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Wage employment for women: Forgotten priorities

Low and declining women’s labour force participation rates in India have been a longstanding concern. Government policies for addressing this challenge have mainly emphasised promoting entrepreneurship among women. Designing skill development programmes (DDU-GKY, PMKY and so on) which also aim at building women’s skills to access technology; facilitating access to digital platforms and promoting partnerships with start-ups aimed at providing women with fintech solutions; and facilitating access to credit through extending low-value MUDRA loans have been some of the main interventions. All these programmes primarily aim at making entrepreneurs out of women as a way to achieving greater workforce participation of women – with a lateral objective of enhancing ‘Make in India’ efforts through greater entrepreneurial ventures by women.

But data on entrepreneurship of women in India suggest that there is a long way to go. The economic census, last published in 2013-14, showed that women’s enterprises were only 13.8 percent of total enterprises and 84 percent of these were operating without any hired workers. The average employment per women’s establishment was 1.67 workers indicating low employment creation capacity.  Further, 27 percent of all non-agricultural establishments owned by women were operating from home – of which more than 50% were in manufacturing.

The periodic labour force survey (PLFS), 2017-18, shows that 52 percent of women’s workforce is in self-employment, which can be further disaggregated into three sub categories – own account enterprises (OAE), employers and unpaid/contributing family workers. The first two categories capture women’s entrepreneurial ventures best. Almost 32 percent of all women workers are engaged as unpaid helpers in household enterprises and only 19 percent run OAEs. These figures, coupled with micro-evidence from literature, show that the women OAEs remain trapped in low-scale, low-productive, low return ventures such as in rolling bidis and agarbattis, making pickles and papads, or mending clothes with a sewing machine.

But self-employment only captures one half of women’s work. According to the PLFS, 48 percent women are in wage employment. Of these, 21 percent are in regular employment and 27 percent work in casual labour. The impact of increasing wage employment on women’s empowerment is well-established. Still, there is no policy emphasis for this sector.

There are several mechanisms that can be employed to increase women’s wage employment opportunities. For example, the MGNREGA attracts a large number of women, with about 55 percent of total person-days of work created under this legislation accruing to women. There are a number of field reports to suggest that provision of equal wages for men and women, proximity of workplace, assumed safety at workplace and so on, makes MGNREGA a popular option for women. MGNREGA has the potential to attract even more women if all its provisions such as creche facilities, shade and water are also provided adequately. Unfortunately, the trend of provision of work under this scheme has been stagnant and there have been challenges of delayed wage payments.

Outside of agriculture, where the absorption of labour has been declining, women are attracted to jobs in providing public services. The PLFS data show that 29 percent of women working outside agriculture in rural areas are engaged in public employment. Large numbers work as frontline workers, particularly in public health and education. Some cadres such as anganwadi workers and helpers, mid-day meal cooks, ASHA workers, ANMs are exclusively women (estimated to be over 60 lakh). Nearly half of the total teaching workforce in elementary education in India are women.  In recent times there has also been an increase of women employed as police constables in many states.  But despite these opportunities, women remain concentrated at lower levels of the occupational hierarchy, mostly restricted to what are seen as ‘women’s roles’ (traditionally caregiving occupations). They receive low wages and work in poor conditions.

An agenda of universal provision of basic services such as health, education and social protection can not only contribute towards improving India’s human development indicators but also create millions of new jobs, more so for women. Some state governments have provisions such as reserving posts for women in government jobs. But such measures can have an impact only when there is an expansion in the total number of government jobs. Having said that, there is a need to hire more workers for public services, given the millions of vacancies that exist for these posts as per government norms.

Apart from casual wage work and regular public employment, women’s wage work includes work undertaken in factories, especially in garments, electronics and food-processing which have served as traditional sectors of women’s employment. While great emphasis has been on promoting ‘Make in India’, policies related to incentivising these sectors have been elusive. Recent subsidies announced for the textile sector aimed at generating employment are yet to show results.

Governments can push for multiple policies to create decent wage work opportunities for women, from expanding public works programmes such as the MGNREGA, to adding a cadre of public service para workers, for whom there is a crying need. Such interventions along with a focus on labour intensive manufacturing sectors can not only create employment and demand but also contribute to lifting the Indian economy out of its current economic slowdown.

