Updated: March 9, 2021 8:42:16 am
In her book Right to equality: From promise to power — which is the fifth volume in the Rethinking India series — author Nisha Agrawal looks at the reality of gender equality in India against the promises made in the country’s Constitution.
A statement reads, “What it finds is that even today, India remains a very unequal country and that women control, at best, about 10-15 per cent of economic and political resources. While there has been some progress in some areas, in many other areas, there has been very little and very uneven progress. One of the main reasons for the slow progress is that social norms that assign particular roles and identities to men and women are ‘sticky’ and very hard to change.”
An excerpt from Ashwini Deshpande’s essay (published with permission from Penguin Random House India):
Understanding Women’s Economic Work
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A great deal of focus in this discussion is on the decline. However, an equally (if not more) important issue is the persistently low level of women’s LFPR (labor force participation rate) in India, lower than our other South Asian neighbours, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. In joint work with Naila Kabeer, we explore factors that shape the low level. Our results are based on a large primary household survey in seven districts in West Bengal. We collect data on all the indicators included in the official surveys, and on additional variables that are usually not included in surveys. Since we wanted to focus on which specific internal constraints inhibit women from working, we asked specific questions on whether they were primarily responsible for childcare, for elderly care, for standard domestic chores (cooking, washing clothes, etc.), and if they covered their heads/faces always, sometimes, or never. The latter is taken as a proxy for cultural conservatism; indeed, internationally, the fact of women covering their faces in public spaces is often criticized as an oppressive practice. Of course, the context in the West is different in that covering heads/faces is associated with being Muslim. In India, the practice is followed by both Hindus and Muslims, and in recognition of that, we label it more broadly as ‘veiling’, and not as wearing a burqa or hijab. We implemented simple changes to the official survey questionnaires in order to get better estimates of women’s work that lie in the grey zone. Accordingly, our estimates are higher than official estimates, but even with improved measurement, a little over half (52 per cent) get counted as ‘working’. Which means that participation in work is low, even after work in the grey zone is included.
The Critical role of domestic chores
We then investigated the main constraints to women’s ability to work. Our main findings were that women being primarily responsible for routine domestic tasks such as cooking, cleaning and household maintenance, over and above the standard explanations in the literature (age, location, education, marriage and so on) as well as elderly care responsibilities, lowers their probability of working. If domestic chores emerge as an important determinant of women’s labour force participation, after controlling for the standard explanatory factors, the question that arises is this: to what extent do the low LFPRs found in India in particular, but in South Asia and MENA (Middle East and North Africa) countries more broadly, reflect international differences in women’s involvement in housework? There is some indicative evidence that indeed, in these regions, women spend more time on unpaid care work, broadly defined (including care of persons, housework or other voluntary care work), relative to a range of other developing and developed countries in the world. According to OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) data, in 2014, the female-to-male ratio of time devoted to unpaid care work was 10.25 and 9.83 in Pakistan and India respectively—the two countries with the lowest female LFPRs within South Asia—compared to 1.85 in the UK and 1.61 in the US. Factors traditionally viewed as cultural norms that constrain women’s participation in paid work, such as the practice of veiling or adherence to Islam, are insignificant in our analysis after the conventional variables have been accounted for. Given that the primary responsibility of domestic chores falls on the woman, we suggest that the conventional definition of cultural norms needs to be revised and shifted to focus on the real culprit, viz., the cultural norm that places the burden of domestic chores almost exclusively on women.
Is there an unmet demand for work?
Do women really want to participate in paid work, or have they either internalized the male breadwinner model which relegates them to take care of the home and the family? What about the ‘income effect’, according to which women work only if necessary for economic reasons, and withdraw from work as soon as they don’t need to? What about the marriage penalty, that is, women dropping out of the labour force once they are married? Thus, women’s work might be a sign of economic compulsions of trying make two ends meet rather than an expression of their desire for economic independence. We explore the evidence for this in our survey. Married women are less likely to be working than unmarried women, but marriage in India is near universal (making marriage the most common career choice for women), and asking women to choose either marriage or paid work is not a fair or realistic choice. We asked women who were currently not working if they would accept paid work if it was made available at or near their homes; 73.5 per cent said ‘yes’. When questioned further, 18.7 per cent expressed a preference for regular full-time work, 7.8 per cent for regular part-time work; 67.8 per cent for occasional full-time work and 5.78 per cent for occasional parttime work. It would appear that there was indeed a major unmet demand for paid work, whether regular or occasional, full-time or part-time, as long as the work in question was compatible with their domestic responsibilities. Based on this, we suggest that being out of the labour force is less a matter of choice for large numbers of women, and more a reflection of the demands of unpaid domestic responsibilities.
Rising open unemployment
LFPRs are comprised of women working, and women seeking work or being available for work (but not currently working), that is, women in the labour force, whether employed or not. Developing countries typically have underemployment or disguised unemployment, where individuals are engaged in very low-productivity subsistence activities, and do not declare themselves openly unemployed. When jobs are few and far between, women typically withdraw from the labour force rather than declare themselves as seeking work, that is, being openly unemployed. One feature of the 2017–18 data is the staggering rise in open unemployment, which again is driven by rural women, a clear indication of the unmet demand for work.
What is the role of stigma or fear of sexual violence?
We have now seen that there are other components of the puzzle that need to be joined, or other dots that need to be connected, before the full picture about the low participation of women in work becomes clear. What exactly is the role of stigma in explaining low participation by women? It is hard to get a clear answer to this because we would need hard evidence of rising intolerance towards women working outside the home, which we don’t have. Also, consider this. Urban female LFPRs have always been lower than rural. If stigma is the main reason underlying this gap, then it follows that urban women have faced greater stigma than rural women. But the entire decline in LFPRs is due to rural women. Does this mean that stigma, which might be greater in urban areas, has remained roughly constant but has increased in rural areas? This doesn’t make sense. Finally, the stigma of working outside the home as a mark of low status is typically characteristic in upper-caste women; Dalit and Adivasi women have always worked outside the home in far greater proportions. But the recent decline is larger for them than their upper-caste sisters. The only set of explanations that fit all these facts is a combination of the following: (non)availability of work which is compatible with domestic responsibility, that is, either at or near home or at a location that is easy to get to. What about fear of sexual violence? Recent studies find that perceptions of violence deter women from working outside the home, in the sense that either women are less likely to work in regions with greater violence against women, or that increased reports of sexual violence reduce the probability of urban women working outside the home. Both these stories are entirely plausible: women are less likely to go to regions with high rates of public crimes against women. Yet, these results do not shed light on the persistence of the low average labour force participation of Indian women.
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