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High on literacy, low on workforce: Why are Kerala’s women not making it to work?

GenderAnd Labour: Women at home in Kerala are more likely tutoring children as opposed to women in other states doing ‘oppressive’ activities

Written by Vishnu Varma | Kochi |
Updated: December 6, 2017 1:40:24 pm

In October this year, after a four-year-long legal battle, 43-year-old Shiny Rajeev created history by opening the floodgates for women to get jobs at state-run liquor outlets in Kerala. In what was considered a victory for gender equality, the Kerala State Beverages Corporation (BEVCO), that runs over 300 retail outlets in the state, was forced to hand an appointment letter to Shiny offering her a supernumerary post at a liquor shop in Puthenvelikkara, a village 40 kilometres off Kochi and 5 kilometres from her home.

Bolstered by the Kerala High Court ruling in her favour, Shiny said BEVCO unilaterally denied women employment at liquor shops by citing sections of the Kerala Abkari Shops Disposal Rules and 2002 Kerala Foreign Liquor Rules. Despite getting a good rank in the supplementary rank list of the Public Service Commission (PSC) in 2012, Shiny claimed that BEVCO hired men below her rank. Women, who got ranked in the top 100, were mainly appointed to lower-grade clerical posts at warehouses and the headquarters.

“Where are women not working these days? There is no reason women cannot do this. The abkari rules were made in 1964. Things should change,” Shiny told While her current position is similar to that of an LD clerk and involves managing registers and accounts, she will have to distribute liquor bottles to customers if directed by her seniors.

“Women don’t need to feel embarrassed at all. There is adequate security. I work with 11 men and there are absolutely no problems. They are very friendly,” she said.

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Shiny’s forced entry into a male-dominated workforce at BEVCO is symptomatic of a larger angst in the Kerala society -the ‘stagnant’ work participation rate of women. The kind of challenges that women have to face, apart from acute competition with men, even in a state that enjoys high female literacy rate, low maternal and infant mortality and a healthy sex ratio compared to other Indian states, has been baffling to many.

According to the latest NSSO data of 2011-12, female work participation rate (FWPR) in rural areas in Kerala was 22.1 compared to that of men at 56.5. The FWPR at all-India level for the corresponding year was 24.8. In urban areas, however, FWPR in Kerala (19.1) is slightly higher than the all-India average (14.7) even though it is still highly skewed in favour of men (55.2).

GenderAnd | Data source: Kerala State Planning board’s Economic Review 2016

Researchers feel the FWPR is underestimated by these figures as both officials (who collect data) and women themselves do not consider the economic activity they do at home as ‘work.’ In that context, there are attempts to broaden the concept of ‘employment’. However, multiple analysts the spoke to, agreed that a lot needs to be done to improve women’s contribution to the state’s workforce.


“A lot of women working in the labour market have been saying that you are underestimating the workforce. But there is no point in saying that you have a large participation of women when it is all in minimally productive work (at home). They may have a few chickens or goats or having a vegetable market. But it doesn’t give them much…it is work for which they are getting a pittance,” said Mridula Eappen, a member of the state Planning Board.

“So on the one hand, we are not creating enough opportunities for women, especially for educated women. On the other hand, there are women who are not so well-educated who are producing or selling something at home which is not being captured,” she added.

GenderAnd | Data source: Kerala State Planning board’s Economic Review 2016


Interestingly, an NSSO data sheet in the 2016 Economic Review shows that women at home in Kerala are more likely tutoring children or maintaining a kitchen garden as opposed to women in other states spending a large amount of time in doing ‘oppressive’ activities like preparing cow dung cakes, collecting fuel or cattle feed or fetching water from outside.

Second, Kerala may be a state that displays excellent social indicators comparable to developed countries, but the specter of patriarchy still looms large over the state. In that respect, Kerala is not different from rest of India.

“For me, one of the strongest reasons (preventing women from entering workforce) is the household responsibility syndrome. Recent reports have said that if you increase women’s participation in India, you will actually be pushing up the GDP by a certain percentage. One of the biggest constraints on the supply side is their household commitments. They are not able to go for better jobs because of responsibilities at home. They think it’s not worthwhile,” said Eappen.

Adding to it is the saturation of the organised sector, which anyway offers limited job opportunities. Women automatically look for jobs in the informal sector where wages are low and benefits are meagre. It helps them in balancing their household duties as well.

“The increased casualisation of the women workforce is a cause of concern. An informal economy is good only when there is a supplementary source of income. Here, the benefits of employment are not going to the women,” said Sumit Mazumdar, who presented a paper on female labour force participation in Kerala in Nairobi, Kenya.

The low participation of women in the workforce also stems from their ‘employability’ factor and its link to the quality of education in the state, true of course across genders. While successive governments, led by the Congress and the CPM, may have invested heavily in the education sector and built a lot of schools, there have been concerns about the quality of education.

“I call it educated unemployability. They are unemployable because their quality of education is bad. In India, the number of Keralites leaving for higher education is highest in the country. Why? Even for BA degree courses, students are going to Chennai and Bengaluru,” said S Irudaya Rajan, a professor at Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram.

Mazumdar also agrees with the premise. “In Kerala, the emphasis was on quantity – the number of children getting schooled. The education is not oriented towards competitive exams…there has to be a focus on vocational training. General education won’t take you anywhere,” he added.


The repercussions are visible on the political arena as well. Despite 50 per cent reservation for women in local bodies, they are nowhere climbing the higher echelons of the state government or that of political parties. In the last Congress-led UDF government, there was one woman minister. In the current CPM-led LDF government, there are two among 18 ministers. In the current Lok Sabha, there is a single woman MP from the state. In the state Assembly, the share of women MLAs is a pathetic 5 per cent.

“There is a male domination in every sphere of the society. It’s not easy. The correlation we see within the family is the same outside. It is a slow process. Instead of giving ornamental positions to women, practical solutions have to be found,” quipped TN Seema, a former CPM Rajya Sabha MP.

Whether political parties or elected governments would show the resolve to bring about such transformative changes is yet to be seen but a churning is in progress. For one, Shiny is hopeful that there will be more women occupying positions in the PSC rank list next year. After all, she has inspired them to believe that there is a dent in the glass ceiling.

#GenderAnd is a series of stories on Gender and how it intersects every sector

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