Women's empowerment: slogans versus reality

To reduce unpaid labour is the first step towards women’s real participation in the labour market

Women are often found overcrowded in stereotyped, low-productivity jobs
Women are often found overcrowded in stereotyped, low-productivity jobs

Indira Hirway

The Union Budget for 2024-25 presented at the beginning of this month was significant on two counts: 1) it highlighted the achievements of this government over the past decade and 2) it presented a broad approach to India as a developed country in the event the BJP is returned to power in the forthcoming elections.

Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman began her speech with bombastic claims of a “profound positive transformation of the Indian economy in the last ten years”, with “social inclusivity through coverage of all strata of society” and “geographical inclusivity through the development of all regions in the country”.

This too rosy a picture of our economy is factually incorrect on most fronts. For instance, the claim of the Niti Aayog that multidimensional poverty declined during the economic slowdown has been clearly refuted by many experts, who have shown that poverty has, in fact, increased.

The decline in the headcount ratio of poverty claimed by the finance minister is also incorrect, as no consumption expenditure data is available since 2011–12 (you cannot compute the headcount poverty ratio without data on consumption expenditure).

The claim that the increase in women’s participation in the labour market reflects their empowerment is factually incorrect, as this increase is primarily through self-employment, which simply translates as increased vulnerability of women in the Indian economy.

The pandemic was not handled satisfactorily by the government, beginning with the sudden, thoughtless lockdown that compelled thousands of poor helpless migrants to walk hundreds of kilometres to reach their homes, followed by many other missteps, including the severe shortage of oxygen cylinders when they were needed most.

Finally, the performance on the employment front has not been good. A majority of the claims made by the government are thus contested.

The focus of the budget is on the poor, youth, women and farmers, all of which is desirable. However, the details do not reflect this focus. It is important to note that the overall GDP-centric strategy of the government will not automatically help these four sectors.

The poor and the youth, in particular, need an employment-centric strategy that is strongly backed by education and skill-formation. Generation of productive employment on a massive scale is a sure way to reach inclusive growth. With 79 per cent literacy and only about 30–35 per cent of our population educated up to the secondary level, the Indian workforce is just not capable of participating in the mainstream growth process.

Unless there is a quantum jump in the expenditure on (quality) education, the youth and the poor will remain marginalised and excluded. Distributing free food grains to 80 crore people (almost 60 per cent of the population) is charity. Generation of productive employment is a far better alternative.

Neither is the concept of women’s empowerment understood in all its complexity. The root of women’s subordination lies in patriarchy. Women’s low participation rate overall and inferior status in the labour market arises from the patriarchal division of labour, whereby women are responsible for unpaid domestic work and care of the children, the old, the sick and the disabled in the family.

The division of labour at the household level assigns men the role of breadwinners, while women are to be homemakers. Even with hired help, it is the woman of the household who is held responsible for the upkeep of the home.

Consequently, women either do not enter the labour market at all, or they enter it with the additional baggage of domestic responsibility. Thus, gender inequality in the labour market starts right at the entry point. With lower human capital and restricted mobility in the market thanks to patriarchal norms, women’s choices are also gendered. They prefer to work part-time or flexi-time, in safe environments, closer to home. Often, they are found overcrowded in stereotyped, low-productivity jobs.

If the government wants women to be truly empowered and also to enter the labour market, it will first have to work towards the reduction of unpaid labour. This can be ensured by improving technology (with fuel-efficient cooking stoves in place of primitive wood-fired stoves, for instance); providing infrastructural support, such as water supply at the doorstep; shifting part of their unpaid work like child care, care of the disabled and the old to mainstream institutions or civil society organisations.

These steps will release women from the burden of unpaid work to a significant extent, reduce their time stress, enable them to acquire new skills and participate in productive work. To bring about gender equality in the labour market, however, the government will also have to take a quantum leap in improving education and skillsets among women.

Unfortunately, the government of India does not recognise the role of unpaid work and societal norms in women’s subordination, low participation and inferior status in the labour market. It has not formed any policy to address the real constraints that women face.

The government must understand that burdening women belonging to weaker sections with more work in the labour market without reducing their unpaid work is likely to have an adverse impact on their empowerment.

As regards the strategy for moving India to ‘Viksit Bharat’, continuing on the same growth path will not help to achieve inclusive and all-pervasive development in the country.

‘Sabka Saath’ will happen only when the government cares enough to take everyone along, especially the marginalised sections of our population.

The author is professor of economics at the Centre for Development Alternatives, Ahmedabad. Courtesy: The Billion Press

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