This opinion piece is written by Dipa Sinha and Sona Mitra. Dipa Sinha teaches Economics at Ambedkar University, Delhi, and  Sona Mitra is the Principal Economist at Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE), an initiative of LEAD at Krea University.

Can Covid-19 provide opportunities to strengthen the SHG movement?

The Self-Help Groups (SHG) movement was introduced in India in the 1980s[1] to alleviate poverty, establish a platform for collective action, ensure access to rights and entitlements, as well as improve the health and wellbeing of women. Initiated by Non-Governmental Organisations[2] (NGOs) the movement was adopted and scaled by the Government of India through the Deendayal Antayodaya Yojana – National Rural Livelihoods Mission (DAY –NRLM) which has so far mobilised approximately 60 million poor women into SHGs across India.

SHGs are voluntary groups of up to 20 women, that come together on a weekly basis to pool savings and discuss issues of mutual importance. The pooled fund, deposited in the SHG’s bank account is used to support women in the form of loans. SHGs are founded on weekly meetings and savings and their success or failure is partially based on the frequency of these activities. The SHG, however, serves a function that goes well beyond finance; it is a source of collective action, mutual support and comradery. It provides a platform to impart knowledge and wisdom in the form of group discussions and informal conversations that women regularly engage in, thereby strengthening bonding and social capital. SHGs also draw on formal trainings imparted to them by the state and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), to create awareness on various issues such as gender equality, livelihoods, health, gender based violence and so on.

Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE) has been engaged with DAY-NRLM through its project SWAYAM [3] which supports gender trainings (undertaken by CSOs) and pilots to test the relevance and effectiveness of institutional platforms such as Gender Resource Centres (GRCs)/Gender Justice Centres (GJCs) in four states: Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha. The concept of the GRC draws from the experience of similar platforms in Delhi and Kerala [4] where GRCs have been used to help women access schemes and programmes, as well as record their grievances. SWAYAM builds on a critical element of NRLM’s success i.e. the mission’s commitment towards prioritising women’s perspectives and being responsive to their needs and aspirations. This approach has been embedded across all DAY-NRLM activities and reflects in its primary goal of strengthening women’s agency, identity, well-being, and solidarity through women’s collectivisation.

This approach and the ability of women to meet to discuss their needs and put forth their requirements, is likely to be put to test on account of COVID-19. SHG meetings have traditionally formed a space for women to gather mutual support and raise their grievances. They serve as an important platform for women to share their lives and aggregate for a common cause. They have been the fulcrum around which well-known movements such as the anti-arak (alcohol) movement in Andhra Pradesh have gathered force; and around which the Scheduled Caste women in states like Punjab are mobilising to collectively farm common lands.  Such mobilisation will suffer if women are not permitted to meet.

The lockdown announced in March 2020, to curb the spread of the Coronavirus in India has sent shockwaves across the Indian economy. Rural economies are in distress, with supply chains cut off, labour shortages and rising unemployment [5]. The lockdown has had immediate and devastating effects on women and girls [6]. Gender based violence is reportedly on the rise. Women’s unpaid labour has increased along with the anxiety to feed their families. Cash flow is limited and with prevailing social distancing norms, collectivisation has come to a total halt. All regular meetings and activities at the SHG, VO and CLF have stopped, for an indeterminate period of time [7]. Women not being able to move out of their homes (except for farm work), have lost spaces outside the home, such as SHG meetings, where they could come together and share intimate details of their private lives, including domestic abuse. With this space being closed, women have lost the space to share their experiences and have a community of support. This has and will continue to have large scale impact on the SHG movement.

IWWAGE has been in discussion with CSO partners [8], field level functionaries and SHG leaders in its four implementation states on the impact of the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown on SHGs, their daily functioning and their economic and non-economic activities. How will women’s SHGs transform during and post the crisis? And what impact will the crisis have on women’s solidarity and collectivisation?

