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      Looking at social protection for gig workers through a gender lens

      Among the labour code Bills passed in the just concluded Parliament session, the provisions regarding social protection for gig economy workers have been a topic of much discussion. The need for such provisions was felt acutely during the pandemic-induced lockdown.

      As the country came to a grinding halt, gig workers were left without any economic cushion. Among them, women were further disadvantaged as a majority of them are engaged in occupations such as beauty and wellness that cannot be undertaken with social distancing. Many others also had to forego even available work to take care of increased domestic chores.

      India had recorded an exponential growth in its gig economy, even before the pandemic hit the nation. It is now the 5th largest country offering flexi-staffing, according to a report by Invest India.

      Flexi-hours

      This sector is a big draw for semi-skilled and skilled labour, but especially for women. A recent report by IWWAGE supported by the Asia Foundation surveyed women working with a prominent gig platform in India and found that an overwhelming majority (nearly 85 per cent of the surveyed women) associate with the platform as it allows them flexibility in working hours.

      In urban areas where there is a higher burden of unpaid care work and domestic responsibilities due to nuclear family structures, flexibility is a critical factor for women. The survey respondents also reported an average income of ₹1,552 per day, depending on the number of tasks performed.

      This is significantly higher compared to a typical salon job (where average monthly income ranges between ₹8,000-10,000, with a relatively long average working day of 10 hours or so). Most of these salon jobs are also in the informal economy, operating outside of any formal social security net. Therefore, while 81 per cent workers surveyed were reportedly dissatisfied due to lack of maternity benefits, it is evident that for most women, the platform work is a step better than their existing options.

      Legislative space

      In this backdrop of a growing gig economy, the new social security code has created legislative space for Central and State governments to announce schemes for platform workers. It proposes a National Social Security Board which will recommend suitable schemes relating to life and disability cover, accident insurance, health and maternity benefits, old age protection, crèche or any other benefits. Aggregators employing gig workers will have to contribute 1-2 per cent of their annual turnover, with the total contribution not exceeding 5 per cent of the amount payable to such workers.

      Three models

      These provisions are in line with regulatory developments across the world which can be categorised into three models.

      First is a model proposed in California under which companies are legally obliged to classify gig workers as employees and provide the requisite benefits that go along with such classification. This has been met with a huge pushback from companies like Uber and Lyft, which threatened to shut down in response.

      The second model is followed by the EU, which aims at ensuring basic rights in employment terms and conditions for gig workers without entering the independent contractor/employee debate.

      The third model is more of a voluntary agreement on standards as envisaged by the Singapore government, wherein companies are nudged to provide facilities such as accident insurance and upskilling to gig workers.

      Middle ground

      As the government starts to mull over specific schemes under the social security code, it must find a middle ground between these three models and ensure an adequate level of social protection while allowing space for the growth of the platform economy.

      Unlike developed countries, where platform work is more informal than the rest of their economy, in India, platform work is already a step towards formalisation and its flexibility is an attractive feature especially for women who may not be able to work otherwise.

      A new report by the Fairwork Foundation suggests five principles using which social security and decent work standards may be designed for platform workers, including women. These include fair pay, fair work conditions (prevention from infection, and payment to workers if they fall ill), fair contracts, fair management (e.g. no loss of bonus or incentive levels despite temporary deactivation of workers), and fair representation (e.g. engagement with worker associations, including organisations representing women).

      Building on these principles, the government needs to balance the obligations of aggregators and social protection offered by the state through other mechanisms. Schemes which put large onus on industry are likely to be met with pushback.

      For a bigger state role

      This is even more relevant for women; the ILO has noted that placing undue financial costs on women’s employers is unlikely to contribute to labour market equality. Therefore, the state must play a bigger role towards social security for women gig workers to create a level playing field. Apart from direct contributions towards insurance and skilling, the state should also consider building enabling infrastructure in cities such as crèches and childcare centres, the presence of which expands employment opportunities for women.

      Often, a lack of a gender lens in policy design leads to unintended consequences. Gig economy is a sunrise sector presenting new opportunities for women; therefore, their welfare and opportunities should be central to the regulatory objectives in this context.

       

      The author, Soumya Kapoor Mehta is Head, IWWAGE; and Aparajita Bharti is Founding Partner at The Quantum Hub (TQH), a policy research and communications firm. The article was published in The Hindu. You can access the article here.

      How has India’s female labour force fared since Independence?

      The current adverse impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic notwithstanding, 73 years after its independence, India is considered among the economic powerhouses of the world. A recent report released by India’s Department of Economic Affairs suggests that even though downside economic risks remain, the worst may be over. This report also states that India’s future growth is likely to emanate from rural areas. However, for unlocking the full potential of India’s rural economy, the role and contributions of women in the rural economic landscape cannot be ignored, many of whom work unacknowledged as farm hands, as family helpers, as frontline service providers (anganwadi workers, ANMs and ASHAs), and who lead the millions of micro-enterprises started as part of India’s self-help group programme, bringing valuable income to their households.

      Many studies conducted around the impact of the pandemic state that the social and economic implications of COVID-19 fall harder on women than on men. This makes the need of focusing on women and pushing the agenda of women’s economic empowerment more imperative, so they can help in picking up the threads and contribute to the rural recovery. In this article, we take a look at trends in women’s participation in India’s economy since the 1940s.

      Slight improvement but still a long way to go

      The National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) recently released results of its Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) for the year 2018-19. The estimates show a marginal improvement in overall labour force participation rates, more so for rural women (up from 18.2 percent in 2017-18 to 19.7 percent in 2018-19). Urban female labour force participation rates also show a modest improvement over the same period – from 15.9 to 16.1 percent. This seems a reprieve from the intense decline in female participation in the Indian economy, more so in rural areas, which has been the subject matter of many debates in the recent past. But what is interesting is that levels of female labour force participation now are significantly lower than those witnessed soon after India gained Independence (Figure 1). So what changed?

      Source: Data from published reports of NSSO’s employment-unemployment surveys (EUS) and Annual Reports of PLFS by Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MOSPI)

      Before we get into the factors that may have accounted for a decline in women’s labour force participation over time in India – more so after the turn of the 21st century – it should be noted that the modest improvement suggested between 2017-18 and 2018-19 accounts for data only until the first quarter of 2019 for rural areas and the second quarter i.e. until June 2019 for urban areas. Many of us who have been tracking labour force participation rates since then know that a lot has changed, particularly after the COVID-19 shock. While the CMIE CPHS estimates provide more conservative rates of labour force participation (they use a stricter definition of who is in the labour force – only those who report offering themselves for work “on the day of the CMIE survey”, as opposed to those offering themselves for work for “at least one hour in any day of the week” during the PLFS survey), they suggest a steep decline in labour force participation since the PLFS 2018-19 round. While the labour force participation rate – aggregate for men and women – now stands at around 40.3 percent in June 2020, early estimates suggest that women have been hit harder. The men to women employment ratio deteriorated from 8.4 during 2019-20 to 9.1 during April-June 2020.

