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Roundtable SHGs for Women’s Economic Empowerment
Roundtable: SHGs for Women’s Economic Empowerment

The Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE), through its Centre of Excellence on Women’s Empowerment Collectives, organized a breakfast roundtable on “SHG Federations for Women’s Economic Empowerment: Setting a New Agenda” on December 11, 2018 in New Delhi.

The discussions revolved around the following thematic areas :

  • The Role of SHGs in Women’s Economic Empowerment (Doing away with Financing Barriers)
  • Enterprise Promotion for SHGs: Current Gaps and Successful Models
IWWAGE 1st Bimonthly Seminar
IWWAGE 1st Bimonthly Seminar

Home Production, Technology and Women’s Time Allocation in India

Dr Farzana Afridi, Associate Professor, Economics and Planning Unit, Indian Statistical Institute

The talk focused on documenting trends in women’s time allocation between market, home production and leisure. It highlighted the possible role of technology in reducing the time allocated to domestic work by women and potentially improving their health.

The discussion was held on May 17, 2019 in New Delhi.

IWWAGE 2nd Bimonthly Seminar
IWWAGE 2nd Bimonthly Seminar

IWWAGE is hosting a seminar on (In)Visibility, Care and Cultural Barriers: The Size and Shape of Women’s Work in India, by Ashwini Deshpande, Professor of Economics, Ashoka University.

The talk will focus on the reasons underlying low labour force participation of women in India based on a recent study. The study discusses the interlinked complexities of women’s choice, constraints posed by domestic work and care responsibilities, and the predominant understanding of cultural norms as factors explaining the low labour force participation as measured by involvement in paid work.It addresses aspects of mis-measurement of women’s work due to the fuzziness of boundaries between domestic work and unpaid (and therefore invisible) economic work. The study also highlights the extent of women’s unmet demands for work.


(In)Visibility, Care and Cultural Barriers: The Size and Shape of Women’s Work in India_Ashwini Deshpande

Impact of World Bank’s Adolescent Girls Initiative
IWWAGE 3rd Bimonthly Seminar

Impact of World Bank’s Adolescent Girls Initiative (AGI) on the socio-economic status of young African Women

Shubha Chakravarty, Senior Economist in the World Bank’s Social Protection and Jobs Practice in South Asia

Young women are a key demographic with the potential to transform gender relations and contribute to economic growth and development. Many programs in low-income countries offer evidence to economically empower young women, however, the scale of these are often limited. In this context, the talk highlighted evidence from a set of World Bank-supported projects in seven low-income countries in Africa under the Adolescent Girls Initiative for scaling up of women’s empowerment programs and the consequent socio-economic impact. The talk put light on competing models and the “best practice” for young women’s economic empowerment, and scaling up of similar programs in India and West Africa.
The discussion was held on October 30, 2019 in New Delhi.


The Adolescent Girls Initiative 2008-14 Global Results

women and girls conducted by the LBSNAA
IWWAGE supports a series of workshops on addressing violence against women and girls conducted by the LBSNAA

IWWAGE partnered with the National Gender Centre at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA) to support a series of workshops on multi-agency coordination to address violence against women and children. The first among a series of three workshops was organised on 19-21 December,2019 at the academy in Mussoorie, Uttarakhand. The workshop brought together officials serving in the field of administration, law enforcement, judiciary and medical services, and those who have been engaged in investigating and prosecuting cases of violence against women and children. The three-day workshop included sessions on intersectionality of gender, legal scenario and current context in India, understanding violence from a victim’s perspectives, and institutional mechanisms that exist to prosecute cases of violence, including group work on several case studies that dealt with such cases.


Capacity Building Program in Tackling Violence against Women and Children in India

Empowering women through digital innovations

Women’s Self-Help Groups (SHGs) are an important and effective tool to promote women’s empowerment, social mobilisation, and financial inclusion in rural India. More recently, an increasingly large number of digital tools have been emerging, holding the promise of accelerating women’s empowerment, enhancing the efficacy of existing initiatives, providing avenues to improve knowledge, and creating new opportunities for women to connect and share information.