Presently, no SHG activities are taking place. There are no meetings, no savings, no loan disbursement [9] or recovery. In June, rural India will enter a new sowing cycle. Women will most likely, at this time, prioritise their livelihoods which will affect attendance and frequency of SHG activities. They will have no time to meet, to discuss their needs or grievances. This is an important aspect that is likely to get diluted, but can be avoided, perhaps through innovative forms of online communication, and more hand-holding and outreach to women through gender champions including senior SHG leaders, community resource persons, Samta Sakhis and the like. For certain activities, SHGs have started using digital modes of communication such as WhatsApp. Use of digital tools while changing the nature of SHG meetings will allow the flow of correct information. However, online communication cannot be a substitute for the weekly SHG meetings, which should continue, with social distancing norms in place, as they are not only a platform for savings but also for ensuring collective well-being, food security and support.

SHGs have emerged as frontline workers and the last mile connect between governments and the people during this crisis. SHG women are playing a pivotal role in responding to  COVID-19; they are making masks, hand sanitizers, PPE kits, distributing take home ration, disseminating COVID-19 related information and running community kitchens to feed the vulnerable[10]. The role of SHGs has never been more important than now and can prove to be a rare silver lining in the distress that SHGs are dealing with. Women can come forward and take leadership and development roles in their villages. It is an opportunity that the SHG movement must capitalize on.

Going forward, it will be important to strengthen the movement, to make sure it can absorb the economic, social and health shocks of the crisis. Post the lockdown governments should evaluate, the investment by SHG movement into COVID-19 response and its impact on the SHG economy.  It would also be beneficial to have clear guidelines from the authorities, about when and how SHGs can reconvene and what precautions they must take while doing so. SHGs should also leverage digital platforms, to ensure the flow of correct information, to keep in contact with each other and with the modification of training pedagogies, to deliver certain types of trainings. While the digital platforms cannot be a substitute for weekly meetings, it goes some way in offering a temporary solution to the immediate problem. In these times when communication through technology marks a new form of solidarity, we must leverage the existing means at our disposal and find new and creative ways to progress; so that we do not lose the momentum gained in the SHG movement over the last 30 years.

Kaliat Ammu Sanyal is a Research Manager with IWWAGE, working with SWAYAM the NRLM vertical at IWWAGE. This piece draws from SWAYAM’s current work with Women’s Empowerment Collectives on gender mainstreaming across four states in India.



[1] “Self Help Groups (SHGs) in India.” 2014. New Delhi: Ethiopian Delegation

[2] Ramesh, Jairam. “Self-Help Groups Revolution: What Next?” Economic and Political Weekly 42, no. 36 (2007): 3621-624. Accessed May 13, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/40276360

[3] Strengthening Women’s institutions for Agency and Empowerment (SWAYAM)

[4] “Kudumbashree | Gender Resource Center / Block Level Counselling Center”. 2020. Kudumbashree.Org. http://www.kudumbashree.org/pages/348. AND “Department Of Women & Child Development”. 2020 Revenue.Delhi.Gov.In http://revenue.delhi.gov.in/wps/wcm/connect/doit_wcd/wcd/Home/Gender+Resource+Centre+Project

[5] Mukherjee, Sanjeeb. 2020. “Rural Sector Stressed As Covid-19 Disrupts Supplies, Spikes Unemployment”. Business-Standard.Com. https://www.business-standard.com/article/economy-policy/rural-sector-stressed-as-covid-19-disrupts-supplies-spikes-unemployment-120032500780_1.html

[6] Deshpande, Ashwini. “Protecting Women Is Missing from Pandemic Management Measures in India.” Quartz India. Quartz, March 28, 2020. https://qz.com/india/1826683/indias-approach-to-fighting-coronavirus-lacks-a-gender-lens/

[7] SHGs are federated at the village level into Village Organisations (VOs) and consequently federated into a apex institution, a Cluster Level Federation (CLF). The VO and CLF meet regularly. The executive committee (EC) of the VO and CLF meet twice a month. EC1 meetings are to discuss social issues, convergence, rights and entitlements, while EC2 meetings are devoted to financial transactions

[8] ANANDI in Madhya Pradesh, PRADAN in Jharkhand, Chaitanya in Chhattisgarh and Project Concern International (PCI) in Odisha

[9] The only loan disbursement currently active is the distribution of the Vulnerability Reduction Fund (VRF)

[10] Kejriwal, Nita. “Covid-19: In Times of Crisis, Women Self-Help Groups Lead the Way.” Hindustan Times, May 3, 2020. https://www.hindustantimes.com/analysis/covid-19-in-times-of-crisis-women-self-help-groups-lead-the-way/story-SyXJVNPLUdVbSljkeaeszN.html

We Cannot Have a Lockdown Exit Strategy Which Ignores Women

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic precipitated a crisis in the country, there has been limited examination of its gender-differentiated impact.