      In fact, as figure 1 suggests, while urban female labour force participation rates have always been more or less stagnant (another sign of worry as India increasingly urbanises), rural female labour force participation rates have only worsened, hitting a high of around 37 percent in the early 1970s, and then again 33 percent in 2004-05, but then declining since.

      Much has been written about the conundrum of declining labour force participation for women. It remains a puzzle as many of the barriers that would otherwise constrain women from taking up productive employment have reduced.

      Fertility Rates

      In 1951, the odds of a woman of reproductive age bearing children were very high (around 6 children). In 1981, the odds reduced, but were still considerably high – more than 4 children. By 2017, Indian women were only likely to bear 2 children.

      Source: Data from Sample Registration System’s reports

       

      Rise in Secondary Education

      While the percentage of women who have completed at least secondary level education or more has risen (Figure 3), particularly in rural India, that alone cannot be a reason for women not joining the labour force (because they are now in school). Surely, women who are now more educated, and fall on the rising part of the U-shaped association between secondary education and labour force participation, would want jobs? The NSS confirms this, with young women showing higher aspirations to participate in the labour market than their mothers. So what gives? For one, norms around chastity and early marriage still prevail. A girl in rural India is likely to be married early, if not before the age of 18, at least before she turns 22 (the average age of marriage for women in rural India is around 21.7 years). Two, appropriate jobs for more educated girls are not available, especially in rural areas. So girls drop out of the labour force even before they reach their productive years; their aspirations remain unfulfilled.

      Source: Data from published reports of NSSO’s employment-unemployment surveys (EUS) and Annual Reports of PLFS 2017-18 and 2018-19 by Mospi

      Income Effect

      The income effect too does not explain the conundrum. In fact, women in higher income deciles show higher labour force participation rates (Figure 4). What constrains instead is social group membership, with women from higher caste categories reporting the lowest labour force participation rates, and more SC (Dalit) and ST (Adivasi) women stepping out for work, ordained perhaps by their more impoverished circumstances or less restrictive norms around mobility.

      Source: Data from NSS Report no. 554 and Annual Report, PLFS 2018-19 by Mospi

       

      Source: NSS’s Employment and Unemployment Situation Among Social Groups in India reports for various years and Annual Reports of PLFS 2017-18 and 2018-19 by Mospi

       

      Under-reporting of Unpaid Work

      The final explanation given for the abysmally lower labour force participation of women in India is under-reporting. Debates abound on what gets defined as women’s work, how the hours that women put in unpaid work needs to be accounted for, and why the standard modes of questioning on who gets included as being in the labour force might miss women working for a few hours each day as unpaid labour on family farms or enterprises. There are also explanations on how the PLFS rounds may not be comparable to the earlier NSS EUS rounds because of the sampling methods followed, and therefore much should not be read in the decline suggested in recent years.

      Irrespective of these explanations, the fact remains that not as many women in a country of India’s size and income level, are working or are available for work. It is clear that it would take special effort both in devising more scientific methods to measure women’s labour force participation, and in providing more suitable job opportunities for them. The time to do so is now, before the unprecedented shock presented by COVID-19 further depresses women’s already grim work situation. Perhaps lessons may be drawn from the past, on what India did right in the early 1970s and 2000s.

       

      ‘It’s a question of survival now’: Pandemic puts India’s women even further behind economically

      As days turn cooler, the coming festive and tourist season is usually the busiest time of the year for the 2,000-member women’s collective of embroiderers at Urmul Desert Crafts in the state of Rajasthan, India.

      Not this year. With the pandemic-induced downturn, work has come to a near standstill.

      “It’s an enormous crisis for the artisans. With the demand and production cycle destroyed, it will take at least two years to recover,” said Arvind Ojha, chief executive of Urmul. “It’s a question of survival now, and many of them are scrambling for whatever work they can find – in construction or firework factories – which is a huge loss of dignity and income for skilled artisans.”

      Women across the world have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, data show, raising concerns that it will set the battle for gender equality back a decade. Between layoffs and decisions to quit paid work to handle the increased load at home, women’s careers are increasingly being sidelined.

      The effects of an economic downturn that some are calling a “she-cession” are especially damaging in India. Even before the pandemic, female participation in the country’s work force was already alarmingly low, at just 20 per cent, according to a World Bank report.

      At least four out of 10 women in India lost their jobs in April and May, and 39 per cent of women reported a loss of employment compared with 29 per cent of men, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. Oxfam India estimates the economic loss from women becoming unemployed during the pandemic at about US$216-billion, which makes the country’s GDP 8 per cent poorer.

      “Women are losing more jobs because they were anyway more vulnerable. They are at a lower level in the hierarchy with precarious conditions of work and poor social security,” said Neetha N., a gender and labour expert and director of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies. (She goes by one name and an initial, a common practice in some parts of India.)

      Aamina Siddiqui, a beautician based in Gurugram, a city just southwest of New Delhi, knows this precariousness only too well. Until March, she was working with a home-services company that connected her to customers through an app.

      “I was earning about 50,000 rupees [about $900] a month till the lockdown. The company resumed services a few months ago, but I decided it was too risky to go back to work,” she said. “I was not offered health insurance and was told to purchase safety kits from my earnings. Since then, we have been dependent on my husband’s income. Our savings are nearly over and we have just about enough to cover essential bills, forget any luxuries.”

      The numbers are rapidly stacking up against women. Female employment in April was at 61 per cent of the prelockdown yearly average; for men it was 71 per cent, according to a research paper by Ashwini Deshpande, an economist at Ashoka University. After the reopening of the economy, women who had been employed before the lockdown were 23.5 percentage points less likely to be employed than men.

      In India, women face enormous challenges stepping out to work: lack of safe public transit; widespread violence against women; poor work conditions and shifts; and limited child-care facilities. The pandemic has deepened these vulnerabilities. It has also magnified the burden of unpaid care work, a responsibility that weighs far more on women than on men.

      A new report from the National Statistical Office shows just how disproportionate the situation is: Indian women on average spend 243 minutes a day on domestic work, almost 10 times the 25 minutes that the average man spends on housework.

      Navneet Singh, founder of Avsar, an HR services company, cites this care burden as the main reason women are locked out of jobs more than men at this time.

      “The reverse migration, where many employees went back to their villages after the lockdown was lifted, left many companies in the cities frantically looking for workers, particularly female employees in retail and hospitality,” he said. “But we have more men than women available for jobs at the moment because women are staying home to look after their children and housework.”

      Young working women are reeling under more pressure than anyone else.

      Working from home has meant a stressful juggle for a 32-year-old Mumbai-based finance professional: between office work, house work and primary care for her toddler son. (The Globe and Mail is not identifying her so she can speak freely about her employment conditions.)

      “I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I think of quitting my job every day,” she said. “Our nanny migrated back to her village. A new part-time helper is risky and we can’t hire live-in help due to lack of space.”

      To add to her troubles, her company has announced a pay cut of 30 per cent for those who continue working from home. Daycares remain shut. Her husband will return to the office soon; she will take the pay cut.