Initiative to What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE) is exploring whether and to what extent digital innovations can be used to support SHGs and their federations to connect with each other, layer and bundle services, and promote women’s social and economic empowerment.

In Chhattisgarh, IWWAGE is working with the State Rural Livelihood Mission, Bihan, to promote the implementation of digital innovations for women’s empowerment in the state, understand their effectiveness, and identify potential opportunities for improvement. Specifically, IWWAGE is supporting three distinct, but interrelated initiatives, which complement and reinforce each other.

The first one of them is Haqdarshak, a mobile application or tech-based platform that provides a ready reference of more than two hundred central and state government welfare schemes and programs, the benefits promised, related eligibility criteria including the documents required, and the application process. The app can be used by the SHG women to make door-to-door visits to help citizens discover and apply for schemes in return of a small fee. With this project, IWWAGE aims at training five thousand women (Haqdarshikas) across four districts in Chhattisgarh on the app usage, who can then enroll citizens in schemes. The objective of this initiative is two-fold: first, to increase the social and economic empowerment of SHG members who can take up work as Haqdarshikas, and second, to promote the uptake of government entitlements for the last mile. This intervention can present some important learning opportunities, which IWWAGE is capturing through a rigorous impact and process evaluation. Results from this evaluation will help shed light on the effectiveness of technology-enhanced agent-based models to promote the uptake of government schemes in rural areas, the sustainability of such models to generate livelihood opportunities, and their cost-effectiveness.

A critical success factor for the Haqdarshak model is that technology, when paired with the extensive field presence of SHGs, creates synergies that support the effective dissemination of information and awareness of government schemes and entitlements. This applies not only to the Haqdarshak model, but to other development interventions based on digital solutions. To unpack how information may be shared more effectively using the digital medium, IWWAGE is funding a study to understand information flows within SHGs and the role of technology for furthering such flows. IWWAGE is supporting a group of researchers from Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) to map how information flows among SHG members offline, during SHG meetings, and online, for example through social media interactions. Comparing offline and online interactions in the same group will throw light on the transformative role that technology can play in shaping interactions among women living in rural areas.

Preliminary scoping exercises for the two studies outlined above, indicate that while significant progress has been made on digital literacy, many rural women still struggle to use smartphones effectively. Time and time again practice and experience have proven to be the best way to learn. This is why IWWAGE is supporting a study, which is also being conducted by EPoD, to understand whether encouraging women to use smartphones through a digital use case will have an impact on digital literacy and the use of smartphones by women. The tool being employed for this purpose is Mor Awaaz, a service that communicates information to women about good health practices and government services via “push” and pull phone calls. Through the evaluation of this instrument, the study will also aim to understand the impact of women’s engagement with phones on the shape of their networks and their participation in collectives.

While there is reason to be optimistic about the potential of these solutions, there remain obstacles and challenges to ensure that the benefits from these tools are truly inclusive and sustainable. Besides obvious technical issues, such as the reach and reliability of phone networks, the penetration of mobile phones remains a concern. In rural areas, women often share smartphones with other family members, which might reduce the impact of interventions relying on technology. More importantly, as smartphone ownership and access are more concentrated among women who already have a higher social and economic status in their communities, these interventions might end up empowering the already, relatively, empowered, potentially widening inequalities and failing to be truly inclusive.  While being cognizant of these risks, one might hypothesize that benefits will spillover from the digital enabled women to other women in their social network. Over time and with smartphones becoming more and more prevalent, technology enabled solutions will fulfill their promise of democratising access to information and opportunities. IWWAGE is fully committed to work with its public, private, and civil society partners to build evidence to answer this question, which is of outmost importance to understand the real impact that technology can bring to increase the social and economic empowerment of women in India and beyond.

Fabrizio Valenti works as Head, Financial Inclusion, LEAD at Krea University. This piece draws from the ongoing work at IWWAGE to explore the transformative potential of digital solutions for women’s empowerment collectives in Chhattisgarh.

