Women clearly played a key role in Bihar’s recent assembly elections. Their voter turnout was 60.6 per cent relative to 53.4 per cent for men, although their labour force participation rate is under 10 per cent. This raises an apparent paradox. Why are women more visible as voters than as workers? Not least because India has long recognised women’s political rights but largely neglected their economic rights.
Indian women won a right to vote as early as 1929 (although conditional on their literacy or their husband’s tax status). In the 1920s, they also won restricted membership (by election or nomination) in some provincial councils and the federal legislature. In 1949, independent India granted women unrestricted rights to vote and stand for public office. But the real transformation came with reservations in panchayati raj institutions (PRIs). It brought candidates and issues directly to village women’s doorstep. True, we also saw the Rabri Devi effect, where women could be a token presence, but today, after many panchayat elections, this is less possible. Indeed, Bihar was the first state to raise women’s quota in PRIs from 33.3 to 50 per cent in 2006. Many women win even unreserved seats. There is also growing evidence that women pradhans are more likely than men to prioritise the public goods that women need.
Women vote not just as workers, but also as citizens and mothers. That they can travel to work, markets and government offices safely, and their daughters can cycle to school without being harassed, means a great deal. Bihar’s notable improvement in public safety under Nitish Kumar is thus of key importance. And cycles for girls are not just symbolic but open new horizons for them and their families. It is not surprising that 66 years after getting the vote and decades of experience in exercising their political rights, vast numbers of women cast their ballots.
Regrettably, though, this has not created strong economic rights. Indeed, comparing women’s work participation rates and their voting behaviour is misleading. Voting is by individual choice; work participation rates depend not only on the individual (supply) but also on the labour market (demand), access to resources and whether the work gets counted.
Women’s work is seriously undercounted in labour force statistics (be it the census or National Sample Surveys, NSSs). For example, their productive work in the home, such as cattle care, tending kitchen gardens, fetching fodder and firewood, cultivating family fields, etc, gets largely excluded, and remains invisible both monetarily (being unpaid) and visually. Admitting that women work outside the home is seen as lowering the family’s social status. Hence, in data collection, the enumerator and respondent (typically male) often report hardworking women as housewives.
These rates can rise dramatically with a wider definition of work that includes unpaid family work, informal sector work and various types of extra-domestic unpaid tasks (poultry keeping, basket weaving, fish preservation, etc), as demonstrated by M. Dubey, W. Olsen and K. Sen in a recent paper. Using the NSS 68th round for 2011-12, they find that in Bihar, rural women’s usual work participation rate was 5.5 by the narrow definition (salaried and wage labour), 8.1 if you also included the self-employed, but 63.4 by the wide definition. Janine Rodgers’s 30-year perspective from village surveys in Bihar reinforces this. Clearly Bihari women workextremely hard, but are largely unpaid.
Undercounting also feeds into policy. There is little gender-specificity in employment policy, or recognition of the constraints women face as workers because of their responsibilities for child care, elder care and domestic work. Even if women’s care work were counted in statistics, would they be paid for it? Without earnings, they remain economically disempowered. India’s demographic dividend lies not just in its young men but also its young women. Women workers in Bihar and elsewhere are almost entirely in the low-paid end of the informal sector. Barely 6 per cent of Bihar’s rural women workers have regular employment.
Employment is just one contributor to economic wellbeing. Some 61.4 per cent of Bihar’s male workers but 72.5 per cent of its women depend on agriculture, and access to land is key. Although women are increasingly the farmers (as more men shift to non-farm jobs), few own the land they farm. In the early 1980s, under Bihar’s Bodh Gaya Andolan led by the Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini founded by Jayaprakash Narayan, something remarkable happened. In two villages, land was transferred only in women’s names.
But that was three-and-a-half decades ago. Little has changed since. Most agricultural land is privately owned, and as such, inheritance is the principal source. Regionally, small surveys reveal Bihar comes near the bottom in the percentage of women who inherit family land.
Today, while among Hindus, Christians and Parsis there is substantive gender equality in inheritance law, Muslim and tribal women still face serious inequalities. Muslim women’s rights are subject to the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937, which exempts agricultural land. It applies to all property “save questions relating to agricultural land”. Although the four southern states amended the act to include farm land, in Bihar and elsewhere, land devolution is still subject to gender-unequal customs. Since Muslims constitute 16.9 per cent of Bihar’s population, this inequity affects many women. Tribal women are also subject to unequal customs, since their laws are not even codified.
Beyond the law, awareness and implementation remains poor, and biased social norms are a key barrier. Government land transfers can help, but only partly. A UN Women/Landesa 2012 study found that in the Bihar villages surveyed, under 10 per cent of the plots (from any source) were owned by women, and not a single formally titled plot was in a woman’s name. Joint pattas were non-existent, despite policies on paper. Will there be progress now in women’s property access?
Indeed, what will Bihar’s new government do for the women who played a notable role in its victory? Will it match their political rights with effective economic rights? Will its next budget be gender-inclusive? Will it give women priority in land transfers and law reform? Most importantly, will it plan for the economic future of the girls who rode bicycles to school this last decade and now want formal sector jobs? Beyond votes, we need concrete policies. Will the new government deliver?