      The impact of the pandemic is even graver for women lower on the economic strata who work in blue-collar jobs or informal sectors. Work from home is not an option for these women, who make up 94 per cent of the total female work force.

      “Women tend to work more in service sectors [than in manufacturing], which have been adversely hit due to rules around social distancing,” said Soumya Kapoor Mehta, head of the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE) at Krea University’s LEAD research centre.

      During the pandemic, women’s self-help groups and ASHA workers – accredited social health activists, who are considered volunteers and paid modest stipends – have been at the forefront of health care efforts in rural areas. They have been tracking patients, leading door-to-door campaigns around heightened domestic violence and running community kitchens for migrants in quarantine centres. However, they aren’t being paid on time or facing pay cuts, Ms. Mehta has found.

      In the past few months, ASHA workers have gone on strike and staged protests across the country, demanding better and more timely pay, regular medical checkups and PPE kits. Workplaces employing primarily women that reopened after the lockdown, such as clothing factories, kept their creches shut, which forced many workers to opt out of their jobs.

      A majority of domestic workers, estimated to be three million women, have lost their jobs since the lockdown and have not been called back to work for fear of the virus being passed on to employers, spurring a #hireusback campaign on social media.

      “With women’s low participation in the work force already a huge concern prepandemic, women’s employment has gone from one crisis to another, with new tensions and new issues,” said Neetha N., the gender and labour expert.

      Those with access to the internet – just 16 per cent – find some opportunities opening up.

      “The texture of jobs for women is changing at this time,” said Sairee Chahal, founder of Sheroes, a networking and jobs platform for women. “There is an uptick in the availability of remote jobs, which is beneficial, and micro entrepreneurship is mushrooming, with about 30 million women self-employed.

      “The challenge is finding full-time work opportunities. The pandemic has made sections of corporate jobs redundant that have been broken into gig jobs,” she said.

      Experts say the gig culture could make work for women more unstable. “It may be beneficial for companies but not the female work force because it doesn’t offer social protection and benefits,” said Mr. Singh of the HR services company.

      To stem the damage of the she-cession, several strategies need to be fast tracked, says Ms. Mehta of IWWAGE.

      “Our first call has been to expand wage employment opportunities for women, and also ensure their food and nutrition security,” she said. “Plus, emergency cash transfers, and an expansion of formal child-care centres.”

      It will take years to fill the widening gaps and it is an issue that needs long-term attention and an urgent shift in attitude, Neetha N. says.

      “In all policies, the underlying assumption is that women are secondary earners. The state needs to accept that women have equal status as workers.”

      Neha Bhatt is a freelancer who writes for international news platforms. The article was published in The Globe and Mail. You can access the article here

      e-Governance Push: Leveraging social capital of SHGs: NRLM’s response to COVID-19

      DAY-NRLM imparted digital training through a cascade approach on risks and prevention of the virus to over 5.10 lakh community resource persons, cadres, and community workers, reaching over 5.35 crore SHG members.

      Given the size of India, the arrival of COVID-19 was accompanied by considerable apprehension that the spread of the virus would have devastating implications once it reaches the community. Soon after its outbreak, it was recognized that the networks and social capital of community-based institutions of the poor could be leveraged in order to ensure COVID-19 prevention and containment, especially in rural areas. In this scenario, the Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana-National Rural Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NRLM) assumed tremendous importance given its mass outreach and membership of 6.8 crore rural women, mobilized into 62 lakh self-help groups (SHGs).

      During the pandemic, DAY-NRLM’s SHGs played a pivotal role in raising awareness of COVID-19. DAY-NRLM imparted digital training through a cascade approach on risks and prevention of the virus to over 5.10 lakh community resource persons, cadres, and community workers, reaching over 5.35 crore SHG members.

      Responding to the need of rural communities for affordable health equipment to protect against the virus, SHG members demonstrated their ability to adapt their existing skills by engaging in large-scale production of over 23.7 crore face masks, 4.79 lakh litres of sanitizers and 1.02 lakh litres of handwash. To overcome the major challenge of food insecurity being faced by women and their households, community cadres and SHG members provided food-related essential services and commodities at the last mile, with over 5.72 crore persons being served food through community kitchens. Further, to ensure household food security, DAY-NRLM advised activities such as kitchen gardens and backyard poultry for all SHG member households.

      With respect to health and hygiene, in Chhattisgarh and Odisha, SHG members supported Anganwadi workers, ASHAs and ANMs in distributing Take Home Rations (THR) to children under five, pregnant women, and lactating mothers as well as other vulnerable groups. In Odisha, maternal and child health services were provided by Poshan Sakhis, who supported ASHAs in going door to door to identify pregnant and lactating mothers and children needing immunization, facilitating their visits to the hospitals. Sanitary napkins were produced and delivered by the Maharashtra SRLM, recognizing these to be essential commodities. DAY-NRLM also issued an advisory that its Vulnerability Reduction Fund (VRF) be used to meet the needs of the most marginalized, with an additional amount of VRF being extended for COVID-19 hotspots and those with extreme vulnerabilities.

      Further, amid the crisis and subsequent lockdown, and with family members restricted to their homes, women and girls faced greater vulnerability to domestic violence and increased burden of unpaid care work. Women and the most vulnerable also faced obstacles in claiming entitlements under the national relief package because of a lack of proof of identification such as ration-cards or bank accounts.

      In this scenario, DAY-NRLM worked with organizations such as the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE), to strengthen the ability of women’s collectives to respond to member and community needs. In Madhya Pradesh, Samta Sakhis who serve as gender counsellors addressed issues of violence against women and dispelling myths around the virus. Women run gender resource centres such as the Lok Adhikar Kendra supported communities in accessing rights and entitlements. Counselling was provided to SHG women in Chhattisgarh by Jaankars, as well as through a telephone-based Gender Facilitation Centre in Odisha. Digital solutions such as the Integrated Voice Response System (IVRS) messages were also explored for promoting access to information, entitlements, and services.

      In particular, given the rising incidence of reported cases during the lockdown, DAY-NRLM has committed to working on issues of domestic violence and child sexual abuse, acknowledging that the network of SHGs and its federations can provide the space of solidarity and solace in these moments of crisis. DAY-NRLM is also focusing efforts on addressing the exacerbated vulnerabilities of migrants returning to rural areas, linking them with entitlements, and undertaking skill mapping to engage them in livelihoods. Civil society organizations have been actively working with State Rural Livelihoods Missions (SRLMs) on research related to the impacts of COVID-19, as in Jharkhand and Odisha, and towards ensuring gender-responsive recovery strategies on these and other issues going forward.

      SHGs and their federations have always been indispensable spaces for building and strengthening women’s capacities, networks and solidarities. They provide members the strength to face challenges through collective action and through collectively bargaining for women’s rights and needs, including those of the most vulnerable. In particular, in the aftermath of the unprecedented COVID-19 shock, recovery strategies would need to be focused on preserving the social capital of SHGs, prioritizing issues of health, well-being and gender-based violence, and strengthening women-led livelihoods and enterprises.