Stark reality of the self-employed

For all of independent India’s recorded history, a majority of the workforce in the country has been self-employed. However, it is only in the past few years that self-employment has been touted as an answer to India’s employment challenge.

India’s previous (interim) finance minister, Piyush Goyal, even claimed that job losses are a good sign, as today’s youth prefer to be job creators rather than job seekers.

Till the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) of 2017-18, official employment data did not capture earnings of the self-employed. The PLFS for the first time has captured such earnings and the picture isn’t pretty. Most of India’s self-employed are not job creators, contrary to claims made by several ministers over the past few years, and have poor earnings.

As much as 70% of the self-employed were own account workers, an official categorization of self-employed workers who run their own establishment or enterprise (with or without partners) without hiring any worker, while 26% were unpaid helpers who assist household members in running their enterprise, but do not receive any regular wage or salary. Only 4% of the self-employed were employers (who run their enterprise by hiring workers).

The latest data has a silver lining though. Between 2011-12 and 2017-18, there was a rise in the share of own account workers (7.3 percentage points) and employers (1 percentage point) among the self-employed and a fall in the share of unpaid helpers, which can be considered a positive development. To ensure comparability with the earlier survey, only the data from the first visit of the PLFS has been used here.

A majority of the self-employed (60%) were engaged in agriculture. Most of those engaged in non-agricultural activities were in trade, manufacturing, transport and storage.

The data showed that motor vehicle drivers were among the better-paid workers within the self-employed with median reported earnings of 10,000. This includes Uber and Ola drivers, who are captured in official statistics, contrary to what some NITI Aayog officials believe.

The median reported earnings of astrologers and fortune-tellers ( 8,000) was lower than that of drivers but higher than that of food processing workers ( 2,500), textiles and garments workers ( 5,500), and street vendors ( 7,000). It is worth noting that these earnings are self-reported and hence may suffer from under-reporting.


The median reported earnings of own-account workers was 8,000 per month, while that of employers was almost double at 15,000.

However, as noted earlier, employers constitute a very small proportion of the self-employed. The median monthly earnings for all self-employed workers was 8,000. This is lower than the median earnings of regular workers in the country.

Only about 10% of the self-employed reported earnings more than 20,000 per month and only about 1% reported earnings more than 50,000 per month.

Median earnings from self-employment was 1.5 times higher in urban areas than in rural. More striking is the gender earnings gap in self-employment—the median earnings of men was 2.5 times higher than that of women.

The median monthly earnings of self-employed women was 3,000 in rural areas and 4,000 in urban areas. This was lower than the earnings of casual women workers in both these areas. A whopping 65% of women engaged in self-employment earned less than 5,000 per month, and 90% had monthly earnings of less than 10,000.

This is partly driven by the skewed gender pattern of self-employment. The categories of own account workers and employers, who are largely responsible for decision making, were dominated by men whereas women were a majority among unpaid helpers.

The share of the self-employed in the workforce remained stagnant between 2011-12 and 2017-18 at 52.2%, the data showed. However, the workforce itself shrank over this period, and the share of the self-employed in the total population declined by 2 percentage points. Among major states, the shares of the self-employed in the workforce was high among some of India’s poorest states: Chhattisgarh (66%), Rajasthan (65%), Uttar Pradesh (64%), and Jharkhand (61%).

In contrast, the shares of the self-employed were relatively lower in some of India’s most prosperous states: Tamil Nadu (33%), Kerala (38%), Haryana (44%), and Andhra Pradesh (45%).

Most self-employed enterprises (89%) were small ones, with less than six workers (hired or family members). Only about 3% of enterprises had more than 10 workers.

On the whole, more than half of Indian workers are engaged in self-employment and most of these self-employed workers operate on a very small scale without hiring workers or as unpaid helpers in their family enterprises.

The average reported earnings of the self-employed, particularly the women among them, is extremely low. This large section of the workforce is also bereft of job security.