To some extent governments have recognised and tried to address the heightened risk of gender-based violence during lockdown.

Beyond this, policies have barely recognised that women disproportionately bear the brunt of the lockdown situation, with reduced economic opportunities and increased burden of unpaid work.

As we move into the exit strategies and post-lockdown policies, we have an opportunity to reshape existing gender disparities.

While women constitute over 85% of all health workers in India (PLFS, 2017-18), they also crowd the low level services within the sector that exposes them to maximum risk with stretched supplies of PPE.

They are the ones working prolonged shifts to substitute for those colleagues falling sick; and many are spending days in a row in cramped and unhygienic temporary quarantine facilities. The ASHA workers, despite facing public anger in many places, are working at the frontlines of community surveillance, devoid of PPEs, masks and other protective gears.

Needless to say, the direct fight against COVID19 in India is largely being driven by women at the frontlines.

Also read: ASHA Workers Are Indispensable. So Why Are They the Least of Our Concerns?

The extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic have also created indirect impact on women by further burdening them with invisible yet challenging roles within the household. In India, evidence shows that women already perform ten times more unpaid work than men.

Given that rigid gender norms do not change overnight, women’s burden of domestic responsibilities has been aggravated with household members locked indoors, but reluctant to negotiate sharing of chores.

Closing down schools and Anganwadi or day-care centres as well as collapse of normal healthcare services have substantially increased women’s roles in looking after children, the sick or quarantined, elderly and disabled.

The responsibility of subsistence adds to their burdens especially with no school meals, desperately scarce food stocks, yet more mouths to feed.

Also read: India’s Lockdown Is Blind to the Woes of Its Women

For women in paid work, public messaging emphasises ‘work from home’ which may be possible for 4-5% of all women workers in urban white-collar jobs.

However, 94% of them are women farmers, vendors and petty retailers, micro-entrepreneurs, domestic workers, and construction workers; predominantly in the informal sector without identity cards, formal contracts or social protection: they are experiencing catastrophic loss of incomes. The lockdown will probably further deteriorate the already plummeting female workforce participation rate.

This calls for exit strategies that would focus on including women at the centre of the policies.

Some of the immediate interventions of the government would be to recognise women’s contributions in fighting COVID and extend special provisions to ensure women health workers are not excluded from government support.

Women walk past closed shops during nationwide lockdown to curb the COVID-19 pandemic, in Kolkata on May 8. Photo: PTI

The direct intervention in retaining women in the economy would be to increase the number of person-days in NREGA to at least 200 days per year to provide women informal workers with remunerative opportunities, recognising women as farmers for including them in the schemes like the PM-KISAN Yojana, providing one-year moratorium to the 37 million women MUDRA borrowers to boost small businesses of women and providing tax breaks and subsidies to sectors that employ more women such as garment factories, service delivery start-ups and so on.

Beyond this, women would be immensely supported by the re-institution and normalisation of regular public services in health, education, childcare and other basic amenities, creating support mechanisms for food security like universal PDS for the next six months at least, additional cash transfers for those losing their livelihoods due to the extended lockdown, and provision of respectable amounts to the 20 million women pensioners instead of the meagre Rs 333 under the COVID-19 relief package or the Gareeb Kalyan Yojana.

The Centre has also promised a Rs 500 cash transfer per woman for the next three months starting in April; however this needs immediate activation of all JDY accounts, more than 50% of which are still inactive (World Bank Findex database)

The issue of documentation for urban informal migrant workers is proving to be a significant barrier. So a proper implementation of the COVID-19 relief announcements needs to include massive drives for registration, followed by an expanded social security coverage for the excluded millions of unregistered workers with emphasis on inclusion of women.

It is obvious by now that the pandemic is no longer a mere health crisis but is leading to a deep humanitarian tragedy. Given that women are bearing significant costs of the COVID-19 fallout, the relief announcements by the government definitely need a second version that not only has a vision for the immediate six-month post lockdown period, but that duly acknowledges women’s contributions in fighting the crisis and ensures that women as economic agents do not fall through the cracks.