       

      The author is Joint Secretary, Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India. Views are personal. The article was published Economic Times. You can access the article here.

      India’s Gig Economy: the Future of Work for Women?

      Digital labour platforms can enhance women’s economic empowerment and contribute to gender equality in the Indian labour market.

      In his Independence day speech, PM Modi put emphasis on women’s economic empowerment and a few days later Vice-president Naidu called for a national movement for women’s empowerment, and urged political parties to reach early consensus to render reservation to women in Parliament and State legislatures in order to ensure equal opportunities for them in all fields.

      These statements come at an important juncture, as the nation continues to grapple with the low and declining rates of female labour force participation (FLFP) and pronounced gender inequalities in the world of work.

      In fact, India has one of the lowest FLFP rates among developing countries, and as per latest available estimates it stood at 24.5 percent in 2018-19 for women aged 15 years and above (after declining sharply from 31.2 percent in 2011-12), and is well below the global average of 45 percent.

      Though FLFP has remained historically low in India, however, latest trends confirm that women have been continuously dropping out of the labour force and increasingly attending to domestic duties, even when education levels have improved vastly and the economy has been growing at reasonable rates.

      This has drawn much social and academic attention, and multiple explanations have been advanced towards explaining this puzzling drift.

      One of the key drivers of the decline is the lack of suitable job opportunities for women in fast-growing sectors in the non-farm economy. Besides, women perform a substantial amount of unpaid work inside the household, and it constraints them from participating in paid market activities.

      Scholars have long debated that flexible work arrangements may benefit women by bettering opportunities to balance their household responsibilities, unpaid childcare and paid work.

      In this context, rapidly expanding gig/platform economy of India could be a viable alternative for millions of women, as it may help mitigate some of the barriers they face by enabling flexi-work and allowing women to access new forms of employment opportunities through online labour platforms.

      Research by IWWAGE (Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy) explores the gender dynamics in the ‘on-demand’ gig economy of India and suggests that women are increasingly taking part on the digital platforms; especially in pink-collar work, and offers valuable insights into women’s experiences on such platforms.

      We find that women highly appreciate the flexi-timings and better financial returns, which in turn increase their autonomy and enhance their overall status in the family.

      However, women are also confronted with a lot of challenges and various constraints, as gig work is largely regarded as non-traditional work, and falls outside the boundary of conventional, standard forms of employment relations.

      They encounter various issues; including issues of security and safety, regular income, upward mobility, lack of effective bargaining power and freedom of association, and the near absence of adequate labour and social protection mechanisms; which together contribute to their vulnerabilities in the long run.

      Another interesting observation is that gig economy is largely an urban phenomenon so far but holds significant potential for expansion in rural areas. To make it more inclusive, it is critical to bridge the gender digital divide (of mobile ownership as well as internet user penetration rates) and improve women’s digital literacy (by means of tailor-made training on basic digital skills), to enhance their equitable participation in the gig economy.

      The results from IWWAGE’s study suggest that platform economy will continue to flourish and as we probe into the future of work, there are many reasons to believe that the gig economy can build gender inclusive labour market by boosting women’s participation in India.

       

      Ruchika Chaudhary is Senior Research Fellow, working at IWWAGE. This piece draws from The Asia Foundation and IWWAGE’s work on ‘India’s Emerging Gig Economy: The Future of Work for Women Workers’; and was published in CEOWORLD. You can access the article here.

      Why society owes Asha workers a debt

      The unsung heroes of the response to the Covid-19 pandemic have most definitely been the millions of frontline women workers, especially Accredited Social Health Activists (Ashas) who have been working tirelessly at the community level. They have engaged in numerous activities, ranging from door-to-door surveys, contact-tracing, awareness campaigns and ensuring quarantine/isolation. This is in addition to their regular roles, ranging from accompanying pregnant women to health centres, keeping track of immunisations, making home visits for new- born care and following up on tuberculosis patients.

      Recently, these workers have been in the news for their strikes, demanding better payment, regularisation, access to personal protective equipment and free health care. Who are these women and are their protests, in the midst of the pandemic, justified?

      Currently, there are about a million Asha workers who have been crucial in the efforts to decentralise health care and strengthen the primary health system. Their contribution to the increase in institutional deliveries, immunisations and decline in maternal and infant mortality has been widely noted. While each Asha worker can easily spend six to eight hours working in a day, she is not paid a regular monthly salary.

      Instead, the central government has an incentive-based system in which, at the end of the month, each Asha worker is paid based on the basis of the tasks she has completed on a pro-rata basis. Following protests, recently the incentives were revised such that each worker can earn at least Rs 2,000 per month. Some other tasks that Asha workers undertake such as conducting awareness campaigns are not listed as activities they are given incentives for, but they still do so as a commitment to the community. In contrast, the minimum wage for unskilled workers suggested by a government- appointed expert committee in 2019 is Rs 9,750 a month.

      The story of almost 1.4 million anganwadi workers is no different. Although they do get a fixed monthly pay, they are treated as voluntary workers who receive an honorarium and not a salary. While the central government contributes Rs 4,500 per month towards their pay, a number of states top this up with additional amounts though these are low. Just as the Ashas, the anganwadi workers play an essential role. They are responsible for nutrition services, including distribution of supplementary nutrition, growth monitoring and nutrition counselling along with providing pre-school education.

      For the additional work that Asha workers are now doing due to Covid-19, they have been promised an incentive of Rs 1,000 per month. However, reports from most states are that they have not received this yet.

      Further, reports suggest that, in many places, Asha and anganwadi workers work without any protective equipment such as masks or gloves while going door-to-door for surveys and other tasks, and in the process, are getting infected with the virus. Moreover, in many places, these workers face stigma from the community, with people not allowing them to enter their homes and abusing them when they try to collect personal details related to travel.

      The way frontline women workers in our country are treated also points to the gendered nature of work itself. Many of the tasks that these women perform are perceived to be an extension of the care roles that they play within the household. The unequal distribution of care work within the family and the subsequent undervaluation of such work is extended to the community and the State.

      Expanding better opportunities with decent wages for frontline workers could also contribute to the revival of the rural economy by putting wages into the hands of many, and take us closer to achieving our health and nutrition goals. This is important at a time when employment opportunities for educated rural women are so few.

      Dipa Sinha is an assistant professor at Ambedkar University, Delhi. This article is based on her recent study of frontline workers commissioned by IWWAGE, a research initiative of LEAD at KREA University The views expressed are personal.

      The article has been published in HT and can be accessed  here.

      Moving the needle from subsistence to growth for home-based businesses

      This article presents insights from a study on understanding the state of market access and enterprise readiness among women entrepreneurs in the handicrafts and handlooms sectors. The study was conducted across Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan.

      Within a 45-minute ride from Jaipur, lies a small village Chomu. Dotted with countless independent looms and community workshops operated by women, the village is a vivid representation of rural India’s cottage industry.  Workshops set up by private companies and Self-Help Groups (SHGs) become places for skill training and a source of livelihood for these homepreneurs. This practice has enabled craft clusters to develop organically in small pockets across Rajasthan.

