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Need for Evidence on Skilling in India

In recent years, India’s demographic dividend has sparked scrupulous policy actions to increase its labour force participation. With India having the largest youth population in the world, the government aims to empower the youth using the ‘4E approach’ (Education, Employment, Entrepreneurship, and Excellence). The strengthened emphasis on the aforementioned pillars is inclusive of skill development and has therefore generated a renewed buzz around it. Skill development is increasingly considered a key stepping stone not just towards enhancing India’s overall labour force participation, but especially for the economic upliftment of a pertinent group of beneficiaries, women.

ILO’s Global Employment Trends (2013) rank India 120th out of 131 countries in female labour force participation. The Periodic Labour Force Survey 2020-21 reports that only 34 per cent of females within the working age group are employed. Skilling is looked upon as one of the solutions to the problem. This blog argues that good quality data is a prerequisite to assess the effectiveness and gendered outcomes of skilling programs running across the country.

If we were to google the terms “skill”, “India” and “women” today, approximately all search results would point towards and encourage the importance of skill development for women’s economic empowerment. Even though skill development programmes have existed for decades, they have found a recent push to generate and ensure improved work opportunities for the heightened employable population of the country.  Budget 2023-24 also prioritized funding for the launch of the national flagship programme on skill development: Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY) 4.0, which, in lieu of the rising technological advancements, aims to promote skilling in new-age courses like 3D printing, robotics, AI etc.

Several skill development programmes are running across the country, which are differentiated on the basis of their funding sources, policy-making, and implementation bodies, etc. Guided by the National Policy on Skill Development (2015), various schemes are run by the state such as the aforementioned PMKVY, Deen Dayal Upadhyay Grameen Kaushal Yojana (DDUGKY), Jan Shikshan Sansthan (JSS), and National Apprenticeship Promotion Scheme (NAPS). The central body that coordinates all possible skill development efforts across the country is the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship (MSDE), accompanied by its various facilitating bodies. The Ministry was launched in 2015 to improve the link between the demand and supply of skilled workforce and further build the vocational and technical training framework.

Among various facilitators for skilling schemes, National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) was set up to help generate funding through Public-Private-Partnerships (PPP). Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds have also driven towards skill development for women.

With such a range of policy intentions and the subsequent programmatic actions towards skilling for women, it is important to gauge how they have impacted women’s engagement in the labour market. The cardinal focus could be to understand how far the extensive skilling ecosystem has upskilled and led women towards being sustained labour force participants, what works for them within these skilling programmes, and what challenges continue to exist that require redevelopment.

According to the Skill India Reporting Hub, the administrative data on the overall implementation of PMKVY portrays that out of more than 60 lakh women enrolled for the scheme, less than one-fifth ended up getting placed. This stark difference between enrollment and placement highlights the need to understand and inspect the skilling process in India. Just like any other social development program, gender sensitivity is also pertinent to the skilling process- wherein, challenges specific to women exist, in addition to overall hurdles with respect to the existing labour supply and market demand.

Gender sensitivity in skilling programs goes on to but is not limited to, recognizing differential needs, building improved support systems, generating disaggregated information, and taking further action based on continued reflection and feedback. Setting up of 5000 new Skill Hubs all across India to further the efforts of Skill India, and “provide comprehensive vocational and skilling training” was highlighted during Budget 2023-24. However, how these hubs will undertake efforts to increase enrolment and retention of women candidates is yet to be seen.

The state-led skilling schemes do undertake measures for increasing women’s participation through reservation, running women-only Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs), and providing stipends for travel and residence. However, the statistics suggest the need to go beyond them. There is a need to reflect, regroup and renew our actions to make the continued efforts towards skilling more effective.

It is arduous to delve deeper into the challenges that surround the skilling of women in India due to limited data availability. Administrative data on state-led skilling programs is available through the following portals: Skill India Reporting Hub, NCVT MIS, PMKVY Dashboard, NRLM (on DDUGKY), MSDE dashboard, and NSDC. The data shared through these portals vary with respect to the indicators they contain, and are often not consistently updated or are sparsely filled. The most desolating fact within these available portals is that only a few provide sex-disaggregated information. Even when examined at the state level, only a  few states (Assam and Bihar) provide sex-disaggregated information on their MIS administrative portals on skilling. This is accompanied by a lack of information on process indicators – where ‘enrolment of candidates’ is the consistent measurable indicator, with information lacking on other process indicators such as completion of training, certification, placement, etc. Therefore, the need of the hour is to first build information systems that would help monitor the track we are on before we pace up our actions.

Further, the data on post-placement bifurcation, including employment type, retention rates, etc., is also publicly unavailable. Information on PPP and the role of the private sector in the skilling ecosystem are also not amalgamated within these portals. Data on efforts added by such non-state actors to skill the present population are also almost completely lacking.

The Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) is one of the nationally representative surveys that collect primary data on India’s labour force participation, which also happens to include some indicators on the state of skilling in India. Apart from the sparse information obtained through PLFS on skilling, the assessment of the effectiveness of the skilling ecosystem in India is predominantly seen in micro studies. Though it is found that skilling enables women to join the labour force, many studies report challenges that vary depending on the different stages of the skilling process – from the generation of policies, and release of programs or schemes to their uptake, operation, and finally, their contribution to the existing labour force.

The literature further reports that the participation and uptake of women within these programs are deeply affected by societal norms which control their educational status, decision-making, mobility, and access to information and technology.  Importantly, these barriers also encompass how skilling programs are rolled out. For example, the introduction of courses under PMKVY for a ‘digital India’ in lieu of technological advancements would also require taking cognizance of the existing gender differential access to technology.