A special focus on women’s inclusion would be central to effective exit from the lockdown.

Jashodhara Dasgupta and Dr Sona Mitra are co-conveners of the Feminist Policy Collective, a collective of researchers and activists working to promote transformative financing for gender equality.

Disclaimer: This blog first appeared as an article in The Wire on May 8, 2020. Click to visit the article.

Increasing the participation of women in the workforce: Role of quality childcare

In India, a McKinsey report indicated that an equal participation of women can increase the GDP by 16-17 percent, and yet, female labour force participation rate (FLFP) has been stagnant at 24-25 percent, well below the global average of 47 percent. This has significant repercussion, not only for women’s socio-economic empowerment but also for India’s growth story. While several factors inhibit women’s ability to work, most insidious factor is unpaid care work – managing the house, elderly, sick and children.

At the household level, women’s role as unpaid caregiver, is reinforced by families and internalised by women themselves. However, evidence suggest that a child benefits from quality nurturing care by both father and mother. Often, women spend bulk of their time on household work and, care of children ends up being more custodial in nature. We often fail to recognise that returning to work after child birth is not even a choice, especially for those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. Mothers often rely on non-family care or leave their children unsupervised, which not only endangers the development, health and safety of children, but also, adversely impacts their own physical and mental health.

Unintentionally, this dilemma is reinforced, even at the policy level, where a global review of major child development and social protection policies found, that only 15 percent of these policies recognise the breadwinning role of women and are care-sensitive. In absence such policies, and supportive social networks, women keep opting out of work force. But, is there a way out? In this context, let us examine some evidences from Latin American countries with similar social fabric, specifically, Chile, Colombia and Mexico. In the 1990s, Chile, Colombia and Mexico had FLFP rates similar to those seen in India. Yet, in the past 17 years, these countries have seen an increase of 19, 29 and 11 percentage points respectively, whereas, India has seen a decline of 8 percentage points. In the early 2000s, these countries established childcare models (home-based, home visitations, centre-based and a combination of these). However, research informing the scale up was an integral part of the process, and the findings highlighted the issue of unpaid care work. Based on extensive research, centre-based childcare was designed and evaluated, not only to benefit children but also for mother’s economic well-being. More long-term evidences come from high income countries, that introduced similar child-care provisions to correct the gender inequality in labour force back in the 1960s.

Given the absence of care-sensitive policies in low-middle-income countries, relevant evidence on centre-based childcare and its impact on–early childhood development and maternal employment – has been scant. Yet, evaluations of large-scale, centre-based childcare programmes in Latin America have shown that such facilities can increase the probability of mothers being employed from 5 percent to 25 percent, while also increasing hours of work per month. It is also important to understand that that when women earn, they have higher decision-making power and improved diets for the household and children, thereby improving a family’s well-being.

The assumption that the provision of quality centre-based childcare can help mothers, avoid compromising an older child’s education (who usually ends up taking care of her young siblings), and young children to achieve better development potential, is a reasonable one. Caution needs to be exercised though when it comes to designing publicly provided childcare centres as impact on children is known to depend on quality and, promising impact has been seen for children older than 1 year.

Not many countries in the world have expansive social safety nets for food supplementation, care and health, but India has a strong foundation through the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Scheme. In the last few years, many schemes have been announced for children’s development, nutrition and health, such as the National Crèche Scheme, Early Childhood Care & Education, National Nutrition Policy, National Nutrition Mission, and Samagra Shiksha policy. Introduction of these new policies and the mission of convergence is a step in the right direction. However, there is a need to recognise the human resource shortage, and assess the deficiency -the extra number of sanctioned posts needed, to deliver quality services under the schemes.

The good news is we now have metrics to measure quality of these systems, and better understanding of the behavioural insights of human resource, especially in the context of non-monetary incentives, recruitments, provision of training. Moreover, we now recognise the growing value of care economy, and childcare, as an avenue of formal employment. Given there is still a lot to learn about building safety nets for the mother and child, India can not only improve these programmes with the aim to improve the future of its children, and mothers, but also serve as a global leader in creating a larger body of evidence.

Surabhi Chaturvedi is an independent researcher working on early childhood development. This opinion piece draws on a series of working papers she wrote for the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE), an initiative of LEAD at Krea University. IWWAGE aims to build on existing research and generate new evidence to inform and facilitate the agenda of women’s economic empowerment.