      Rajasthan is not the only state with a thriving cottage sector. Small pockets like Chomu can be found all across India. Tamil Nadu is one such example and leads the way in the handloom sector. Tamil Nadu Corporation for Development of Women under the Ministry of Rural Development plays an instrumental role in capacity building and streamlining efforts of home-based entrepreneurs.

      The Manufacturing sector is the second highest contributor to the Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) for both Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu. According to WIEGO, 23% of non-agricultural workers in India are home-based entrepreneurs, of which an overwhelming 67% are women. To understand the barriers faced by this vast and diverse segment of women-led home based businesses (HBB), we conducted a mixed methods study which explored market access and enterprise readiness of 800 women entrepreneurs across Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu in the handloom and handicraft sectors. This article highlights the ecosystem and market constraints faced by women led HBBs in the cottage industry.

      Dual burden dictates choices 

      Women entrepreneurs are often marriage migrants and are likely to move with their husbands. They work from their home premises or workshops on adjacent grounds and shuttle between domestic care duties and their business. Home-based work is rooted in the social preference for married women to work from home so that they can take care of their household responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning, fetching water, looking after their children and so on.

      On the flipside, working from home without formal or standard employment contracts reduces their means to assert their rights as entrepreneurs under labour laws. Only 37.4% women in our study had businesses registered under their own name, which suggests that a significant majority of businesses remain outside the purview of formal labour laws, rendering them invisible.  Organisations such as SEWA Bharat and other bunkar sansthas (weaver collectives) are playing an important role in enabling women engaged in informal enterprises. Mobility and time limitations along with the dual burden of balancing business and caregiving priorities determine women’s preferences for working from their homes and linking with aggregators. Our  study found that women are able to dedicate only 5.8 hours a day on average to their home-based business, which is intermittently interrupted by 6.6 hours of unpaid caregiving work.

      The sectoral landscape in Rajasthan is dominated by private players and SHGs, whose business models align with women entrepreneurs’ need for flexibility in the workplace. Affiliation with contractual companies reduces monetary burden/investment, time, and effort of procuring raw materials and selling products. On the other hand, in Tamil Nadu the state acts as a key enabler and facilitator for homepreneurs engaged in the  handloom and handicraft sectors. The state government is the nodal agency overseeing the Cooperative Societies that help weavers organise themselves and facilitate  optimal market outcomes.

      Weak bargaining power 

      Individual artisans who are classified  by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) as own-account entrepreneurs are expected to bear the risk and cost of production and scout for potential markets independently as per their work arrangements. Own-account entrepreneurs are concentrated in the handicraft sector since the sector has not been equally capitalised by market players in comparison to the handloom sector in both states. Typically, own- account entrepreneurs have low bargaining power in both procurement and selling activities (Women, Gender and Work, V2, ILO (2017)).These women are in charge of the entire supply chain from buying raw materials to selling it in the market.

      The second category is piece-rate entrepreneurs who work with aggregators and private companies. These companies promote  doorstep entrepreneurship by providing all raw materials and taking finished products from their home premises. According to NSSO, piece-rate entrepreneurs are ‘subcontracted workers’, who are not classified as ‘employees’ within the standard employment relations or rights and are clubbed with  Own-Account enterprises (OAEs) under self-employment. Such a classification results in loss of access to associated rights and makes OAEs invisible.

      70% of  women entrepreneurs in our  study were associated with aggregators and private companies. These overarching institutions monetised on the artisanal and weaving skills of these entrepreneurs and drew a larger portion of profits. However, entrepreneurs indicated a strong preference to work with aggregators, since these institutions enable  access to regular supply of raw materials and a market for finished products. This restricts and binds the women homepreneurs to a single operator and limits their scalability.  Women lose bargaining powers and this leads them to be a price-taker.

      Respondents in our study however did not mind losing the bargaining power, and spoke in terms of respect and gratitude for the contractor for providing them work. Rather than negotiating for better profit margins, they rely on requesting the contractors for more work. The contractors themselves are marginal players in long and opaque supply chains with little power –their strength lies in remaining competitive and offering the cheapest options for products in the market. They have limited information about where their product would be sold, and no means to hold the retailer accountable (IndiaSpend, 2020).

      Closed communication channels

      90% of entrepreneurs surveyed in Rajasthan and over 60% of those interviewed in Tamil Nadu worked in a closed communication channel by running piece-rate businesses associated with SHGs/ aggregators. Only 5% of the 800 surveyed women tried to diversify their customer base once they adopted a piece-rate business model. While working with aggregators or private companies has enabled consistent market access for their finished products, the associated closed communication channel with it led to a loss in independent decision-making, market access and sector awareness. We found that the uptake of government schemes like MUDRA loans, which is targeted towards women entrepreneurs was as low as 3.5% in our sample. Heavy reliance on aggregators for business related communication and an absence of an alternative source of information is one of the reasons for a low uptake of schemes.

      Resistance to switch to alternative payment methods like use of mobile wallets was observed across the board. 98% business related payments were made in cash on a weekly or monthly basis. Merely 0.2% of the surveyed entrepreneurs used an online platform to communicate business related information to customers.

      Suman who works on looms with Jaipur Rugs in Tigariya village is hesitant to conduct business on online platforms and says:

      “If you can put a face on the customer I can sell my products. I like to sell my rugs to people who I know. I have been working with the company for two decades and I am comfortable dealing with them since I know they mean well for me. ” 

      Often, women are compelled to involve their children to complete their orders on time during festival seasons such as Navratri or Diwali. Work is plenty and even friends and neighbors are called in to help for a share of the earnings. For the aggregator or retailer, the cost of production remains the same but for the home-based workers, incomes are further depleted despite the long working hours.

      Tool for Measuring  Market Readiness 

      Gauging business readiness in the informal sector is the key to enable policy support in terms of identifying best practices, creating market linkages, and targeting skilling initiatives as it directly links to enterprise performance. Based on insights from the study, we have developed a diagnostic tool –‘Women Business Readiness Scorecard’ to identify barriers faced by women entrepreneurs and target policy and program interventions better.  The tool consists of four sub- indices- agency, market readiness, product readiness and legal & regulatory readiness.

      Based on the entrepreneur profiles that emerged from our primary dataset,  we have identified three customer archetypes or personas of women engaged in home-based businesses:  millennial entrepreneurs, striving entrepreneurs, and latent entrepreneurs. These personas are based on the age, entrepreneurial and risk-taking abilities of entrepreneurs.

      Jayamani from Coimbatore is an example of a  striving entrepreneur:

      “Jayamani  has been weaving Kovai cotton-silk (Korapattu) for 30 years now and gets raw materials from and sells back finished sarees only to the Weavers Cooperative Society. She is capable of weaving more but is limited by demand/orders she received from the Cooperative. Jayamani feels she has financial constraints that stop  her from expanding her business.”

      Restrictions on freedom of movement have significant effects on the likelihood of women becoming ‘high aspiration entrepreneurs.’  It is essential to look beyond adopting a single approach to identify enterprises with growth potential. The Business Readiness Scorecard for Women, developed by IWWAGE and LEAD at Krea University, is a step in this direction.