Therefore, robust evidence generation is pertinent for the skilling programs to identify challenges, improve and run effectively. Such an effort may help track changes in female labour force participation through skilling. However, to further help improve women’s overall well-being and standard of living, access to quality jobs with improved working conditions is necessary. It is essential therefore to track where the women tend to get employed, the sectors they are employed in, and the working conditions they are exposed to by uniting the broad skilling ecosystem in India. Developing such a system would require a holistic approach towards skilling which ensures synergy between policy-making, funding, and implementing bodies. The MSDE could act as a body that oversees these processes and puts into place an accountability mechanism.

Though skilling may prove to be an essential factor in helping more women join the Indian workforce, a meaningful policy dialogue on the subject will only be  possible with the support of enhanced quality of data. This will not only be possible through  cogent data collection, but also making existing data more accessible to development practitioners and policymakers. Such intersectional data can lead to meticulous future actions to address gender inequality and can act as an essential driver of economic growth and prosperity. But most importantly, aid in uplifting individual rights and empowerment.

Prakriti Sharma is a Senior Research Associate at IWWAGE, and has previously worked in the intersection of migration and feminist economics. She is currently engaged in visiblizing women’s work through its improved measurement.

Safe mobility: A way to empower women

Gender-aware transport systems, key to women’s economic empowerment

A country’s progress is defined not just by economic growth, but also by the improved living standards and wellbeing of all citizens. Within the ambit of fundamental human rights, the right to free movement is very crucial and can be achieved only through provisioning of safe mobility for all irrespective of their social identity. Simply put, this means that everyone should have the freedom to travel and access public spaces without feeling the threat of any form of violence.

India is rapidly urbanizing and cities come with the promise of economic growth and prosperity. However, due to lack of gender sensitive urban infrastructure planning, men and women have starkly different experience of the city. This is true even in the case of the urban transport sector which does not always cater to the needs to women passengers. Strengthening this argument further, a work in progress at IWWAGE finds that one of the factors adversely affecting female workforce participation is the unavailability of safe and affordable modes of transportation. It is crucial to bridge this gap because absence of reliable transportation options reduces women’s career prospects, reinforces poverty, and further exacerbates inequality.

The three major elements which influence women’s mobility and accessibility are cost, personal security, time poverty, as well as cultural perceptions and spatial location. According to a recent ITF study, women are more likely than men to use public transportation globally because they lack access to private vehicles and moreover they are even more susceptible to assault in public areas. The ‘safety’ and ‘security’ of transportation are the main determinants of women’s mobility behaviors and choices. An ILO study stated that women’s capacity to participate in paid work is positively correlated with transportation-related infrastructure and services. Women have more bargaining power over their mobility within the household when they have access to affordable and safe transportation. Before and during the pandemic, ORF conducted a survey of 4262 women from 140 Indian cities to determine the effect of safety concerns on women’s mobility over a ten-month period. It was found that about half of the women (around 56%) believed that public transportation is unsafe and about the same number has experienced sexual harassment while using a public transportation system. Moreover, 52 percent of women had turned down an opportunity for education or employment because of risky transportation.

Continuing the earlier point, Girija Borker’s study revealed that women have a significantly higher trade-off when choosing a college as compared to male students. Borker found that women are more likely to choose a college that is 25 percentage points lower in the quality distribution, for a route that is deemed to be safer as compared to men, who are willing to attend a college that is 5 percentage points lower in the quality distribution for a similar safer route. Choosing lower rung colleges adversely affects employment prospects and placement salaries, which further perpetuate the gender disparity in the job market. In addition, women have to bear ‘pink tax,’ a term used to elucidate the extra amount paid by women for safety and they typically spend INR 18,800 more per year on commuting compared to their male counterparts for a route that is safer, which aggravates the economic hardship and decline in female labor force participation.

On a global level, several steps have been taken to provide safe mobility for women. For instance, in 2015 in the pursuit to make public transport safe for females in Papua New Guinea, a ‘Meri Seif Bus’ has been offered as part of the ‘Safe Public Transport for Women and Children Programme’ with tracking systems and three uniformed bus crews for a safe mobility. Similarly, other countries like Tokyo in Japan, Malaysia, Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and Jakarta in Indonesia among others have started women dedicated coaches in bus or trains for ensuring safety and prevention of sexual harassment against women.

In the Indian context, the Delhi government in 2019 made DTC bus rides free for women passengers in order to combat the safety issues. It aimed to encourage females to use public transport. In terms of equality, affordability, and convenience, providing women free bus trips in Delhi is a significant advancement. Free bus fares for women make transit more accessible to Delhi’s female population, reducing their financial burden. This provision contributes to closing the gender gap in transportation access, making it easier for women to reach their destinations with more ease and safety. The state economic survey reports that the number of female passengers availing free rides has climbed from 193.2 million to 217.1 million from 2019-20 to 2020-21. In 2021-22, more than 30 million women have availed free bus rides despite COVID restrictions. If we carefully evaluate the scheme, we can see that it ticks the pricing and accessibility boxes but might be neglecting the safety issue, which still remains a major concern. It is undeniable that it provides women with greater protection than walking or taking autorickshaws. However, there is a need to strengthen this effort by taking measures for improved safety so as to meet its initial goal of providing secure and affordable transportation to women in Delhi.

Given that women’s growth and development – both in terms of social and economic aspects – is so closely related to transportation, there is a compelling case for designing woman-friendly transportation systems and employing more women in the transport sector. This would help create an atmosphere that makes them feel safe and secure throughout their entire journey. A few examples include providing appropriate street lighting along the route to the following stations, lively waiting areas where they feel at ease, and dependable drivers and public transportation staff. There should be women police personnel in all major transportation hubs, including bus stops, train stations, and congested walkways, along with live traffic monitoring by a dedicated task force at the closest traffic station to record actions and take immediate necessary steps. There should be appropriate channels for women to report harassment or other problems they encounter when using public transportation, such as a hotline number and this service needs to be regularly monitored to identify lapses corrective measures that need to be taken. Additionally, nighttime patrols can help improve women’s perceived safety.