The data shows that India’s self-employed are a precarious and vulnerable lot. The job creators among the self-employed are few and far between.

Ishan Anand teaches at Ambedkar University Delhi, and Anjana Thampi was a researcher at IWWAGE, LEAD at Krea University.

Disclaimer: This blog first appeared as an article in The Mint on 01 October 2019.

Women’s work participation continues to decline: Evidence from the Periodic Labour Force Survey, 2017-18

The recently released Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) – a new series of employment-unemployment estimates for 2017-18 produced by the NSSO that substituted the erstwhile Employment-Unemployment surveys (EUS) – clearly reveals that the declining trends in work participation rates of women continue to persist. Some of the PLFS estimates were available through a data leak in the media before the report was officially released by the government, and were mired in controversies of reliability as well as comparability with the previous EUS series. However, the recent release of the report by the government and deliberations on it by experts (such as Dr. Pronab Sen, former and the first Chief Statistician of India) clearly tell us two important facts: a) the headline indicators provided by the PLFS are comparable with the previous rounds of the EUS not only at the all-India level but also at the level of the states; and b) it follows that women’s work participation rates continue to decline for both rural and urban areas.

The report provides important trends on some of the important labour market indicators. Among the employment indicators, the one that attracted attention even before the report was officially released[1] was the unemployment rate – at 6.1 percent, this rate was at its highest since at least 1972–73 (when the NSS EUS was first conducted). The overall labour force participation rate[2] (LFPR) was just below 50 per cent in 2017-18, declining by about 14 percentage points from 2004-05.

Much has been discussed about the low and declining female labour force participation rate (FLFPR) in India, and multiple explanations advanced towards explaining this trend, such as increased education levels among women, rising household income (income effect), measurement issues (substantially higher proportion of women attending to domestic duties) and a general decline in the employment opportunities for women (Mehrotra and Sinha, 2017; Klasen and Pieters, 2015; Chaudhary and Verick, 2014; Kapsos et al., 2014; Lahoti and Swaminathan, 2013; Mazumdar and Neetha, 2011). As stated in the latest PLFS report, the trend has in fact worsened for rural women since 2011-12, with the FLFPR coming down to  25 percent in 2017-18[3], whereas for urban women, the rate has remained the same at about 20 percent (though most of the decline occurred between 2004-05 to 2009-10). But unemployment rate for urban women has substantially increased from 5 percent in 2011-12 to 11 percent in 2017-18 (Figure 1). Also, the labour force participation rate came down significantly for the (15-29) age group, relative to the other age cohorts. As is reported in the PLFS report, the decline was greater for young men compared to young women, which points to the prevailing job crisis in the Indian labour market, more so for educated young people.

Figure 1: Key labour market indicators for men and women across rural and urban areas, 15+ years, usual status (ps+ss), (2004-05 to 2017-18)

1.Labour force participation rate (%)


2. Workforce participation rate (%)

3. Unemployment rate (%)

Source: PLFS Annual report, MoSPI, GoI, 2019

Note: ps: principal status; ss: subsidiary status

Additionally, rural women’s labour force participation rate declined by as much as 25 percentage points between 2004-05 and 2017-18. As a result, the rural FLFPR – which was double the urban FLFPR in 2004-05 – is now only a little higher than the urban FLFPR. What’s even more striking is that the FLFPR for young rural women aged (15 – 29) years has declined so sharply that it is now lower than the FLFPR for urban women in the same age group (Figure 2). The decline in FLFPR is mostly driven by rural areas, and therefore calls for a deeper analysis of the situation behind this trend.

