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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

[4] “Kudumbashree | Gender Resource Center / Block Level Counselling Center”. 2020. Kudumbashree.Org. AND “Department Of Women & Child Development”. 2020 Revenue.Delhi.Gov.In

[5] Mukherjee, Sanjeeb. 2020. “Rural Sector Stressed As Covid-19 Disrupts Supplies, Spikes Unemployment”. Business-Standard.Com.

[6] Deshpande, Ashwini. “Protecting Women Is Missing from Pandemic Management Measures in India.” Quartz India. Quartz, March 28, 2020.

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

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

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

[10] Kejriwal, Nita. “Covid-19: In Times of Crisis, Women Self-Help Groups Lead the Way.” Hindustan Times, May 3, 2020.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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.