Meet Mithila Aggarwal, 27, who was forced to quit dreams of pursuing an MBA and opt for interior designing because her parents wanted to save money for her wedding. From Faridabad near Delhi, the ambitious B.Com graduate imagined herself as a manager in a corporation. But her parents felt doing an interior designing course would also prime her better for the ‘marriage market’ and made her promise she wouldn’t go in for a ‘professional job’.
It’s because of many such Mithilas that India’s Female Labour Force Participation Rate (FLFP) is at its historic low of 24 percent against 55.9 percent men’s participation as per the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) report. We are a country that talks of demographic dividend and almost 50 percent of our population is female. This is a completely untapped skill force but instead of India engaging its women in the workforce, we are seeing a decline in their participation.
What explains this declining rate of female participation? Especially when girls’ primary school enrolments are up, life expectancy has improved, and so have some other social indicators. Economist and Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jayati Ghosh tells SheThePeople.TV, “India has a very large divergence between economic growth and FLFP like most other countries in Asia. Historically, we have had a low rate and this has declined further. A large part of the decline is women working in agriculture and there are many reasons for this.”
Many tasks that women were previously engaged in especially at farms have been outsourced to machines. “We know that whenever work becomes less arduous whether it is construction or agriculture, as it gets mechanized the men get it,” she deduces. As per the NSSO report, between 1970 to 2018, women’s participation in agriculture was around 88.1% in 1977-78 which declined to 73.2% in 2017-18 while during the same time period, men’s participation lowered from 80.6% to 55%.
Shobha Nagnur, a professor at the University of Agricultural Sciences, however, has a different view. Nagnur says agriculture has been feminized in the last few decades resulting in the increase in women becoming farmers. “We found that women are taking up more farming activities today because men are migrating to cities because of which women are left behind to tend to the farms and in addition, they also go to other people’s fields to work,” she says. “Women solely do all post-harvest activities. Earlier ploughing was done by men but slowly women are taking part in also ploughing fields and all other activities. They are either working shoulder-to-shoulder with men or exclusively participating in some activities.”
Women farmers are taking over most of the work in agriculture for sure, but they remain invisible in terms of obtaining land rights. Despite the government’s policy that the land must be divided equally among children, daughters who ask for their rights are shunned by society. This issue needs to be taken up effectively in parliament.
When your husband is earning very well then why should you work? Women are often told.
Unpaid work follows women-at-work
Nagnur believes that women farmers are being over-burdened because men don’t take up household chores and now many productive roles are also being taken over by them in the absence of men if they migrate to urban spaces. It isn’t just the women in agriculture but women across the board who are going out to work are still not absolved of their responsibilities as nurturers at home. “Now when women joined the workforce, there is only a one-sided shift wherein women take up the role of a provider. However, the shift needs to be from both ends where men need to take up caregiving responsibilities as well, as women go out for work. That equality needs to be put in place,” says Supreet Kaur of Safecity.
Ghosh underlines how there are several economic activities that women participate in which continue to be unpaid, such as free collection of goods like vegetables, roots, firewood, cattle feed, water collection, sewing, tailoring, weaving, etc., Ghosh says, “These are all economic activities which are still unpaid. Over the period, there has been a shift of women from paid to unpaid work.”
Southern India in general, other than Kerala, has high rates of participation of women in the workforce as does the North East. Northern and Central India have a very low rate. As per 2018 data, in Bihar it is four percent. Overall it is an indication that women’s economic position and status in society haven’t improved because the formal economy is operating on the back of the unpaid labour of women,” Ghosh adds. So there are states where education among women could be high but workforce participation is low. Kerala is an example. “There is a very large regional gap in all of this.”
“Government is also largely responsible for the falling FLFP because when it has several women working for lower wages than the minimum wage rate. Due to this society also doesn’t value either those women as workers or the work that they do,” Ghosh points to the lakhs of Anganwadi workers who work under the government’s Integrated Child Development Services program and Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs). She emphasizes on the low wages at which Anganwadi workers and Asha workers are hired by the government which is lower than the prescribed minimum wages.