Figure 2: Women’s labour force participation rate (%) by age cohorts

Source: PLFS Annual report, MoSPI, GoI, 2019

Apart from the disturbing trends outlined above, a positive development in women’s employment is seen in the case of regular salaried employment since 2011-12, as their proportion has increased significantly across both rural and urban areas, albeit more so in case of urban women (and very few women work as regular salaried workers in rural areas) (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Composition of the women workforce in rural and urban areas (%), all ages

Source: PLFS Annual report, MoSPI, GoI, 2019

However as can be seen from Table 1, self-employment is massive for rural women (58 percent), followed by casual labour (32 percent) and regular salaried (10.5 percent). It is important to analyse the characteristics of rural self-employed women workers, as a majority of them work as contributing family workers/unpaid helpers in family enterprises (39 percent), compared to only 10 percent of the men (there are significantly higher proportions of own-account workers and employers among men, across both rural and urban areas). These unpaid family workers contribute to the production economy without receiving any income/wages in return, and are more likely to lack decent working conditions, adequate social protection, and formal work arrangements. Therefore, this puts women in vulnerable situations, and has larger implications for reducing gender inequality.

Table 1: Percentage distribution of workers by status in employment, usual status, all ages, 2017-18

Category Rural Urban
Men Women Men Women
Own-account worker and employer 48.0 19.0 34.9 23.7
Helper in household enterprise 9.8 38.7 4.3 11.0
All self-employed 57.8 57.7 39.2 34.7
Regular wage salaried 14.0 10.5 45.7 52.1
Casual labour 28.2 31.8 15.1 13.2
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0

Source: PLFS Annual report, MoSPI, GoI, 2019

Besides, if we look at the industrial distribution of women workers across rural and urban areas, it would highlight the importance of manufacturing and other services sector (namely, financial, insurance and real estate activities, health and education, and other services) (Table 2). This latter category includes domestic workers (maids, cooks, babysitters, and so on), women in beauty and wellness service activities, and workers in call centres. But domestic work is one segment which grew relatively faster over the last two decades, due to increased demand from middle-income families in the urban areas. These domestic workers are mostly uneducated or less educated migrants from poor rural areas, and in most cases their working and living conditions are alarming.

Table 2: Industrial distribution of women workers across location (%), usual status, all ages

Category EUS 68th (2011-12) PLFS (2017-18)
Rural Urban Rural Urban
Agriculture 74.9 10.9 73.2 9.1
Mining & quarrying 0.3 0.3 0.2 0.2
Manufacturing 9.8 28.7 8.1 25.2
Electricity, water, etc. 0.1 1.0 0.0 0.6
Construction 6.6 4.0 5.3 4.1
Trade, hotel & restaurant 3.0 12.8 4.0 13.0
Transport, storage & communications 0.2 2.7 0.3 3.3
Other services 5.2 39.6 8.9 44.4
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0

Source: PLFS Annual report, MoSPI, GoI, 2019

Furthermore, since more than 90 per cent of workers in India are informally employed, and its critical to assess the different components which are indicative of this phenomenon. If we examine the different dimensions of informality, we notice that the proportions of regular wage/salaried women who did not have any written contract has increased since 2011-12 (67 percent in 2017-18, compared to 65 percent in 2011-12). And the situation is more alarming in case of urban women, of whom more than 70 percent did not have a written job contract in 2017-18. Moreover, half of the total non-agricultural regular salaried workforce did not have any social security benefits (55 percent of rural women and 50 percent of urban women) in 2017-18. This raises concerns over the quality of regular work that is being created and thus the increases mentioned previously, in this category needs to be viewed with caution.

The PLFS clearly shows that fewer women are participating in paid market activities, and even when they do join the labour market, they end up in informal jobs, working mostly as unpaid family workers, or as regular salaried workers without job security or social security. Policies should be framed based on the emerging trends and focusing on the overall employment crisis. They should be able to address the constraints faced by women, and enable women to participate in the labour market in large numbers, and particularly in formal productive employment which gets them decent livelihood opportunities.

[1] https://www.business-standard.com/article/economy-policy/unemployment-rate-at-five-decade-high-of-6-1-in-2017-18-nsso-survey-119013100053_1.html

[2] People who are recorded as either ‘working’ or ‘seeking or available for work’ comprise the labour force.

