impact.

As a first step, it is imperative India invests in her youth. The country has the world’s largest number of 10 to 24-year-olds — 356 million of them — and we know from research that most of them struggle to transition successfully into adulthood — as many as 70% rural and 80% urban women aged 20-24 years are unemployed. A number of government programmes aim to enable young women, typically those aged 18-24, to access market opportunities with limited success. The focus needs to be on school-to-work transitions; breaking the divide between education and vocational training; and building school-based employability and entrepreneurship. The move by Delhi government schools to initiate this is a welcome one. 

Two, work guarantees need to be expanded. Reservations are important policy tools that governments have used with mixed success. India’s experience with public sector quotas has increased women’s employment, when combined with female friendly policies. Bihar’s recent policy decision reserving jobs for women in the public sector can be promising, given the size of the opportunity. There is strong evidence on the impact of MGNREGA in boosting rural employment, especially for women. States such as Kerala have also started implementing urban work guarantee programmes successfully — with the added benefit of creating public assets such as housing.  

women-690_030719053953.jpgThink about women: Bihar’s recent policy decision, reserving jobs for women in the public sector, can be promising. (Source: Reuters)

Three, entrepreneurship requires a shot in the arm — it could be a game-changer with the right inputs. There have been new programmes to support self-employment, like MUDRA in its intent, but require evidence-based implementation and design solutions to be impactful. The rural and urban livelihoods missions can take on this agenda, given their reach and mandate. 

Four, we have to collectively think of disruptive solutions for mobility of women and girls — the absence of complete, reliable and affordable public transportation imposes constraints on women’s mobility. Exploring long-term solutions which take a gendered perspective for transport infrastructure and urban planning, including efforts to improve lighting and road quality, can improve women’s mobility and therefore, women’s access to employment. The bicycle programme of states such as Tamil Nadu and Bihar is an example of a simple intervention creating significant impact.

Five, social protection programmes for women, especially those in the informal sector, needs to be enhanced. As many as 120 million women work with no maternity benefits or social protection in India. Current legislation and policy only covers a fraction of them, excluding most informal women workers.

The Maternity Benefit Act 2017 increased paid maternity leave for women from 12 to 26 weeks. This benefitted women working in the formal sector — or only about 4% of the female labour force. More needs to be done to ensure wage-linked social security for women in the informal sector and to look at maternity benefits more holistically. Universal access to crèches or child care services can dramatically reduce women’s burden of unpaid work and also improve early childhood development outcomes.

The National Creche Scheme could provide this much-needed infrastructure by exploring some viable models for successful implementation at scale.

maternity-690_030719054236.jpgMaternal care benefits needed: Much more needs to be done to ensure wage-linked social security for pregnant women. (Source: Reuters)

Six, there needs to be a more systemic response to gender-based violence — one out of two Indian women reports facing some form of violence at home. Street harassment is a daily occurrence for most women. While government programs and civil society interventions have established crisis centres in police stations and hospitals, women need institutions closer to them.

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) issued guidelines for the health system to address violence against women could be integrated with the National Health Mission, which has funding to train health workers and appoint counsellors at facilities. There is a great need to test rural solutions to make health systems responsive to gender-based violence.  

The solution to increasing women’s participation in the workforce is not limited to these solutions (although experts agree that these would be impactful) and we constantly need research and data to tell us what’s working and what’s not, to help us assess change over time or design new interventions. This is why gender-disaggregated data is so critical. Gender data is a much-needed investment that can be transformative for decision making on women and girls.

Gender equality obviously matters for its own sake, as well as for development, economic growth and poverty reduction. Either way, what is clear is that India’s women are ready and willing to achieve great things — we need to make sure the roadblocks to their success are removed.

(Yamini Atmavilas, Saachi Bhalla and Sabah Hamid work at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, India.)

Also read: Truth about how ads show Indian women

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