      The informal nature of home-based businesses in handloom and handicraft sectors makes it possible for contracting companies to reduce their costs. These sectors provide women alternative livelihood opportunities that confirm with existing social and cultural norms. The companies lower  overheads and limit the market accessibility of the entrepreneurs. Our hope is that the Women Business Readiness Scorecard and the entrepreneur archetypes that emerged from our study will provide policymakers and practitioners a framework for targeting enterprise development initiatives.

      Ria Dutta is a Research Associate with LEAD at Krea University. 

      85% Women feel flexibility and autonomy are the most attractive features in gig economy

      Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE), an initiative of LEAD at Krea University, today announced the release of a report titled ‘India’s Emerging Gig Economy: The Future of Work for Women Workers’. The study looks into women’s experiences of the ‘on-demand’ gig and platform economy in India. The study is funded by The Asia Foundation, a non-profit international development organization committed to improving lives across 18 countries in Asia.

      This report identifies the various forms of employer-employee relations that have surfaced through this emerging model of work; mediated through aggregator companies, such as Urban Company which this study explored in-depth. Such companies primarily provide services through internet-enabled mobile applications and bring together similar service providers (who are not identified as ‘workers’, but as partners/independent contractors) on a single platform to perform specific ‘gigs’. It explores the gender dynamics in the gig economy, especially in the context of emerging opportunities in pink-collar work. This pilot study explored the biggest such service platform in India: Urban Company. Researchers surveyed 88 women service providers in Delhi and Mumbai and carried out Focus Group Discussions (FGDs), and Key Informant Interviews (KIIs) with academics, experts, as well as the company representatives.

      Some of the key findings from this report include:

      Flexibility is the most attractive feature

      85% of the Urban Company’s service partners said they wanted a level of flexibility and this platform allows them to work in ways that would otherwise be impossible. Almost 80 percent of the women were found to be married, and around half of them have young children. Women with young children find the platform economy particularly attractive, as this offers the flexibility to manage the work-family balance.

      Increased autonomy and enhanced status of women

      60% of surveyed women indicated that they are the main earning member in the family. This has altered their status in their families. They reported that they received more respect from members of their families and now participate in the decision-making process. This analysis yielded a crucial insight that a women’s increased economic capabilities substantially improve their agency, and overall empowerment.

      Average income was higher than other forms of employment available to them

      Survey findings suggest that women’s average daily earnings are Rs. 1,552, which depends on the number of tasks performed. These women earn significantly higher as compared to a salon job (where average monthly income ranges between Rs. 8,000 – Rs. 10,000, and a relatively long average working day of 10 hours or so). 57% women reported that they service less than three calls per day and 42% of respondents’ service between three to five calls each day (with multiple tasks in each call). This is reflective of the fact that most women are bound by their unpaid work responsibilities and can only dedicate a part of their day to paid employment.

      Lack of adequate social protection

      In the platform economy model, while the aggregator companies operate in the formal sector, they enrol the service providers or professionals onto their platform as ‘self-employed’ and not as ‘employees’, and thereby exclude them from several forms of social protections and non-wage benefits, and also makes it difficult to bring them under adequate labour protections. 81% workers were dissatisfied due to the lack of maternity benefits and 63% were dissatisfied with no incentive or increment system.

      New dimension to informal economy

      The gig economy is not just an extension of previous forms of labour market precarity; it is a reshaping of the spatialities (economic geographies) and temporalities of work through enablers. This makes it challenging for workers to build effective and lasting structural power and secures the power of platforms as key intermediaries between supply and demand of labour. All these factors are ushering in a new dimension to ‘informalisation’.

      Access to smartphones and digital literacy are key to participation

      Owning a smartphone is an essential requirement for securing access to digital platforms; especially on-demand platforms. However, as per ‘The Mobile Gender Gap’ report of 2019, 59 per cent women own mobiles, as compared to 80 per cent% men in India. The percentage of women internet users is a meagre 16 per cent, as compared to 36 per cent men internet users (GSMA report, 2019). Additionally, women who are digitally illiterate are automatically barred from participation. This underlines the importance of addressing the gender gap in digital access and literacy.

      The study offers valuable insights and offers key recommendations on the working structure and measures towards ensuring access to decent work and social protection for these workers in a sector that is growing rapidly.

      Commenting on the report, Soumya Kapoor Mehta, Head, IWWAGE said “As more and more women are joining and engaging in the gig/platform economy, it becomes imperative to understand the extent and magnitude of this sector in terms of women’s employment, and study the working conditions in these jobs.  We hope that the findings of this report can inform policymakers and gig economy platforms to design policies and incentives that can enable more women to benefit from this form of employment.”

      Sharing her thoughts on the report, Nandita Baruah, India Country Representative, The Asia Foundation stated “The gig platforms have created space for women to explore employment options, that are unencumbered by employer-employee power dynamics, have the flexibility of time, and offer greater financial returns compared to tied employment contracts in the same sector.  The gig ecosystem is going to be a major driver for employment, and it is important to ensure that it is adequately responsive to women’s workforce participation. This report injects the necessary critical lens required to have a more holistic understanding on the future of gig-work with a definitive gender and equity lens.”

      This article was published in Business World and you can access the article here.

      Do Indian women hold up half the sky? A historical perspective

      Writing a historical perspective on how Indian women and their work has fared since the country gained its Independence nearly 73 years ago is hard. In the clamour of how COVID-19 has impacted women adversely, be it through the precipitous decline in women’s employment more so than men after the lockdown, or the dangerous vocabulary of the ‘shadow pandemic’ of domestic violence (one which we believe existed for long, and cannot be qualified as “shadow”)—it is easy to forget the turns that Indian women and their movements have navigated in nearly three-quarters of a century.

      In 1947, accounts of women being raped and tortured even as the Indian sub-continent recovered from a visceral partition writ large. Female writers such as Nayantara Sehgal, Romila Thapar, and Urvashi Butalia would go on to recount the horrors that women in the sub-continent faced even as their countless contributions in bringing up their children and to their families seemed immeasurable. But there have been gains over time. In 1951, a girl in India married at the age of 15. Today, the average age of marriage for girls is 22. In 1951, when my mother was three years old, a woman in her reproductive age was likely to bear about 6 children. Today, my three-year-old daughter is likely to bear only 2 children or less.

      Battles for delaying marriage and reducing fertility rates have long been fought in India and the results have been slow in coming. Despite all the deliberate efforts to raise the age of marriage, until the 1960s, women were still likely to be married when they turned 16. The gains came only after the 1970s, when movements to restrict child marriage started bearing fruit, more so in the later decades through active NGO involvement. Fertility rates too showed a similar trajectory, with couples slowly realising that female children too could provide ‘caring, sensitive support’ in older ages, and with that investing more in educating their girls.

