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High learning, 'low' work
Kerala may have a record literacy rate for women but their numbers are growing only in low-paying jobs.
Kerala continues to hold on to a paradox - women have high levels of education as well as low levels of participation in the workforce. The recently released census figures show some improvement but not much.
Female work participation in Kerala has inched up marginally from 15. 38 per cent in 2001 to 18. 23 per cent in 2011, according to Census data. It was 16. 6 per cent in 1981 and, 15. 9 per cent in 1991.
Kerala has always boasted of other enabling factors for equity in the fields of education, life expectancy, and sex ratio. But a closer look at the data reveals that the rise in the number of women employees is in low-paying sectors involving casual jobs. The share of women in mainstream careers has actually come down by about 3 per cent between 2001 and 2011. Women account for nearly 94 per cent of those who have registered for MNREGS in Kerala, and this could partly explain the rise in the share of female participation in casual jobs.
Studies by the Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad (KSSP) reveal that only 18 per cent of women from the age group 15 to 64 were found employed in the state. Agriculture, plantation, coir and cashew were the main sectors providing employment to women in Kerala.
"The crucial issue for Kerala is why the high levels of literacy and education of women are not enabling them to move from low value adding to high value adding activity;the mobility is from one low end to another low end activity, " says Mridul Eapen, honorary fellow, Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Thiruvananthapuram. "Patriarchy in contemporary Kerala is apparent in a generalised social commitment to women's domestic role, implicit in their poor visibility in the public sphere reflected also in their poor employment profile. "
"Patriarchal values go well with our hierarchical notions on work categorising certain jobs as inferior and certain others as 'decent'. Only some countries in South Asia and South East Asia like Philippines, Indonesia, China and Malaysia have been able to overcome the taboo against women taking up some jobs. But the working conditions in agriculture and other informal sectors in Kerala are technologically and organisationally very primitive and offer no security or safety for women. They can be motivated to take up jobs in informal sectors only by introducing appropriate technological and organisational modernisation, " says KP Kannan, economist at CDS.
Economists, sociologists and social activists who have studied the low levels of female work participation in Kerala at various stages suggest that the overall economic growth achieved by the state has enabled women to wait for the job of their choice. "Plus 2 level education has become near universal in the state and girls forma a significant share of the roughly eight lakh students studying at that level. Many of them were joining the workforce in the state earlier, but now they prefer to continue with education, " says CP John, member of the Kerala Planning Board.
"A large section of women in the 15 to 25 age group in Kerala are students, and girls outnumber boys in most of the streams at the degree and PG levels. The pressure to join the labour market is higher among young males from the poor families than females because of taboos against sending women out for jobs. Interestingly, there has been a 6. 5 per cent growth in the share of women in the salaried class of employees in the state between 1993 and 2008, whereas the growth rate was only 1. 7 per cent among males, " says Prof Kannan.
Gulf migration has contributed at multiple levels to push down female work participation in Kerala. On the one side the remittances reduced the pressure on them to do hard labour. But on the other had stress of running a family single-handedly forced educated women to opt out of highly paying jobs.
"The state could not do much to augment the skill sets of those who had gained Plus 2 level education. Most of them were not inclined to take up manual labour but lacked the skills to take up the new jobs, " says CPM leader C P Naryanan, MP.
The paradox of high social development and low economic growth, a basic feature of the Kerala model of development, has also contributed to low levels of female employment in the state. When the economy became more service sector oriented, women who were employed in the agriculture and traditional industrial sectors were rendered jobless.
Also, the growth in the service sector could not keep pace with the demand for jobs from women. Many women were illequipped to take on these new jobs or simply lacked the facilitating social environment to do so, says Sumit Mazumdar, who is working with the Institute for Human Development, Delhi and has researched female work participation in Kerala.
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