Disclaimer: This blog first appeared as an article in Business World on March 31, 2020. Click to visit the article.

Labour force surveys and invisibilisation of women’s work in India

Declining women’s workforce participation in India since 2004-05 is a major policy concern. One of the explanations given for the low work participation rates (WPR) of women is the challenge of measurement which is to do with both how work is measured by enumerators, as well as with how work is defined. Official surveys usually follow the system of national accounts and exclude any activity that falls outside the boundary of production – i.e. work done for pay or profit and excludes production of goods and services for own consumption – from the definition of ‘employment’. This definition of employment however usually gets conflated with the definition of ‘work’, even though the two are different concepts.

In 2013, the 19th International Conference of Labour Statisticians (ICLS) adopted a resolution to expand the definition of ‘work’ to include “any activity performed by persons of any sex and age to produce goods or to provide services for use by others or for own use.” The vital difference was inclusion of the last phrase i.e. “for use by others or for own use”. This marked a welcome departure from the previous concept of ‘work’ as it now incorporated own use production work, volunteering activities, unpaid trainee work and other forms of work performed in producing goods and services at home. The resolution was ratified by the ILO in 2014.

This expanded definition becomes significant for women as it provides long overdue recognition to unpaid work performed by them within their households, communities and the economy. The updated definition of ‘work’ includes ‘all work’ except those that do not involve any form of production of goods or services (e.g. begging and stealing), self-care (e.g. personal grooming and hygiene) and activities that cannot be performed by another person on one’s own behalf (e.g.  sleeping, learning and activities for own recreation).  In this expanded definition, ‘employment’ becomes a subset of ‘work’. The ILO provides a detailed framework of ‘forms of work’ based on the above and an adoption and implementation of this framework is expected to have important implications for the production of labour force statistics, especially in countries where a large section of the population is still engaged in agriculture and allied activities.

Interestingly, while the ILO came up with these recommendations only recently, the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) under the aegis of the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI), Government of India, already had quite a rational system of including two broad, albeit ‘non-worker’ categories within the usual status activities, that systematically captured the activities related to domestic duties and free collection of goods  (vegetables,  roots,  firewood,  cattle  feed,  etc.), and sewing,  tailoring,  weaving, etc. for household use. These activities captured household work, though not so much care work. This practice was followed by the employment-unemployment surveys from the 1990s till 2011-12 and provided a large amount of information on activities performed by women categorised as ‘non-workers’.

For instance, the data from 2011-12 showed that less than one percent of men in both urban and rural areas were involved in such activities in their usual principal status, but for women the proportion was in excess of 60 percent. The same data also showed that about 58 percent rural women were engaged in activities to obtain fuel and fodder, 45 percent were engaged in obtaining food for the household, including maintenance of kitchen gardens for own consumption, household animal resources and collecting free food, and almost 31 percent had to fetch water from outside their premises. For urban women, the most important economic activities were related to making/mending clothes for the household, followed by preparing food and tutoring children.

The Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) released by MoSPI in 2017-18 also reveals similar trends. The female workforce participation rates show differences of approximately 60 percentage points for women when domestic work is included as compared to almost no difference in the values of male WPRs (Figure 1).  Unfortunately, the PLFS does not provide detailed information on the nature of domestic work undertaken. This leads to missing information on ‘women’s work’ and reflects a huge step backward for Indian Labour Force Statistics (LFS) in terms of recognising women’s contributions and reducing their ‘invisibilisation’ in the workforce.

The global discourse on reducing the invisibilisation of women’s unpaid contribution has moved forward to include an enlarged concept of work. At this juncture, and in light of the debate on low workforce participation rates for women in India, dropping related questions from the official LFS may be damaging for future policies focussed on improving labour market outcomes for women. It is imperative that the design of the future PLFS revisit such eliminations to adopt the expanded definition of work. This would not only improve the quality of LFS, but also throw light on women’s ‘invisible’ contribution to the Indian economy.


This opinion piece is written by Sona Mitra, Principal Economist at Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE), which is an initiative of LEAD at Krea University.

Disclaimer: This blog first appeared as an article in Business Today on 11 March 2020, under the heading, ‘Why are there fewer women workers in India?’