The Indian government has put in place other measures such as the ‘Women and Child Helpline’ and the establishment of ‘Women Special’ buses and trains in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra to ensure the safety of female passengers. But, this alone is not sufficient. Adopting a more holistic approach, it is essential to include women at all stages of public transport system development, including planning and decision-making as well as leadership roles in civil society and government organizations. This is crucial to better understand and address the day-to-day issues and lived experience of women. Equitable transportation is critical for everyone because it promotes inclusiveness and respect for human rights while also fostering sustainable urban development. Merely providing cheap/free rides will not fully serve the purpose unless it is backed by robust measures to meet safety and other gender-specific requirements.

Suchika Gupta is a Research Associate at IWWAGE with an interest in developmental issues and seeks to work in areas of evidence-based solutions for policy formulation.

Intimate Partner Violence in India: Alarming Trends and Accountability measures

Ending all forms of violence against women was recognized as one of the twelve critical areas of concern by the Beijing Platform for Action. The recently concluded “Global 16 Days of Activism”, initiated by Centre for Women’s Global Leadership and carried forward by feminist groups across the world, is a collective campaign that calls to end Gender-Based Violence (GBV) by evolving the focus from awareness to accountability. Among the prevalent forms of GBV, Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is one where the perpetrator not only lacks accountability but also enjoys insulation from the law as well as society. 

IPV is the infliction of physical, sexual, or emotional harm committed to establish or retain a position of control/superiority by a partner in an intimate relationship. It is evident from the increasing number of gruesome cases covered by media platforms in recent times that the experience of IPV is not uncommon. This blog piece explores research and evidence on the prevalence of IPV, policies governing its redressal, and the laws instituted for its prevention and justice.  

The global average prevalence of IPV among women is 30 percent according to the WHO report titled “Violence Against Women Prevalence Estimates”, 2018. IPV is prevalent even in developed nations, not just in low and middle-income countries. In fact, the Nordic paradox illustrates that even countries in the region that perform well in gender equality and other development indices report a high prevalence of IPV. According to World Health Organization (2013) estimates, South Asia has the highest regional prevalence of IPV worldwide at approximately 40 percent. 

India ranks 135 out of 146 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index, an instrument the World Economic Forum uses. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) has attempted to capture the incidence of IPV within India for married women since 1992. NFHS categorises IPV into three kinds: physical, emotional, and sexual violence. Physical abuse is easier to discern than the other two forms. According to the fifth and the latest round (2019-21), the incidence of a “lower” degree of violence on married women – being pushed, slapped, punched, or hair pulled etc. – is approximately 27 percent; approximately 8 percent of married women experience it in “higher” degree which includes being dragged, strangled or threatened with knife/gun, etc.; and around 6 percent married women report facing sexual abuse like physically being forced into unwanted sex acts etc.; and 13 percent face emotional abuse which includes being humiliated, tortured insulted or threatened with harm by the husband. Thus, IPV can take a wide range of forms perpetuated by several factors including socio-cultural and economic aspects. 

NFHS data finds that the incidence of IPV is lower for women with better access to resources required for well-being and growth, like access to education, household wealth, and information. For instance, with increase in the level of education, the incidence of all the three forms of IPV decreases. The largest decline is seen in physical abuse of less severe form across most of the aforementioned factors. For example, the incidence of abuse for women with no education is 36 percent and it falls to 13 percent for those who obtained higher levels of education. Similarly, living in urban areas reduces the chances of abuse by 7 percentage points as compared to those residing in rural areas. Also, belonging to the richest quintile as compared to the poorest, leads to a fall in the incidence of abuse by 20 percentage points. However, these are assumed to be gross underestimates of reality because of the under-representation of the richest quintile in household surveys.

Apart from the socio-economic background, intergenerational violence impacts the level of incidence of violence. Intergenerational transmission of violence means that children of violent offenders are more likely to commit violence. If men are exposed to household violence, the incidence of violence increases by 11 percentage points. Women are more likely to face and accept violence if they have witnessed the same; in this case, the incidence of IPV increases by 33 percentage points. 

Also, NFHS collects information to gauge the normative behaviour of married couples. It asks questions targeted to both husband and wife to understand whether beating the wife is justified in different scenarios such as: if she goes out without telling her husband, if she neglects children, if she argues with her husband, if she refuses to have sex, and if she burns food. Women face 21 percent more abuse by their husbands if they accept being beaten and the incidence of violence by men increases by 8 percent if they justify beating their wives.

While these forms of violence may be categorised differently for the sake of data collection, they can be committed all at once. For example, denial of physical intimacy by women in romantic relationships might lead to emotional manipulation or disregard for consent by men. If women resist, physical and sexual violence might follow as a response to the woman’s defiance. This way men escalate the violation of women’s autonomy and establish control. Contrary to popular belief, frequent expression of care, concern, and love doesn’t necessarily mean an absence of violent behaviour. All these acts coexist and are indicative of larger societal issues and deep-rooted hegemonic masculinity that creep into intimate spaces which go unreported. 

The normalisation of these crimes and victim-blaming by society makes it harder for women to speak up and report it officially. In this context, there is a slew of schemes for the upliftment and empowerment of women, but little effort is directed towards working with the perpetrators of violence i.e. there isn’t enough engagement with men and boys, and the issues caused by convoluted ideas of masculinity prescribed by patriarchal norms. The cultural acceptance of IPV that stems from the belief that men are entitled to women’s bodies in intimate relationships effectively results in condonement of male violence. There is an urgent need to focus on assigning accountability to the perpetrator and strengthening the legal system to provide sufficient recourse and a conducive ecosystem where women can report cases of IPV without facing negative consequences. 

