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Recently, an organisation in Delhi hosted a pageant with a twist. The participants were all homemakers, and the 'Best Housewife' walked away with a Nano as her prize. Organisers said they wanted to boost the morale of women who are usually perceived to be "doing nothing". While household work is nothing to scoff at, there is no denying that an increasing number of rural and urban women are doing just that - nothing. Whether it's familial and societal expectations, inflexible organisations or the sheer lack of suitable employment, it has become extremely challenging for women to remain in the workforce.
The numbers tell the tale. For nearly three decades now the share of working women in India's total women's population has been declining slowly in rural areas, and has remained markedly stagnant in urban areas. The most recent report on employment and unemployment by the government's National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) - responsible for doing socio-economic surveys in the country - covering the years 2011-12 revealed that since the previous survey in 2009-10, over 9 million women had been 'lost' from India's workforce in rural areas. However, 3. 5 million had gained jobs in urban areas. Yet that's hardly a silver lining.
Compared to the total population of women, the proportion of working women declined in rural areas from 34 per cent in 1983 to just short of 25 per cent in 2011-12. In urban areas, the decline was small - from about 15. 1 per cent in 1983 to 14. 7 per cent in 2011-12. "Despite very rapid economic growth in India in recent years, we're observing declining female labour force participation rates across all age groups, across all education levels, and in both urban and rural areas, " said International Labor Organisation (ILO) economist Steven Kapsos during a presentation of the Global Employment Trends 2013 report in India, earlier this year.
These figures are for what is called usual principal status (' ups' ). This means that it refers to women who are usually doing a particular work (say, cultivation, or construction) for the 'major part of the year'. But women have always done more than one type of work. They look after milch animals, or work part time in the fields. These types of supplementary work are called 'subsidiary' work, and they are also recorded by NSSO surveys.
A better picture of the women's world of work emerges if both 'principal' and 'subsidiary' work is counted and added up. According to the NSSO, the number of women doing such work declined by 2. 7 million in rural areas but increased by 4. 5 million in urban areas.
But then what really is implied by the strange fact that 'principal status' work declined by 9 million but the more comprehensive 'principal plus subsidiary' status declined by 2. 7 million? It means that regular work which lasts for a longer time (and presumably is better paying) is getting shot to pieces - hence the huge decline in usual principal status. On the other hand, subsidiary work (short term, marginal, low-paying ) is still available although less than before. So the decline is less.
This also reveals the true nature of women's work: a very large share of women's work is of 'subsidiary' nature. Which usually means it is not done throughout the year, doesn't pay too well, may often be unpaid, and is usually unskilled. In other words, it is a survival strategy for families under economic duress - take whatever work is available for whatever time, and then look for something else afterwards.
Another factor is the strong trend of occupational segregation in the country - in rural areas, women work in certain industries and occupations, such as basic agriculture, sales and elementary services and handicraft manufacturing, while in urban areas, women work mostly in manufacturing, construction and in personal services (teachers, health workers and maid servants).
For the last few years agriculture and related occupations have had very small job growth, forcing women out of traditional jobs. This makes up the bulk of job losses suffered by women. Similarly, handicrafts have not been creating many new jobs. The job loss in rural India for women becomes clearer.
Even the rise in jobs urban areas has a story to tell. It is mostly in low paying, insecure jobs usually involving very tough working conditions;and extreme fluidity. This includes construction (of which there was a boom till very recently), and occupations like maidservants, cooks, governesses, and other care-giving work.
According to calculations done by researchers at the Delhibased Centre for Women's Development Studies (CWDS), the number of women working in construction shot up by over 300 per cent between 1993-4 and 2009-10, while those working in services (mostly including care-giving work) increased by about 36 per cent in the same period. Based on NSSO data, Neetha N of CWDS estimates that the number of women employed as maids, cooks, baby-sitters or governesses in homes is a whopping 2. 5 crore - clearly one of the largest employment segments for women in India.
The vast majority of women, the statistics show, are involved in domestic duties. Share of such women hovered around the 35 per cent mark between 1999-2000 and 2004-05, but increased sharply to over 40 per cent in 2009-10 in rural areas, says another NSSO report.
Surprisingly, in urban areas where more women are educated and more opportunities for work exist, the share of home-makers rose from 45 per cent in 1999-2000 to 48 per cent in 2009-10. To remove any distortion in these figures due to increasing enrollment of girls in education, here is the data for women over 15 years of age: the proportion mainly doing domestic duties has grown from 54 per cent to 57 per cent in rural areas over the decade while there is a very slight decline from 64. 8 per cent to 64. 2 per cent in urban areas.
Age-wise trends show that in the 30 to 44 years age group, share of women doing mainly housework increased from 55 per cent to 63 per cent in rural areas, and in the 45-59 years age group, this share increased from 55 per cent to 59 per cent. In urban areas, the trends are similar though muted. But the proportion is still staggering - nearly two-thirds of urban women, mostly educated, are out of the visible economy. Among the home-bound non-working women over 15 years old, 19 per cent in rural areas and 18 per cent in urban areas said that they would like to work from home. This indicates that a women's participation in work could more than double if they work was available, and if male family members shared some of the domestic work.
WELDED TO THEIR POTS AND PANS
In the NSSO survey, women who were home-bound were asked why they don't work. Among women who were "required" to do domestic duties (that is, they had no alternative but to remain home) the biggest reason stated by almost two-thirds of the women was "no other member to carry out the domestic duties". That's code for: 'male members are not willing to do the work. '
About 17 per cent of women said that social or religious reasons compelled them to remain at home and about 8 per cent said that they had to do domestic work because they "could not afford hired help". The survey also delved into the women's domestic world finding out the nuts and bolts of their work. In rural areas, women's domestic duties included maintaining kitchen gardens (24 per cent), looking after poultry etc. (25 per cent), collecting firewood (42 per cent), making cow-dung cake (42 per cent), and fetching water (37 per cent). The survey did not ask about 'standard' women's work like cooking food, washing clothes caring for children, elderly and sick, etc.
In urban areas, most of such work is not required or possible. About 23 per cent of women did sewing and tailoring, and about 13 per cent tutored their children. Fetching water (13 per cent) and looking after kitchen gardens (11 per cent) were also some urban women's preoccupations.
It's amply clear that policymakers need to take a long hard look at this picture and substantially reform their prescriptions aimed at bettering the lot of the Indian woman. The nation is losing out in a big way because society and prevailing economic structures are unwilling to accept women as workers.
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