      Those supporting the Indian female work participation movements have also seen slow but steady victories. After independence, the work done by Kamla Devi Chattopadhyay who was a pioneer in letting refugees become owners of small enterprises by establishing industrial townships like Faridabad showed that women could also be part of this self-work narrative. She founded the All India Women’s Conference, the Lady Irwin College for Home Sciences (the first of its kind college for women in India), and set up a series of crafts museums including the Central Cottage Industries Emporium so small craftsmen (including women) from the unorganised sector could take their wares to organised markets.

      But women continued to work in the so-called ‘informal’ economy, which comprised about 90 percent of their work. It was real work that went unrecognised, that was without formal protection of minimum wage thresholds; yet was governed by informal harsh rules framed by middlemen. Organisations such as the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) changed that. They provided for the first time a federated structure to the scores of women working in India’s informal economy.

      Today, SEWA encompasses a membership base of over 1.6 million women, across multiple trades and states in India, where women who work as construction laborers, as street vendors, as domestic workers and from within the confines of their 6×6 feet homes rolling papads or beedis—are all recognized as ‘workers’. The Indian state too has responded over time, with programs such as Velugu in Andhra Pradesh providing the early foundation for the rural self-help group movement, now federated into the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) architecture.

      There were multiple others who provided a fillip to recognising women’s work in India. To name a few, Bina Agarwal wrote about how women’s well-being, bargaining power within the household, and overall empowerment is enhanced through the ownership and control of the land. This later spurred an amendment in the Hindu Succession Act, with Hindu women claiming equal inheritance rights with men in ownership of property, particularly agricultural land.

      Devaki Jain brought into the feminist parlance the concept of ‘feminisation of poverty’ indicating how poverty was more severe for women than for men, while simultaneously arguing that the term feminisation itself devalued the increasing prevalence of women in work. Dr. Jain and others also argued on how women’s work was underreported, including the often derogatory ‘free collection of goods’ which actually served an economic need of satisfying hunger for many families. Organisations like Jagori worked on feminist consciousness particularly in rural areas, so even women who were not well educated could recognise what violence was, and what they could do to report it. Their work mirrored the work of other feminist economists of the time, including Naila Kabeer, Nata Duvvury, Nancy Folbre and Ester Boserup, all of whom were writing about similar issues.

      Where does all of this leave us with the present crises of fewer women showing up as part of the labour force, and an unprecedented challenge of global scale that has impacted women’s work around the world? The task of creating ‘suitable’ jobs for a female workforce—one that looks very different now than what it did 75 years earlier, with more educated women who do not marry as early, do not have as many children and have high aspirations—is daunting. But the voice of feminist reporting in India shows a strong responsive tradition. As an organisation working on women’s economic empowerment in India, we at IWWAGE look forward to documenting what the future holds.

      This article was published in CNBC 18 and you can access the article here.

      Big story: Making it work for women

      Chanda Devi speaks with a smile. One that belies the tension about her 1-acre farm in Majhaulia village of Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district being ravaged by floods. Income has almost halved because she had to sell the eggplants, potatoes and okra she grew at lower rates during the lockdown. Then there is the monthly instalment of ₹2,000 toward repaying a ₹50,000 loan she had taken from her self-help group (SHG) to set up a box-sized kirana shop. “Kahin na kahin se toh minus karna padega,” says the 30-year-old. She will have to cut some other expenses to ensure she does not default on her instalment.

      Devi is determined to not let these challenges get to her. She had started working in agriculture as an 18-year-old newly married woman who needed to push her family out of penury. She joined an SHG in 2012 to take a loan of ₹20,000 and get back their farm that was mortgaged with the local money lender.

      “My husband is not really a self-starter. He is better at doing something he is asked to do,” says Devi, who wakes up at the crack of dawn, feeds the cows, sweeps and mops her home, cooks for the family, works in the field for over 6 hours, attends meetings at the SHG and the Farmers’ Producer Company (FPC) she is part of, returns home to cook, wash clothes and take care of her elderly mother-in-law. She finishes all the domestic chores alone, without any help from her two sons, her brother-in-law or her husband, the latter only helping her in the farm. “I started working only because I had no other option to get my family out of financial difficulty. But I have always wanted to be independent,” she says. “Times have been tough again, and I know that my work and my income are essential to keep my family afloat.”

      A 2018 Harvard Business Review report states that globally, for every 10 percent increase in women working, there is a 5 percent increase in wages, including for men, since the overall productivity levels of the regions with better female labour force participation (FLFP) increase.

      The International Labour Organization (ILO), in global policy guidance notes for its Decent Work Agenda to empower rural women in 2019, said that productive employment and good quality jobs for women in rural areas “not only contributes to inclusive and sustainable economic growth, but also enhances the effectiveness of poverty reduction and food security initiatives, as well as climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts.” Yet, in India, when the economy slows down and jobs start disappearing, women’s livelihoods have often been the first to be hit. The 2020 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report ranks India at 149 out of 153 countries when it comes to economic participation and opportunity for women. According to the report, only 35 percent of the financial gap between women and men has been covered.

      Rural women particularly fall out of the workforce at a much sharper rate than urban women. Data from the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) indicates that FLFP in rural areas fell from 33.3 percent in 2004-05 to 19.7 percent in 2018-19. This is a sharper fall compared to rural men, who’s participation fell from 55.5 percent to 55.1 percent in the same period, or urban women, whose participation fell from 17.8 percent to 16.1 percent.

      “First, parents or husbands determine norms around education and jobs women can access, the hours for which they can work. Second, the conditioning is such that girls often imbibe these mindsets much more deeply than boys. Our studies have found that when there is a job scarcity, more women actually respond by saying that the jobs should go to the men instead of them,” says Soumya Kapoor Mehta, an economist who heads the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE), a non-profit supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

      A survey of 5,000 workers across 12 states conducted by the Azim Premji University (APU) between April and May found that 71 percent rural women casual workers lost their livelihoods during the lockdown, compared to 59 percent of men. The proportion stood at 45 percent each for self-employed men and women in rural areas.

      The Covid-19 pandemic is likely to exacerbate issues, so much so that the slight uptick seen in the FLFP for the first time in over a decade, from 18.2 in 2017-18 to 19.7 in 2018-19, might not sustain and is not considered a significant enough gain by experts compared to the rate at which labour participation has fallen over the years. Economists also believe that the burden of unpaid care work would fall disproportionately on women due to the pandemic, especially with children and other family members spending more time at home. This is likely to add to the already lopsided load, which—according to an Oxfam India report as of January—stood at 291 minutes of daily unpaid domestic chores for rural women, compared to 32 minutes for men. “Many women in rural areas might retreat further into their homes now, as their families would expect that fulfilling domestic duties would be their primary responsibility,” says Nalini Gulati, country economist for the India programme of the International Growth Centre (IGC), who believes that women should receive social recognition for care work.

      She also points out that women were the de-facto head of the family and in-charge of farmlands when the men of the house migrated to cities for work, but since the latter have come back to the villages, they will have to be absorbed in agriculture and non-farm jobs. States do not have gender disaggregated data for the returning migrants. “So a lot depends on what happens to job opportunities for men. It is in that context that we have to view what happens with the female labour force and opportunities for them, and not in isolation,” Gulati explains.