A mother of three, 43-year-old Sarvesh is an ASHA worker from Jhajjar, Haryana. She works a daily shift to raise her children but ends up struggling to keep up with their basic needs. After several protests in 2018, the state and the central government increased the fixed salaries of ASHA workers to Rs. 2000 and Rs. 4000 over which they can earn incentives up to Rs. 2000. With a salary that ranges from Rs 6000 – Rs 8000, Sarvesh says that another struggle is that she doesn’t even get her salary every month and only gets it once in more than six months. “I am always falling short of money to pay for my children’s education. On top of that, it is a constant struggle to get the money that we work for. It is just frustrating,” Sarvesh tells us.
Currently, Anganwadi workers in Jharkhand have been protesting for over a month now to demand a pay hike from the state government. Anganwadi workers in Jharkhand—a strength of close to 80,000 workers, have put off their work since August 16 to push the state to increase their wages from the current amount of Rs. 1500. These protests from Anganwadi and ASHA workers have become a norm as both sets of workers are marginalized due to ignoble pay. Ghosh notes that these workers aren’t even called workers, they are called “volunteers”.
Pushpa Mahto is a 48-year-old Anganwadi worker from Chakulia Block of Purbi Singhbhum district, Jharkhand. She has been working in this field since 1997 and despite giving more than two decades of her life in this work, she and millions like her have to fight to get their rightful minimum wages from the government. She tells us, “Ours has been a long fight but we will not stop until we get a hike. Can the ministers spend one month in Rs 5900? Then how do they expect us to work for such low wages?”
Social stigma far from over
“We have been told over ages that the sign of a good life for women is when they do not have to work,” says Schonali Rebello of JobsForHer. “We are educating our women now because we want them to have better marriage prospects which means that the man they will be marrying has a better college degree than they do and that man will earn very well. Also, the general sentiment is, when your husband is earning very well then why should you work?”
Take the example of Neha Gupta, 33, who is from a small town called Orai in Uttar Pradesh. She never believed that she was studying to get a job. Going to an engineering college in Mathura, it was all resume-dressing for a good groom. With the understanding that her degree wasn’t meant to seek a professional career, she came back home after finishing college. Neither did her parents encourage her to work nor did she think of it as necessary.
It took her a couple of years to get married during which she stayed at home and helped her mother with the household chores. In an unfortunate turn of events, the marriage didn’t work out (nothing to do with her education) and now to help gather her own life she is looking out for a job. Circumstances have forced her to explore call center jobs as she really never built on her engineering degree.
“We have been told over ages that the sign of a good life for women is when they do not have to work,” says Schonali Rebello of JobsForHer.
Workplace and public space safety issues persist
When normative values or patriarchy are not at work, it’s the work environment that acts as a deterrent for women. In the post #MeToo era, companies are slyly discouraging women hires as they don’t want ‘controversy’. For women, those who speak up are often released from the companies in due course for taking the ‘spotlight’. Some policies meant to safeguard women are actually negatively impacting their work prospects such as the 26-week maternity policy. (Read why in a detailed article here.)
Not to dismiss the fact that all this is still restricted to formal workplaces. And the sexual harassment and ill-condition of women working in the informal sector aren’t even being talked about.
Unemployment on the rise
Out of the 11 million jobs lost, about 8.8 million belonged to women in comparison to 2.2 million that were owned by men, according to a 2018 report by Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE). Of the total jobs lost by women, rural women lost 6.5 million jobs while urban women lost only 2.3 million jobs. However, the CMIE report has a different story to tell for men, as urban men ironically gained 5,00,000 jobs while the rural men lost 2.3 million jobs. The report also warned that increasingly, the number of jobs is diminishing in the country as the total number of employed people in December 2018 was 397 million, which is 10.9 million less than the figure of 407.9 million seen a year ago at the end of December 2017.
Picture credit- India Today