IPV is a complex issue because of the nature of the relationship the woman shares with the perpetrator. Ad-hoc solutions to such problems do not help in reducing these acts of violence. Instead, there is a need for policies, practices, and awareness generation around IPV. One of the biggest challenges is working towards the social acceptance of victims of IPV and holding the perpetrator accountable at the same time. There have been instances where even law enforcement agencies like the police play a reconciliation role. Therefore, bringing about shifts in social consciousness is critical. 

There is a need to take concrete steps like gender sensitisation at different levels – families, communities, educational and state institutions for awareness generation, developing infrastructure like mental health centres using trauma-informed approaches that are pertinent for supporting women in need, and introducing methods of counselling targeting the perpetrators in order to end the cycle of violence. The frequent call for empowering women cannot exist in isolation and needs to be backed with substantive measures being taken to overhaul policies, legislations, criminal codes, reformed police systems, and infrastructure required to address IPV. 


Note: Unless otherwise mentioned, the data in this blog piece is drawn from NFHS 5. 

Aparna G, a Research Associate with IWWAGE, is engaged in studying female labour force participation. Her research interests include applied microeconomics and intersectional political economy.

The Feminisation of Climate Change Economics

Rising Temperatures and Falling Economy

India was ranked amongst the top 10 countries most affected by the adverse effects of climate change, by the Global Climate Risk Index, 2021. While colder countries like Norway are gaining economic benefits with advancing warmer climates, higher temperatures in India are causing large scale cumulative losses. A parabolic relationship between temperature and economic growth reveals that there is greater than 90 per cent likelihood for India’s per capita GDP to be much lower now than if global warming were not a factor (Diffenbaugh and Burkefound, 2019) and a recent Stanford study concurred that the economy is 31 per cent smaller than it could be otherwise.

India is now experiencing the consequences of 1°C rise in global warming. Extreme heatwaves, heavy rainfall, severe flooding, destructive storms and rising sea levels are damaging lives, livelihoods and assets. A recent report by the ODI, based on projections of temperature and precipitation changes affecting labour productivity in various sectors, points out that climate related risks in the country will increase inequality and poverty. India might lose 3-10 per cent of its GDP with poverty rising by 3.5 per cent now and losses going up to 2.6 and 13.4 per cent, if global temperature rises by 2°C and 3°C respectively.

Bearing the Brunt: Sectors and Communities

The ODI report shows that districts in India with rapid temperature rises have had 56 per cent lower growth in GDP than those that warmed the slowest. Insidious effects of climate change leading to higher temperatures and sustained heat waves are hampering outdoor labour work, with an estimated 10 working hours lost, severely affecting economic growth. Also, about 90 per cent of the excess heat, naturally stored in the oceans, has led to reduced fish populations affecting around 650 to 800 million people in the fisheries industry

An analysis of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna and Mahanadi deltas, a major cropland area and one of India’s biggest export sources, shows that climate change induced effects on agriculture has led to economic losses amounting from 18-32 per cent of GDP. Food production, due to changes in farming practices with climate change, is under high risk and with it, India’s food security. The farm sector output, accounting for 16 per cent of India’s GDP has been falling due to unseasonable rains and frequent droughts resulting in, for example, the lowest sugar output in 3 years in Maharashtra. If this continues, supplementary import costs will weigh greater on the already struggling trade economy.

Any possible combination of rising cereal prices, declining wages in the agricultural sector and the slower rate of economic growth attributable to climate change will increase India’s population of poor by 50 million within 2040, rural populations predictably bearing the brunt. Rising seas and stronger storms are driving crop-killing seawater further inland and farmers out. The need for better income has been driving India’s rural residents from villages to cities, climate-induced uncertainty in agriculture aggravating the process. The Economic Survey of India 2017 estimated inter-state migration at 9 million annually between 2011 and 2016 with majorly male agricultural labourers moving to cities in search of jobs. Women on the other hand are left behind to continue farm work, leaving them vulnerable to agrarian crises.

Putting on the Gender Lens: Women in the Weeds

In the last decade, research on climate change effects has widely scripted that related phenomena does not impact men and women equally. According to United Nations reports, women, comprising majority of the world’s poor and more dependent for their livelihood on natural resources that are threatened by climate change, are much more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than men. Negative effects of climate change on populace most dependent on natural resources and changing ecosystems has resulted in more men leaving home to find income elsewhere, putting additional burden on the women left back home to both earn and manage households. 80 per cent of farmers are now women, says the UN Women office (India), but women in India, subject to discriminatory societal norms are not given landownership nor do they have knowledge of or access to farming technologies. Additionally, with the government not formally identifying women as farmers; state and the central government benefits to agricultural landowners and farmers do not trickle down to these women.

Ironically, women are worse hit both during agricultural crises and natural disasters with catastrophic floods and cyclones leaving women and children doubly vulnerable owing to mobility constraints within communities. They face greater negative physical and psychological health issues due to climate change and pollution. Even poorly employed women lose their jobs in the aftermath of such disasters, leaving them without income or resources and more susceptible to sexual violence and abuse, resulting in psychological trauma incapacitating them for education or employment. An estimated 84 per cent (ILO 2021) of such women with ‘vulnerable employment’ are amongst those worst affected.