Empowering Women in the Economy: Addressing Gaps and Rethinking the Discourse

More women joined the labour force globally in the last three decades. India, however, is an anomaly, with historically among the lowest and even declining rates of female labour force participation – share of women in total employment was 32.9 percent in 1993-94, which reduced to 23.3 percent in 2017-18. This is puzzling for an economy that has experienced a fertility transition, increases in women’s educational attainment and a steadily increasing rate of growth of GDP in the last one and half decades till about 2012. The concerns around low female labour force participation have generated a rich discourse in India on women’s work.

With the aim of contributing to the existing debates around low female labour force participation, and findings possible solutions for reversing such trends, the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE), organised two panels and a roundtable at the ISLE Annual Conference, held in Patiala, from 7-9 December, 2019. The panels organised in collaboration with Centre for Gender Studies at IHD and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, focused on the importance of childcare and engaging women in the non-farm sector, while the roundtable brought together eminent feminist and labor economists from around the country, to deliberate on the future discourse on women’s economic empowerment.

The first panel titled The Importance of Crèches for Women’s Economic Empowerment discussed the importance of childcare and its implications on women’s productive engagement in the economy. Childcare is often identified as one of the major constraints that keeps women from joining the labour force. The discussion in the panel focused on the significance of full-day crèches for providing childcare and freeing up women’s time to participate in the labour market. The panellists included Monika Banerjee (Institute of Social Studies Trust), Anoushaka Chandrashekar (LEAD at Krea University) and Sudeshna Sengupta (Independent Researcher). Kanika Kingra from IWWAGE moderated the session and Susan Thomas from SEWA put across her perspectives on the issue as a discussant.

The panellists noted that most women struggle to balance paid and unpaid work responsibilities, and as a result resort to strategies like taking up flexible work, part time jobs, and opting for work near or inside their homes. Further, patriarchal notions of “what women should do” limit women’s access to educational and skilling opportunities, job prospects, agency and mobility. As a result, most women end up working in the informal sector, without dignity, social security and without decent and timely wages. The panel was in consensus about the role of crèches in impacting women’s workforce participation and income positively and in contributing to empowering women. The positive impacts of crèches are not limited to just women but are also extended to children’s health and educational attainments. Therefore, providing quality crèches is an important right for both women workers and children. It was concluded that childcare must be a public good and its provision should be ensured by the state with the help of community participation and private provisioning.

The second panel titled Women in Rural Labour Force: Factors Influencing Non-Agricultural Engagement of Women Workers discussed several aspects of what might work to reverse the decline in women’s economic engagement. Labour force statistics in India clearly show that rural women’s work participation rates are declining and this decline is led by the agricultural sector – rural female labour force participation rate declined by 7 percentage points between 2011-12 and 2017-18 and there is a decline of 23 percentage points in the share of rural women workers in agriculture in the last ten years. Further, rural women remain outside the labour force due to the lack of adequate opportunities in the non-agricultural sector. The panellists highlighted that several factors such as importance of education, skill and training, role of social identities and the use of technology and macroeconomic factors influence economic opportunities for women in the non-farm sector. The panellists included Atul Sood (Jawaharlal Nehru University), Anjana Thampi (IWWAGE), Dipa Sinha (Ambedkar University Delhi), Nitya Nangalia (SEWA Bharat) and Ruchika Chaudhary (IWWAGE).

The panel began with the importance of having in place, a holistic strategy for labour market progress in tandem with the growth of the economy. It was noted that non-farm employment of women needs to be prioritised. One of the panellists revealed large number of women involved in the health and education sector. The preference for such sectoral jobs is mostly due to the availability of such jobs within the purview of public employment in rural areas. These jobs are preferred as they provide regularity of wages, but are too few in number. The panellists further discussed how belonging to a social group, either caste-based or religious, impacts women’s economic participation. It was noted that there has been a decline in female labour force participation in both rural and urban areas, across all social groups, but the gaps are more pronounced for the scheduled castes. One of the panellists presented the status of women working in emerging platform-based gig work in beauty and salon services. Women prefer gig work due to the flexibility of working hours that allows them to balance work better with their unpaid domestic responsibilities and exert an autonomy over the use of their time.  The SEWA presentation highlighted successful stories of SEWA initiatives on skilling women in non-traditional occupations and ensuring non-farm livelihood opportunities for women. It provided a series of learnings on initiatives for self-employment of women in rural areas. The session was moderated by Sona Mitra from IWWAGE and key perspectives were offered by two discussants, Uma Rani (ILO) and Amit Basole (Azim Premji University).

