The Bihar government’s move to reserve 35 per cent of all jobs in the state sector for women is an attempt to increase their presence in the workforce. However, with not many jobs being created in the public sector, the policy offers more symbolic value than radical content: Its potential in transforming the social and economic stature of women is limited, even when compared to the Nitish Kumar government’s women-centric initiatives in the past, especially in the field of education. Measures like providing free schooling, textbooks and bicycles for girls were truly empowering in the sense that they endowed the beneficiaries with skills to participate in the job market, including in the private sector, where much of employment creation happens today.
The limitations of the latest initiative notwithstanding, the gesture is welcome in a state where the labour force participation rate among women of working age, at 9 per cent, is one of the lowest in India, and far below the all-India average of 33 per cent. The scale of gender disparity in Bihar is also evident in the large presence of women in casual employment — nearly 50 per cent as against the all-India average of 31 per cent. Better representation in the formal workforce, which offers assured incomes and wages, would help improve the status of women and make society sensitive towards gender equality in social and economic spaces. Moreover, public institutions that have a representative workforce are likely to provide better services. Bihar has seen remarkable improvement in women’s participation in education and politics in recent years. In the decade between 2001 and 2011, female literacy rose by over 20 percentage points, although, at 53 per cent, it is still far behind the national average of 65.5 per cent. Election data points to more women exercising their voting rights compared to men — a clear indication of the former becoming aware of the political process and their role in it. The 2006 government decision to reserve 50 per cent seats in panchayati raj institutions for women has led to the creation of a new set of leaders and role models, offsetting many social stereotypes and deepening democracy.
Election data points to more women exercising their voting rights compared to men — a clear indication of the former becoming aware of the political process and their role in it. The 2006 government decision to reserve 50 per cent seats in panchayati raj institutions for women has led to the creation of a new set of leaders and role models, offsetting many social stereotypes and deepening democracy.
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The recognition of the economic rights of women and state intervention to address gender disparity in employment was inevitable considering the trajectory Bihar has embarked on under Nitish. In a polity where caste has been the primary marker of social identity and political loyalty, Nitish identified a potential constituency in women and crafted a poll agenda that appealed to them. Some of his promises, like prohibition, may be deemed populist but much in his women-centric agenda has the potential to transform Bihar’s society and economy for the better.