Climate Migrants: Women on the Move

Extreme weather conditions leading to loss of livelihood, climate induced hardships and the whirlpool of instability, poverty and desperation, has forced growing number of people, being referred to as ‘climate migrants’, to leave home in search of decent income. Severe flooding and incessant rains in the state of Uttarakhand, brought about mass migration of hard-hit rural communities. In the aftermath of the 2013 cyclone Phailin in Orissa, the state witnessed an unprecedented migration of fishing communities based there for decades before. Between 2008 and 2016, close to 1.5 million people were classified as internally displaced as a result of natural disasters in India, annually.

Mumbai’s migrant population comprises of many moving due to land degradation in the south and desertification and drought in the north. Women constitute an overwhelming majority of such migrants. Demand for labour remains gendered with female migrants less represented in regular jobs and more likely to be self-employed or stuck in low-skilled niche jobs like domestic work and child care in city households. CARE International points out that climate change exacerbates existing gender inequalities, with women displaced on the frontlines of its impacts bearing the heaviest consequences with hard labour and no decent jobs or income because of their limited educational and economic standing.

In the Beed district of Maharashtra, several women migrate every year from the drought-prone Marathwada region to the sugarcane farms of western Maharashtra to work as cane cutters and undergo voluntary hysterectomies for fear that they will not be hired if they demand off days during their menstrual cycles or pregnancies. In the Sundarbans, regularly battling cyclonic floods and a hostile ecosystem, women migrate during the rice-growing season every year to Odisha only to engage in back breaking labour, planting rice and working at a shrimp farms, from dawn to early evening.

These migrants form a class of invisible workers, working in poor conditions in brick kilns or agriculture, with no access to government services or labour schemes and often pushed into deep debts and even bondage.

Climate Resilience: Women on the Frontlines

A gendered perspective on migration is imperative since women have significantly different migration motivations, patterns, options and obstacles than men. NGOs like Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP) has been training female farmers and helping them access pure water and proper sanitation in addition to advocating for their landowner status. Bringing women into the renewable energy sector growing in India is another imminent step toward their collective development and fight against climate change. In Chennai, Gujrat and UP women are being taught to manufacture, use and maintain solar lights by networks like SSP and Solar Sahelis. Engaging women in climate change mitigation is also important, with their fundamental knowledge of the ecosystem, to bring about novel solutions at the grass root level, create employment and better income. However the government sector needs to pitch in at a much larger sale to create and support such initiatives and bring forward female-focused policies by educating and giving them a seat at the table in local and national policy-making. Only when female stakeholders, learning to adapt to the myriad effects of climate change on their primary livelihoods and day-to-day life, become decision makers in principle sectors will they be better equipped to fight climate change and realise the empowerment we strive for every day.

Rhitabrita Mukherjee is a Senior Research Associate at IWWAGE, and has worked extensively in the areas of social infrastructure, gendered economics, food security and ecological economics.

Gender-based violence – Causes and consequences

Violence against women and girls has long been a barrier to their equal participation in and contribution to society. Any and every form of violence against women – physical, mental, verbal, psychological or emotional – is a violation of their human rights, has severe and long-term impacts on survivors, their families and communities, and also affects social and economic development (García-Moreno et al., 2015; UN Women, 2020). There are multiple ways in which violence is experienced by women, several contexts in which it occurs, and thus, its costs and consequences are widespread (Day et al., 2005).

The issue becomes even more complicated when we account for the fact that it is not just men who inflict violence upon women but women as well, who can equally be perpetrators. This becomes relevant in a traditional society such as India’s where violence against women is not merely a gender issue. For far too long women have been responsible for the suffering of other women, especially in domiciliary settings where the triggers for violence are often women’s handling of domestic chores and responsibilities, increased mobility or greater financial independence. In this blog, I talk about what feminist literature has to say about the violence inflicted on women and girls by the opposite gender, and whether it has any correlation with women’s participation in the labour force along with their desire to be economically independent.

The ameliorative hypothesis on violence (Xie et al., 2012; Heirigs and Moore, 2018) is the most well-understood and logically coherent theory on the subject suggesting that as societies become more equal, violence decreases. The improved status of women relative to men, greater gender equality and a higher ratio of women to men in the labour force would in theory break traditions and reduce stereotypes that support the domination of women by men. This would lead to lower rates of violence against women, and ultimately empower women.

However, evidence on violence supports the backlash hypothesis. It argues that improvement in women’s relative socioeconomic status actually increases their rate of victimisation – a sharp contrast to the ameliorative hypothesis. With initial reductions in gender inequality in a society, men tend to find means to reassert their diminishing patriarchal power and authority and resist the increased power of women (Avakame, 1999). A narrowing gender gap as women advance in status and break down their traditional gender roles, acts as a threat for men and results in the ‘backlash effect’ (Xie et al., 2012). Given the setup of the Indian society and its strong patriarchal norms, men are conditioned to retain the identity of a provider, protect women of the household, and control decision-making in the family such that women conform to roles defined by traditions. The backlash hypothesis is particularly found to have more significant influence on domestic violence and intimate partner violence rather than on stranger violence or violence by known or unknown offenders (Xie et al., 2012).

Yet another argument that predicts women’s victimisation is the one offered by the lifestyle and routine activities theory. This theoretical strand of the literature suggests that absolute increases in women’s labour force participation are associated with increase in their victimisation by strangers and known others (Xie et al., 2012). Although the result predicted by this theory is similar to that of the backlash hypothesis, the reason is different. The lifestyle theory states that an increase in women’s labour force participation puts them at heightened risk of victimization by strangers due to greater exposure at work or in other out-of-home activities. The routine activities approach focuses on women’s changing activity patterns to determine how vulnerable they could be. In establishing the theory, Xie et al. (2012) also argue that while women’s access to resources (indicated by gains in education, income) can help them protect themselves from victimization, greater labour force participation increases exposure to victimization.