      That said, workforce participation of rural women has primarily been driven by need. The sudden income shock created by the pandemic could also lead to reengaging women in the economy because distressed households are looking at ways to increase income levels, believes Rosa Abraham, research fellow at the Centre for Sustainable Employment at APU. “It is practical to have a gendered lens to policy-making right now, because people are desperate for work. Policy that provides for work will find takers in the economy, and a lot of these takers are going to be women,” she says.

      Economists believe that a gendered approach would involve a set of holistic measures, ranging from pay parity to more formal recognition of work done by women.

      Education-Employment Trade-Off
      There is a U-shaped pattern between increasing numbers of rural women getting access to education and still not joining the paid workforce. Mehta of IWWAGE explains that the majority of women are unpaid workers who assist with household enterprises or agricultural work, and the ones in non-public casual work are often engaged in precarious or vulnerable jobs. The women who get educated seek careers outside of these sectors, but are constrained by the lack of availability of jobs that would be commensurate to their education.

      “Rural women also want part-time jobs so that they are able to accommodate their household chores. Those kinds of roles are not available across geographies at the district level. So, women end up taking odd jobs in the informal sector, because flexible options in the formal sector are just not created in rural India,” she says.

      While women are usually restricted from migrating to nearby towns and cities to access skill training and jobs, the government can create support infrastructure to help them access these opportunities, adds Kanika Kingra, senior policy and advocacy manager at IWWAGE. “This would include hostels for girls, tackling issues around mobility and safety, creating creches and child care centres,” she says.

      Gulati points out that even as the majority of rural women are engaged in agriculture, they often do not get access to credit facilities, subsidies or even agricultural tools because of lack of asset ownership. “Most of the land is registered in the name of male farmers,” she says. According to an Indiaspend report in 2019, only 13 percent of women own the land they till.

      The government, on its part, is banking heavily on organising women into SHGs to empower them. “Community-building is essential to helping women get the confidence to step out of their homes and work. The National Rural Livelihoods Mission [NRLM] has mobilised about 6.8 crore women with a capitalisation support of ₹10,200 crore so far,” says Alka Upadhyay, additional secretary, Union Ministry of Rural Development. Cultivating community leaders would also help the government reach the most marginalised people effectively, believes Nikita Wadhwa, programme coordinator for Collective Impact Partnership, an initiative that supports local women who undertake leadership roles by helping others in their community. “They work closely with decision makers to ensure that women can access government schemes and policies meant to empower them, and work to address systemic barriers and gaps,” she says.

      Kumaribai Jamakatan, 51, is one such tribal woman from Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra. Women in the area depend mostly on selling mahua flowers, or forest produce like tendu leaves and bamboo. While the latter could not be carried out during the lockdown, the market price for mahua fell from ₹30 per kg to ₹15 or ₹18 per kg. “This caused a lot of mental anguish as many women did not even have money to run their households. So I ensured that I connected with them regularly to address their issues, and make them aware of all the social security benefits they can avail, be it free gas cylinders under the Ujjwala Yojana, or ₹500 in their Jan Dhan accounts,” she says. “The SHGs are not able to meet and training sessions have stopped, but we women ensure we keep each other’s morale high.”

      Women who run their own enterprises in villages barely earn half the revenue as their male counterparts, Mehta of IWWAGE says. “She does not make enough because she does not have networks to connect to markets or access information on products, training etc,” she says. “There needs to be marketability around what these MSMEs are creating. Governments can be encouraged to make a certain proportion of their procurement through women-led enterprises.”

      Abraham of APU agrees that government support to decentralised community institutions can empower women socially and economically. “Kerala, for example, provides extensive credit to women-led businesses under Kudumbashree [community organisation of neighbourhood groups]. Other states could look at creating similar channels to provide more funding and resources to rural women entrepreneurs,” she says. In its 2020-21 budgetary outlay, Kerala earmarked ₹1,509 crore for women-related programmes. This was 7.3 percent of the overall budget, an increase from 4 percent the previous year. It is under Kudumbashree that Jayashree (who uses only her first name) found a livelihood with a steady income, along with 25 other women, at an apparel park established with the help of the Nedumpana gram panchayat in the Kollam district of Kerala. Initially, they ran into losses to the tune of ₹3.5 lakh because of low margins, difficulty in marketing their products and delays in payments. Then, three years ago, the government supported them with procurement orders for stitching uniforms for the Kochi Metro and the state lotteries department, apart from orders from state hospitals. “The government orders helped each of us get a stable income of up to ₹15,000 per month,” she says.

      During Covid-19, the women set up sewing machines at home and stitched over 1 lakh masks each for gram panchayats and government departments, and another 1 lakh for the Karunya Community Pharmacy, the state-run retail chain that provides medicines at affordable prices. Jayashree explains that the women are paid per unit of clothing they stitch, and each of them was able to earn at least ₹30,000 through these Covid-19-related orders. “We never say no to any job order that comes our way. Even if we cannot do it ourselves, we pass it on to the smaller women-run stitching units so that they also earn a livelihood,” she says. “Women must help each other.”

      Playing to the Strengths
      The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the government’s flagship rural jobs programme that provides 100 days of work per household with minimum wages, has allayed the job distress for many migrant workers. Experts suggest that job cards can be provided to more women under this scheme so that they do not lose out on work in a competitive labour market that now includes returning migrants. Abraham of APU says that lessons from MGNREGA can be applied to other sectors predominantly employing rural women, including the health sector. For one, the jobs programme has equal wages for men and women. Otherwise, the wage disparity between men and women in rural areas is steep, where women’s incomes could be as low as half as that of men.

      “The MGNREGA has also streamlined payments through post office and bank accounts, although there are still delays in compensation,” Abraham says. “Some of these best practices could be adopted with respect to anganwadi and Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs), where the money often does not trickle down to the grassroots.”

      Chinmayee Barik, a nurse with the medical mobile unit of the Tata Steel Rural Development Society in Jajpur district of Odisha, says ASHAs have been at the frontline of collecting data on Covid-19 response and tracking migrants, which is then processed by her team. “Their responsibilities have increased two-fold, and they are at a health risk, but are paid a meagre ₹6,000 per month. They need to be compensated properly,” she says. Kingra of IWWAGE says the government must refocus on its strengths in the care economy and formalise the employment of the millions of ASHA and anganwadi workers. “In the Covid-19 context, the demand for such workers has increased. They should be recognised as part of the formal workforce with competitive wages and incentives like health insurance.”

      Abraham suggests that the government could invest in social security in the form of universal basic services in the health and education sectors, which employ a lot of rural women. This, she says, will have “multiplier effects in the economy, whether it is building up health or school infrastructure. So these sectors could absorb more women”.

      She also points out that it is important to understand a typical woman’s work day and the metrics of measurement should not overlook the different forms of care work. “If we have to assess women’s participation in the economy, domestic work could be statistically taken into consideration.”

      This article was published in CNBC 18 and you can access the article here.