Cash transfer to women is no panacea for women, who need equality more than ever

Paying a token sum to women every month is meaningless because much or all of it would in all likelihood be spent on meeting the needs of the family and not on improving their own lives

Representative image
Representative image

Anita Tagore

With seven states going to the polls in 2022, five of them early in the new year, electoral promises are raining. A marked feature this time is the engagement with the idea of women’s empowerment.

Women’s empowerment is being associated by several political parties with schemes for free monthly allowances to women. While this may be seen as a nascent step towards that direction, a more nuanced perspective needs to evolve. Over-simplification of complex realities in order to suit electoral compulsions is the result of a flawed understanding of women as economic actors and as a political constituency.

The idea of women’s empowerment is fundamental for sustainable and inclusive development as marked in the Sustainable Development Goals. Such empowerment would encompass consciousness-raising as well as exercise of power to make strategic life choices. It is a mistake to treat women as passive recipients of development policies rather than robust actors in economic development.

India has one of the lowest women ‘labour force participation rates’ in the world, falling to 20.3% in 2019 from more than 26% in 2005.This was lower than 30.5% in Bangladesh and 33.7% in Sri Lanka. In 2020 the rate stood at 20.6% compared to the national average of 47.3%.

Women in India are engaged more in the unorganized than the organized sector and have been worse affected in the wake of the pandemic, pushed out also partly due to the general preference for male workers. The ‘occupational segregation’ disproportionately forces women to be a part of the informal sector, typically characterized by unskilled labour, low wages, lack of social protection, inherent exploitative client-patron relationship and dis-entitled from the bindings of labour laws. Besides, there is the political economy of the household care-work that is unpaid, invisible and home-bound.

Margaret Mead had explained how male achievement is magnified in traditional societies so much that the same occupation by women renders women’s work as less important. The basis of such presumption lay in treating domestic work as a natural function of women. But political parties are diffident to address the exclusion of women from employment, the relationship between women’s participation in the labour market and development outcomes being complex.

Schemes guaranteeing some amount of money to women by way of cash transfer is no substitute for gainful employment. Access to such cash does not mean that women will have effective control over it. It is a state-controlled dependency model that does not envision a substantive plan for inclusion of women into the workforce but endorses minimal, short-term benevolence.

A paltry allowance will not pay the fees for higher education of girls or enable women to launch a start-up enterprise. Indeed, studies suggest that in all probability, such beneficiaries will spend the amount in fulfilling the welfare needs of the family than for her own well-being. How can the state contribute to enhancing the capability of women as an economic player? Promoting conditions conducive for formalization of women in the work force and gender equality at the workplace are the ways forward.

Tokenism or policy adventurism that reduces women to the position of ‘reserve army’ of labour is not very helpful. A substantive framework that considers women as equal stakeholders and responsible partners is undoubtedly required more.

The State should relinquish its penchant to pretend being the ‘messiah’ for redemption of women by charity. Instead, the state must strengthen women’s direct employment, implement pay parity across private and public sectors, ensure access to education, skill development and resources besides institutionalizing their representation,community care systems(crèche) and new opportunities.

(The writer is Associate Professor in Political Science in Kalindi College, University of Delhi)

This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday.

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