Historically and globally, women have experienced violence, irrespective of their age, wealth status, class, race, ethnicity, caste or religion, and even across settings – inflicted by their partner, children, family members, members of the neighborhood, community or workplace (UN Women, 2020). Among the many costs of violence against women – borne by the survivor, her household and society over time – is her participation in the labour force. A woman’s decision to join the labour force is a rational decision wherein she attempts to either maximise her own utility function or her households’ total welfare (Mehrotra and Parida, 2017). She compares the net benefit of joining the workforce to the net benefit of not doing so while also accounting for the cost of joining. The prevalence of violence against women in public spaces, public transport, neighborhood or at the workplace and the possibility of being abused contribute negatively to this equation, adding to the cost of participation in the workforce (Chakraborty et al., 2014; Satyam and Pickup, 2018). As a result, women are discouraged and make suboptimal labour supply decisions.

The malaise of inflicting violence against women and girls becomes more pronounced and relevant in India as we look closely at the reasons for women’s declining labour force participation over the last three decades. Research from various country settings has established that the fall in women’s labour force participation rate can be attributed to factors like – availability of care for children, elderly and specially abled; role of women in domestic and kinship settings along with long-standing patriarchal norms; occupational segregations and poor growth in female-friendly jobs; lack of infrastructure; concerns around safety and mobility; and sociocultural barriers and social identities (Chaudhary, 2021). In some way or the other, all of these play a role in the Indian context. An OECD report from the G20 Osaka Summit in 2019 stated that women in India are less likely to be employed than in other G20 countries, next only to Saudi Arabia (Satyam and Pickup, 2018).

In recent times, India’s female labour force participation rate has declined from 31.2 per cent (Employment-Unemployment Survey, 2011) to 23.3 per cent (Periodic Labour Force Survey, 2017), while the country-wide rate of crimes against women and girls has tripled from 18.8 per cent to 57.9 per cent during this period (as per National Crime Records Bureau).

IWWAGE is undertaking a state-level analysis to determine how women’s labour force participation rate has changed with the incidence of crimes against women between 2011 and 2017. It uses the ‘Crime in India’ statistics produced by the National Crime Records Bureau and looks at crimes that might serve as barriers to work, in this case, those that prevent women from stepping out to work and paint a perception of lack of safety. These include rape, kidnapping and abduction, sexual harassment and molestation.

A detailed report will be released soon. Watch out for the second part of this blog where I would unpack the report’s findings.

Neelanjana Gupta, Senior Research Associate at IWWAGE, is an economist with interest in evidence-based solutions to challenging questions of public policy. She works on areas of human development and social inclusion.


Avakame, Edem F. “Females’ labor force participation and rape: An empirical test of the backlash hypothesis.” Violence Against Women 5.8 (1999): 926-949.

Chakraborty, Tanika, et al. “Crime and Women’s Labor Force Participation.” (2014).

Chaudhary, Ruchika. Working or Not: What Determines Women’s Labour Force Participation in India? IWWAGE, 2021.

Day, Tanis, Katherine McKenna, and Audra Bowlus. “The economic costs of violence against women: An evaluation of the literature.” United Nations (2005): 1-66.

García-Moreno, Claudia, et al. “Addressing violence against women: a call to action.” The Lancet 385.9978 (2015): 1685-1695.

Heirigs, Mark H., and Matthew D. Moore. “Gender inequality and homicide: a cross-national examination.” International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice 42.4 (2018): 273-285.

Mehrotra, Santosh, and Jajati K. Parida. “Why is the labour force participation of women declining in India?.” World Development 98 (2017): 360-380.

Satyam, Nishtha, and Francine Pickup. “To Reverse Decline of Women in Labour Force, India Must Make Its Working Spaces Safe.” The Wire (2018).

UN Women. “COVID-19 and Violence against Women and Girls: Addressing the Shadow Pandemic.” Policy Brief 17 (2020).

Xie, Min, Karen Heimer, and Janet L. Lauritsen. “Violence against women in US metropolitan areas: Changes in women’s status and risk, 1980–2004.” Criminology 50.1 (2012): 105-143.

Undoing Unpaid Work: Tackling Time Poverty is Key to Address Gender Inequality

A recent announcement from a political party in Tamil Nadu has pushed forward frequently halted debates around recognizing women’s unpaid work. The party promises to pay housewives a monthly wage to recognize and support their household work. This announcement has come at a crucial juncture as the world adapts to a ‘new normal’, unfortunately the burden of this new normal is falling disproportionately on women in different ways. These unprecedented times precipitated by the COVID19 crisis have unfolded new layers of the gendered dimensions of unpaid care work. It has deepened pre-existing gender inequalities, increased women’s economic and social insecurity, domestic violence, unpaid care work, and also disconnected them from availing institutional and social support (UN Women 2020). Due to the closure of schools and families at home, women’s care work increased by 30% during COVID19 (Khan and Nikore 2020). The pandemic has shown that women bear the brunt of ‘disproportionately divided domestic duties’ which points to the larger issue of the gendered nature of unpaid work.

