Written by Clement Chauvet
Soni, a 27-year-old woman and a mother of two, yearned for years to be independent, to work and to support her husband in running their house. She was married off at the age of 17 and was not allowed to step out of her house to work or study further. When she visited her friends, who were all economically independent, they made fun of her that she got married early, had children immediately thereafter and didn’t do anything constructive.
It took a toll on her self-esteem. Soni did not get any support from her in-laws and her family. The whole process of convincing and winning this battle with her family to allow her to work and handover to her the school certificates so that she could enroll for a training, took seven years.
She now receives training in cosmetology in Ghitorni with the support of Ikea Foundation supported Disha Project, an initiative of UNDP India in partnership with India Development Foundation which aims to enable many more women like Soni to get skilled and be a part of the workforce. She dreams of educating her children and of a brighter future for them and is happy to contribute in running the household.
There are many women in India who are engaged in unpaid care work and as a result not a part of the workforce. Over the last few years, many efforts in India are being made to reduce inequalities between men and women and to bring them at par, not just at the workplace, but also in politics, in businesses and to make them breadwinners for their families. And why not, since evidence points out that increasing women’s participation in the workforce will lead to an increase in GDP.
If female workforce participation (FWP) were to increase by 10 per cent, it would add $700 billion to India’s GDP by 2025. Further, as per a 2015 McKinsey Report, if participation of females in the workforce were the same as males, India’s economy would see a 27 per cent increase in GDP, a bigger impact than in any other region in the world.
The labour force participation rate for women has been decreasing, going from 36 per cent in 2005 to 27 per cent in 2017 (compared to 82 per cent for men). Currently, women in India contribute one-sixth of economic output, among the lowest shares in the world and half the global average. While there are several interventions by the government, civil society, and the private sector, to make the labour market gender inclusive, there is a need to ensure that such interventions are successful. For this it is important to look at the factors that prevent women from participating meaningfully in the workforce.
Today, there is heavy investment in programmes that support education of the girl child. Intuitively, it is assumed that the low female workforce participation is caused by poor education levels, with not enough girls finishing school and hence not having the requisite skills to participate in the labour market. However, when examining the trajectory of female literacy, educational attainment and workforce participation, the need for focusing on other social factors such as not being allowed to work by their families, restrictions in timings, safety, problems in mobility and in moving out of their homes to take trainings on developing skills which would make them market ready is crucial.
One major obstacle for young girls is information gap, as they are often unaware of their abilities, interests or opportunities. Several young women, especially from underprivileged backgrounds, are first-generation workers and are often limited by social norms and family networks when looking for work. Most government school curriculums do not include modules on aptitude, soft skills or career-counselling. In the absence of such support, girls are often encouraged to get degrees for the sole purpose of improving their marriage prospects, without being given an opportunity to enter the workforce.
Once they are made aware of opportunities and gain relevant skills, women also face barriers in accessing employment. It is seen that many women, particularly first-generation graduates from underprivileged backgrounds, have no place, either virtual or physical, to get information on job or skill development opportunities. These women need a platform, or employment marketplace, wherein they can connect with local employers, and understand which jobs align with their skill sets.
Today, employment marketplaces exist primarily for the formal sector, which makes up only 15 per cent of the total Indian workforce. This lack of a common platform for the informal and MSME sector is a key factor contributing to the low female workforce participation. There is a large demand for skilled work from smaller, hyperlocal industries, which have the capacity to employ many women but are completely cut-off from the skilling ecosystem.
The above problems show that a successful model for increasing participation of women in the workforce necessarily must have complementary strengthening by multiple stakeholders. The government is also making investments and focusing on skill development. For a robust skilling ecosystem, schools and colleges, skill training institutes, employers, and communities need to be strengthened together to make employment more inclusive.
It is important to incorporate a more nuanced approach to skill development which Disha Project aims to do. This initiative aims to identify and address gaps in women’s access to employment by bridging the gap between education and employment for women. It has now rolled out in Telangana, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Delhi and Haryana with the support of the respective state governments and is addressing key issues faced by women in understanding their opportunities, gaining the required skills, and accessing the employment market.
The project is working to bridge information gaps in schools and colleges so that young women can make informed career choices and be ready for work based on their aspirations. The Disha project is doing this by providing them with aptitude tests, career-counselling, employability skills, and exposing them to private sector companies through internships and apprenticeships. Such interventions in the lives of young girls provide them with confidence and a sense of self-discovery that tangibly impacts their desire and ability to enter the workforce.
The project also supports young women in the search for employment through the creation of employment marketplaces. Recognising the need of local employers for skilled workers, and the abilities of graduates who have received skill training, the programme builds matchmaking platforms for potential employers and the workforce of the future, supporting women to train on the job and learn critical skills that meet the needs of the labour market.
Such programmes highlight the importance of stakeholders at all levels gaining a deeper understanding of the problems that women face, and addressing these problems through collaborative, replicable and sustainable interventions because collaborative efforts in the right direction will help more women to become skilled, placed and empowered which in turn will empower the nation.
Clement Chauvet is the Chief – Skill Development in UNDP India