Where have all our women gone?

This Women’s Day let us not talk of women and how they work but let us talk of why they do not work? Why they leave the labour market? Why is the participation of women in the labour force in India one of the lowest?

India: Labour force participation of women is about 24% generating about 17% of the GDP according to a recent estimate.

The National Sample Survey data show that labour force participation rates of women aged 25-54 have stagnated at about 26-28% in urban areas, and fallen substantially from 57% to 44% in rural areas, between 1987 and 2011.

Several reasons have been given for this decline: (i) increased school enrollment of girls; (ii) lack of employment opportunities for women; (iii) increase in household income leading to change in preference; and (iv) invisibility of women workers and hence mis-measurement of female labor force participation. (ILO, 2014)

In 2014 the ILO adopted a new definition, based on the recommendations of the 19th International Conference of Labour Statisticians (October 2013), to include all the activities that constitute the unpaid care economy and household chores.


NSSO data on employment however does not still include the categories of workers who “attend to domestic duties only” and who “attend to domestic duties and were also engaged in free collection of goods (vegetables, roots, firewood, cattle feed), sewing, tailoring, weaving, etc for household use”. As a result a large section of working women remains undocumented. If such women are counted among workers, women’s workforce participation rate in 1999-2000 would increase from 35% to 89% in rural areas and 17% to 81% in urban areas while in 2011-12, the participation rate would be 85% in rural areas and 80% in urban areas (Jayati Gosh, 2016). In this case the decline in participation rate is not significant and can be attributed to many factors including the agricultural crisis in the rural areas. So what has actually happened is not a decline in women’s participation in work, but a shift from paid or recognised work (in most cases in rural areas from agriculture and in urban areas from low wage sectors) to unpaid care work.

But some other key facts that explain the shift or the reason for this shift:

  1. Most women are employed in low wage – low value added sectors, mostly in informal employments.
  2. Most care work, of children, aged, differently-abled, both paid and unpaid, are performed by women;
  3. Average life expectancy is increasing leading to increasing number of dependents in need of care.
  4. Public expenditure on social sector has remained at best stagnant, with expenditure on health at 0.3%, and on education at 0.47% of GDP.
Research shows that job losses and public spending cuts in social benefits and services are typically offset by the additional time and effort devoted by women to care giving and other unpaid work, with women acting as a “safety net of last resort” in economic downturns (Elson, 2014; UNRISD, 2010).

With limited public provision and disappearing social provision of care, the burden of care for children, old and ill continue to be the responsibility of women. This is, however, not just because women are seen as care givers in a patriarchal society. Most women work in low wage sectors. But this is not skill related. The institutional framework of wage setting, the tripartite mechanism, is male dominated which views women’s work at best as supplemental to family income. As a result, sectors which primarily employ women workers have low wages. In times of exigency, it thus makes perfect economic logic in a family unit, that the woman with a low wage withdraws from the labour force to cut the loss of income of the family. Thus, in every occasion of illness or any other need, it is the woman who takes a day off to take care.

Labour force participation of women is critically linked to three main issues:

  • Sharing of Care work by Men to make the necessary shift from viewing women as the ‘safety net of the last resort’. To do this it is essential to:
  • Ensure Wage parity across sectors to make it as costly to withdraw women from the workforce as men – ensuring wages in sectors dominated by women are at par with sectors dominated by men.
  • Paid Parental leave for care giving – Except for the time needed for recovering from childbirth and exclusive breastfeeding, much of the care work that a small infant needs is not directly related to women’s biological role and can be divided between both parents. High childcare costs can be a further disincentive to start or return to work for a second earner in a dual earning couple
  • Care credits – Many – mostly developed –countries have introduced policies to recognize and reward periods of caregiving through pension credits. France extended pension credits to fathers (Fultz, 2011).
  • Increasing Public Social Spending to shift the burden of care from women to the public care system
    • Increased public spending on health and improvement of services, through regular employment of healthcare service providers.
    • Increased public spending on child care facilities (Increased budget for ICDS and regularized work and increased wages for Anganwadi workers) for quality child care.
    • Increased public spending on and improved quality of school education and mid day meal through regularization of services of teachers and support staff to prevent school drop outs, especially of girl children to take care of household responsibilities in order to ensure their mothers can work
    • To ensure pension pegged to the last drawn wage or the minimum wage, whichever is higher, for informal workers through progressive taxation (Arjun Sengupta Committee recommendation, Unorganised Sector Social Security Act)
    • Unpaid volunteer work in public services (honorarium work) to be recognized as waged work and paid at government pay scales.