The arrangement of social structures, patriarchal system, and prevalent gender norms expect women to perform certain roles which tend to confine their choices and actions. It gives rise to complex forms of invisible gender inequalities. Gendered dimensions of housework portray the existence of such inequalities. Women are subjected to ‘dual burdens’ of household work and work performed for income-generating activities. Household work is unpaid and unrecognized and is classified as ‘unproductive work’ and no equation calculates its direct or indirect value to the economic system. Women face time deficiency for meeting their personal requirements and it is termed as ‘time poverty’ in a simpler way and is often linked to the ‘crises of care’ (Fraser, 2016). Spending long hours in unpaid housework have large implications in women’s lives which go beyond any monetary value. Women’s engagement in unpaid work constitutes to be one of the main reasons for their economic and social disempowerment. (UN Women 2018). The burden of housework and the varied demands of caring activities at the household levels restrict women’s ability to participate in work outside the home (Deshpande and Kabeer 2019).  Every day, an average Indian female spends 5 hours per day in unpaid domestic work, compared to 1.5 hours by a male (NSS Time Use in India, 2019). The same report shows that 82.1 percent of women in rural India spend their time in unpaid domestic services for household members against 27.7 percent of men. Moreover, as per Jal Shakti’s Jal Jivan Mission’s Dashboard (March 2021), only 36.54% of the rural households have Functional Household Tap Connections which means that the majority of the households have to collect water from a public facility or any other water body in the village and women are more likely to be assigned with this responsibility. Less than 45% of households use clean fuel for cooking in five states as per NFHS5 (Phase1) which means that these households use traditional ways of cooking that is time-consuming and mostly women are engaged in this.

Therefore, women in rural India might face acute levels of time poverty due to multiple factors of deprivation that leave them with little time to devote to their personal well-being. Oxfam’s India Inequality Report 2020 highlighted that societal norms in rural areas do not allow women to ask men to share the burden of housework. In an article on time poverty, it is argued that “most people who are time-poor are also income-poor” and they do not have the individual choice to choose their time demands (Ghosh and Jayati 2020 p.2). It is primarily linked with their economic disadvantage which does not allow them to pay for outsourcing their housework and caring responsibilities to a third person. Moreover, in rural areas – lack of infrastructure facilities, poor availability and accessibility of goods and services, scarce public transport, and dependence on subsistence economy signify greater levels of hardship for women to complete their day-to-day activities and ultimately adding to their time poverty.

Time poverty puts stress on women’s wellbeing which goes beyond income-based poverty. Moreover, programs and interventions for women might not capture the gendered nature of time poverty when addressing women’s concerns due to the unavailability of Time Use Statistics. The inability to capture time poverty would mean that underlying factors that place women in a disadvantaged position get neglected when addressing their problems. For example, a program that aims to enhance girls learning outcomes in a government school might not take into consideration the fact that girls spend long hours engaged in housework which means they have less time available for study after school timings and ultimately impacts their learning outcomes. As per a report by UNICEF, globally girls between the ages of 5 and 14 years spend 40 percent more time, or 160 million more hours a day than boys on unpaid household chores and collecting water and firewood (UNCF 2016), Similarly, efforts to improve the political participation of women at the Panchayat level might completely neglect time deficiency as an underlying cause for lower participation of women in Gram Sabha meetings. The evidence suggests that tackling time poverty constitutes an important area of intervention to address gender inequality in rural India. For this purpose, a 4Rs Strategy is envisaged as a guiding framework to design and implement interventions in rural areas for tackling time poverty. That strategy states:

Redefine: Redefining the roles that women perform. It will require bringing a behavioral change in the men and community towards perceiving women’s roles and responsibilities and also transforming the social structures that are gender-biased.

Redesign: Redesigning the policies and frameworks that aim for gender equality. Also redesigning surveys that are well equipped to capture time poverty in women’s daily life. This will help in better availability of time use data that can extensively support the redesign and implementation of gender interventions.

Remunerate: Remunerating equally by bridging the wage gap so that women are encouraged to take part in economic activities.

Resource: Creation and access to basic infrastructure facilities and services in rural areas that can reduce women’s time in completing their day-to-day activities (collecting firewood, fetching water from a distant source, etc.). Advocating for Gender responsive care policies, puts the state at the centre of care provisioning, giving it the responsibility for framing policies that recognise and represent women and their needs in decision making arenas. There is also a potential of creating a cadre of women as a human resource through Self Help Groups who are well equipped with the knowledge, awareness and mechanism to respond to women’s demands and necessities.

Making the ‘4Rs Strategy’ a reality would require political, individual and collective actions. Governments must take efforts beyond promises for bringing the system level transformation in addressing time poverty and gender inequality. It will also require the contribution of the grass-root organizations, policy think tanks, research and gender experts on multiple fronts. At the same time it is important to involve men in the conversation, build gender perspectives bottom up and work together to create a more equal post pandemic world.


Deshpande A., and Kabeer N., 2019. “(In)Visibility, Care and Cultural Barriers: The Size and Shape of Women’s Work in India,”Working Papers 10, Ashoka University, Department of Economics.

Ghosh, Jayati. “Time Poverty Is Making Indian Women Lose More Money than Ever.”ThePrint,3Oct.2020. Available from ever/515811/

Khan R. P.,and Nikore M., 2020 “It Is Time to Address COVID-19’s Disproportionate Impact on India’s Women.” Asian Development Bank, 1 Mar. 2020.

“Nancy Fraser, Contradictions of Capital and Care, NLR 100, July–August 2016.” New Left Review, 1 Aug. 2016.

NFHS5 (Phase1), National Family Health Survey, India


United Nations Children’s Fund, Harnessing the Power of Data for Girls: Taking stock and looking ahead to 2030, UNICEF, New York, 2016

UN Women (2018). Promoting Women’s Economic Empowerment: Recognizing and Investing in the Care Economy.

  1. 2020. The impact of COVID-19 on women. Policy Brief. New York: United Nations
Social protection through a digital tool reaches the milestone of 100,000 applications


“Living in a tier-2 city in the state of Rajasthan in India, I had to take half a day off from work to apply for an Aadhaar card. I had to travel to the Aadhaar center, which was about 7kms away, stand in line for one hour for my turn to come, only to realize that the machine was not accepting my iris scan. The three officials at the center could not figure out the problem, after struggling for 20 minutes. I was told to wait for another half hour, for the machine to start working. After half an hour, the machine started working and my application was submitted. The entire process took 4 hours. The majority of people living in rural areas do not have the luxury to step away from their work and lose out on daily wages.