Finally, IWWAGE in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and the Centre for Gender Studies at the IHD organised a successful Roundtable on Rethinking the Discourse on Women’s Economic Empowerment, moderated by Yamini Atmavilas (BMGF) and Ritu Dewan (ISLE, IAWS). The roundtable was contextualised in the backdrop of the global discourse around women’s economic empowerment to include discussions on the future of work, expanding the definition of work to include women’s unpaid work responsibilities and the resolution on violence and work that goes beyond sexual harassment. More than 20 eminent feminist and labour economists deliberated the issue of declining female labour force participation in India and discussed what could be done to shape a research and policy agenda.

At the very onset, it was acknowledged that women’s economic empowerment is a dynamic concept and academia, advocacy and action are its three pillars. From the discussion that followed, it clearly emerged that women’s economic empowerment needs to be understood beyond conventional labour markets, employment and care variables. In terms of research, focus should be to discuss the low levels of empowerment in particular economic, political and social environments; to explore state-wise diversity; to examine links between violence, property rights and access to common property resources; and to understand structures of patriarchy with link between paid and unpaid work. Further, the consideration of intersectionalities – that of caste, class, age and others – is vital to sharpen understanding on which groups of women are more disempowered. Aspirations of women, too, differ among the younger and older generations and this differential needs to be accounted for. Short term solutions to advance women’s empowerment may include increased representation in decision making bodies such as Gram Sabhas that could affect decent work opportunities for women, ownership of property by women, creating safe spaces for women to empower them psychologically and emotionally, etc. But in the long term, efforts would be needed to shake up the system and change the balance of power – specially to overturn patriarchal, social and behavioural norms.


The blog has been written by Hiya Singh Rajput, Research Assistant at IWWAGE, and draws from the reports of the roundtable and panel discussions prepared by the rapporteurs at the ISLE conference.


Kathopakathan Conversation about Women
Kathopakathan Conversation about Women's Economic Empowerment

Organised by The NCAER-National Data Innovation Centre (NDIC) and Institute for Financial Management Research-India Initiative for What Works (IFMR-IIWW)

NDIC and IFMR-IIWW jointly organised an initiative, Kathopakathan (conversation) on Women’s Economic Empowerment in New Delhi, attended by representatives from the spheres of research, policymaking, and data collection. The discussions at the Kathopakathan event are part of a series of activities to be undertaken by NCAER-NDIC for building research capacity, and promoting innovation and excellence in data collection in the country. The interactive sessions at the event revolved around two themes surrounding women’s economic empowerment –

How can policy opportunities enhance women’s economic empowerment through participation in the workforce by countering the constraints faced by them in the labour market? 

Should the nature of data collection change given the evolving nature of work and contextual factors that influence such activities, especially since the available data sets on women’s economic participation like the NSS have apparently not kept pace with far-reaching changes in labour markets?


“What will work? Empowering women economically” presented by Farzana Afridi, Associate Professor, Indian Statistical Institute, and Research Fellow, IZA

Gender Unpaid Work and Care
Gender, Unpaid Work and Care: Towards Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

7-8 March, 2019
Organised by: ICRW and VVGNLI

IWWAGE participated as a presenter at the two-day workshop to commemorate International Women’s Day. The workshop saw participation from experts and practitioners working on gender and labor issues, including scholars from various academia, concerned ministries from the government, international organisations, and civil society.


Women and Unpaid Work in India

Women Work and Migration in India
Women, Work and Migration in India: Towards Collaborative and Strategic Advocacy
Contours of Women’s Work in India in the Current Economic Conditions
22-24 August, 2019
Organised by:  SEWA-GAATW-MAKAAM
IWWAGE participated as a presenter at the two and half-day workshop in Hyderabad with organisations working with women migrant workers, academicians, researchers and the ILO. The discussions pertained to issues emerging from distress migration of women, the source-destination of migration and the current status of the economy and its impact on women’s migration patterns.