[3] It is surprising to note that the proportion of women attending to domestic duties and allied activities also came down in 2017-18, relative to previous NSS rounds. This requires detailed analysis as the increased proportion of women in this category was cited as one of the reasons for the earlier decline in their participation rates.

33% of India’s skilled youth jobless: official survey

Reiterating the government’s commitment to the ‘Skill India’ initiative in her maiden budget speech, India’s finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman claimed that the government is enabling millions to take up industry-relevant skill training, boosting their job prospects.

An analysis of the unit-level data from the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) 2017-18 however suggests that the reality is far more grim. Only a small section of the youth reported receiving any vocational training, and a large share of them were either unemployed or out of the labour force, the data shows.

Nationally, only 1.8% of the population reported receiving formal vocational/technical training in 2017-18. 5.6% reported receiving informal vocational training (such as hereditary, self-learning, and on the job training). This means 93% of the population did not receive any vocational/technical training from either formal or informal sources.

The youth (15-29 years) comprised more than half of the people who received formal vocational/technical training.

One would imagine that the young population with ‘industry-relevant’ formal vocational training would have better job prospects. But about 42% of the youth (15-29 years) who received formal technical training were not part of the labour force at all (i.e., they were not working or seeking employment opportunities, they reported). Among youth who did not receive such training, 62.3% were out of the labour force. Across age groups, substantial shares of the women who received such training were out of the labour force.

One reason why such a large section of ‘skilled’ workers were out of the labour force could be the difficulty in finding a job. Around 33% of the formally trained youth was unemployed in 2017-18. Nearly a third of trained young men and more than a third of trained young women were unemployed.

The unemployment rate among freshly trained youth, who completed training during the previous year, was even higher at 40%. With these high unemployment rates, it is likely that many young men and women have moved out of the labour force altogether after a fruitless job search.

What kind of training is the young population receiving? The PLFS collected data on fields of training, which are categorised under 22 heads. The bulk of the trainees were in the fields of electronics, IT/ ITeS sector, apparels, and mechanical engineering.

Men and women received starkly different kinds of training, reinforcing the segregation of the labour market. More than 80% of the trainees in the fields of agriculture & food processing, telecom, media & mass communication were men. The fields of beauty & wellness, apparel, handicrafts, hospitality and healthcare were dominated by women.

A year after being elected Prime Minister for the first time, Narendra Modi launched the Skill India initiative with much fanfare in 2015. The key flagship scheme under the initiative, the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY) was supposed to impart skills free of cost to 10 million youth to help them secure better livelihoods.

That all was not well with the programme was apparent as early as 2017 when a government-appointed committee led by Sharda Prasad found that the targets under the programme were too ambitious, and funds spent on the programme were not subject to adequate monitoring. The PLFS data only confirms the warnings issued in that report, and indicates that the programme needs to be completely overhauled if ‘Skill India’ is to mean something more than a mere buzzword.

Although the PMKVY aims to provide training free of cost, most of the youth who have received formal training have had to bear the cost of training, the PLFS data shows. Only 16 percent of the youth who received formal training were funded by the government. Around 73% of the trainees underwent full-time training. The training period for more than half of the youth exceeded a year, and about 30% underwent training for more than two years.

On the whole, most youth remain outside the ambit of formal training, and many of those who undergo months of vocational training at their own cost remain jobless.

The decline in budgetary allocations for PMKVY suggests that the government itself is not convinced that the scheme is working well.

But does the government have an alternative plan? Sitharaman’s budget speech at least gave no indication that the government has a credible plan to address India’s unemployment challenge.

This is the concluding part of a two-part data journalism series on jobs in India. The first part (https://www.livemint.com/politics/policy/most-regular-jobs-in-india-don-t-pay-well-plfs-1565075309032.html) examined the earnings of regular workers in the country.

Ishan Anand teaches at Ambedkar University Delhi, and Anjana Thampi was a researcher at the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE) at IFMR LEAD, New Delhi.

Disclaimer: This blog first appeared as an article in The Mint on 07 August 2019.