The time spent on this process can be minimized for government entitlements that require in-person presence of the applicant and eliminated for entitlements that do not require the in-person presence of the applicant” – Anoushaka

Poor households often rely on government entitlements for mitigating risk and livelihood development. With the aim of increasing information about and uptake of government entitlements, and with the support of the State Rural Livelihoods Mission (SRLM) in the state of Chhattisgarh, IWWAGE – an initiative of LEAD at Krea University, and Haqdarshak Empowerment Solutions Private Limited (HESPL), is implementing a project for promoting government entitlements through women self-help group (SHG) members as agents. As part of this project, self-help group (SHG) members receive training on how to use a digital application, Haqdarshak, which provides a ready reference of more than 200 central and state government welfare programs, their benefits, eligibility criteria, documents required, and the application process for each scheme. The trained agents offer door-to-door services to their respective communities using the app to support households to gather information and apply for government programs, for a small fee.

The project is being implemented in four districts of Chhattisgarh (Raipur, Rajnandgaon, Dhamtari and Gariyaband) and over the past year around 2,700 SHG women have been trained to become Haqdarshak agents. Among all of the trained women around 1,000 performed their duty actively and have received over 100,000 applications for a wide range of government entitlements[i].

A deep-dive into these 100,000 applications reveals several interesting trends:

  • 34% of the total applications are for COVID-19 related informational schemes. These include availability of free ration at PDS shops, cash transfers to women PMJDY account holders, distribution of free food packets for children enrolled in government anganwadis, and availability of free gas cylinders under the Ujjwala Yojana. Providing information to the rural poor about the availability and the mode of access for these additional benefits is an important step in ensuring that the benefits reach the intended beneficiaries. In such situations, the Haqdarshika’s role was to inform citizens enrolled in these schemes of the additional benefits available they can avail and, when necessary, support them to access these benefits.
  • PAN cards are the most sought-after document, accounting for 80% of the total applications for documents. Insights from our fieldwork suggest that people in rural areas perceive the PAN card as a document required for opening of bank accounts and it is also promoted as such by many application touch-points.
  • Among welfare schemes, insurance programs like the Pradhan Mantri Bima Suraksha Yojana (PMSBY), Ayushman Bharat and Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana (PMJJBY) are the most popular schemes among applicants.

Among the four districts in which the program was implemented, Raipur district accounted for around 48% of the 100,000 applications, followed by 38% from Rajnandgaon, and the remaining 14% of the applications were from the Dhamtari and Gariyaband districts. However, an important caveat is that the program targeted Raipur district first, which means that the intervention has been running in the district for a much longer time. The intervention has also targeted fewer blocks in Dhamtari and Gariyaband, as compared to Rajnandgaon and Raipur districts.

Reaching the 100,000 applications mark on the Haqdarshak platform has been an important milestone for the project. However, there have been several challenges in implementation along the way and the program team is working towards developing solutions to address these.

Dropout of Haqdarshikas from the program

Of the 2,700 women trained to be Haqdarshikas, only 603 are active as of September 2020. A Haqdarshika is considered ‘active’ if she has processed at least one application in a given month. Some of the factors which may account for this trend are:

  • Some of the training participants might not pass a post-assessment test, which is required to conduct transactions on the platform.
  • 60 to 80 percent of the agents drop out after the fourth month of activity. This could be due to saturation of applications for schemes and documents for which Haqdarshikas (HDs) have most information. Refresher trainings are being conducted with HDs who dropped out of the program, to overcome this challenge.
  • Other reasons include damages to their smartphone, shared usage of smartphone resulting in non-availability of the phone for the Haqdarshikas, restrictions on mobility from their families, lack of entrepreneurial spirit etc. This is clearly an issue of targeting. Selecting suitable candidates for the training requires time and effort, since potential participants need to be screened against certain minimum requirements and informed about the expected commitment, type of work, and remuneration of the program. Ensuring greater buy-in and providing a higher degree of support to local government officials is essential to make any progress on this issue.

Long processing time for applications

While the 100,000 applications milestone suggests that there is a high demand for government entitlements among rural households, not all the applications have translated to benefits received by the citizens. This could potentially be explained by the long processing time and procedural delays for certain schemes and documents. The project team is exploring ways to delve deeper into the reasons for delay and also ways to tackle this challenge.

Technology needs a sustained value proposition

Another reason why we see less than 100% conversion of applications submitted to benefits received is that Haqdarshikas at times do not update the status of the application itself. This indicates that while the citizen may have received the benefit, the status displayed on the app shows that the application is ‘pending’. This could be due to the fact that Haqdarshikas do not follow up on the processed applications in a timely manner or to the citizens not feeling comfortable providing proof of receipt of the document or scheme they applied for due to privacy concerns. Both instances point to a lack of practical and/or material incentives to update the status of the applications, besides the Haqdarshikas’ own diligence. This issue could be addressed, for example, by a change in the remuneration structure of the model or by increased integration of the app in the government’s own application system, thus reducing the need for manual inputs.

In the coming months, the Haqdarshak program will be scaled up to 21 different blocks in nine additional districts of Chhattisgarh. In these blocks, with the support of CGSRLM, the implementation will focus on Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) and Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) to improve their access to information and in turn, government entitlements.

[i] [i] These applications were received between June 2019 and September 2020.

Anoushaka Chandrashekar is a Project Manager with LEAD at Krea University and Raka De is a Research Associate with LEAD at Krea University.

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.


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. 

Wage employment for women: Forgotten priorities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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