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Unequal burden

Published : Apr 09, 2010 00:00 IST

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A disproportionately large share of unpaid labour is performed by women. In this file picture, a tribal woman sets out to fetch water from a stream, in Araku Valley, Visakhapatnam.-K.R. DEEPAK

A disproportionately large share of unpaid labour is performed by women. In this file picture, a tribal woman sets out to fetch water from a stream, in Araku Valley, Visakhapatnam.-K.R. DEEPAK

One measure of whether it is important to have women in important policy formulation roles is to examine how a largely male-dominated system of government has served women. It turns out that India performs very poorly in this regard. Despite a few heartening examples to the contrary, in general Indian women and girls still get a much worse deal than their male counterparts. India ranks much worse than most other developing countries (including those in Asia) and is usually close to sub-Saharan Africa in terms of most important gender indicators: the sheer survival of women (sex ratios at birth and missing women); education (literacy, school retention and higher education enrolment); nutrition and health (malnutrition, life expectancy and risks of maternal mortality); employment (work participation, wage gaps); security and voice (violence against women, political participation).

The lack of economic equality is both a cause and a reflection of other gender gaps. It translates into, and tends to be associated with, less political voice, less social and cultural freedom, less agency in general. The lack of economic empowerment of women in general is reflected in the lack of access to income-generating opportunities, whether through paid work or self-employment, and lack of control over individual, household and community assets.

Nationally and internationally, there is evidence of a positive relationship between material progress and the socio-economic condition of women over sufficiently long periods of time. But this link is not automatic; it reflects the outcome of womens struggles for equality and justice, which in turn are also conditioned by the broader labour force requirements of economic expansion. Globally, it has been found that as womens work becomes more socially recognised simply because it is paid, social pressures are created not only for better conditions of work but also for more opportunities for them to engage in economic activity at different levels. But this relationship is not linear, nor is the trajectory a smooth one, being marked by numerous pitfalls and periodic reversals. In India, in recent times the ability of womens movements to fight for greater rights and empowerment has been conditioned by the broader economic processes that have determined the explicit participation of women in the labour market.

This is a more complex matter than is often recognised. Since most women are actually employed in some kind of productive/reproductive work, whether or not this is recognised and quantified by statistics, the issues relating to their employment are qualitatively different from those of men. Social norms generally determine the choice between participation in production and involvement in reproduction, and consequently inhibit the freedom of women to participate in the job market or engage in other forms of overt self-employment. These limitations can take many forms. While the explicit social rules in some parts of India and among certain communities restrict womens access to many areas of public life, the implicit pressures of other supposedly more emancipated societies may operate no less forcefully to direct women into certain prescribed occupational channels.

As a result, the link between unemployment and poverty, which is typically assumed for men in developing countries, is not at all direct and evident for women: many fully employed women still remain poor in absolute terms, and adding to their workload will not necessarily improve their material conditions. Nor will the policy of simply increasing the volume of explicit female employment, since simply adding on recognised jobs may in fact lead to a double burden upon women whose household obligations still have to be fulfilled. Instead, concern has to be focussed upon the quality, recognition, and remuneration of womens work, as well as the conditions facilitating it, such as alternative arrangements for household work and child care.

One critical feature of this is in the area of unpaid labour, which is disproportionately performed by women in India and in most other developing countries. Since many activities associated with household maintenance, provisioning and reproduction which are typically performed by women or female children are not subject to explicit market relations, there is an inherent tendency to ignore the actual productive contribution of these activities. Similarly, social norms, values and perceptions also render most household-based activity invisible. This invisibility gets directly transferred to data inadequacies, making officially generated data very rough and imprecise indicators of the actual productive contribution of women. The social allocation of unpaid labour tends to operate regardless of other work that women may perform. For working women in lower income groups, it is particularly difficult to find outside labour to substitute for household-based tasks, which therefore tend to devolve upon young girls and aged women within the household or to put further pressure on the workload of the women workers themselves. Social provision for at least a significant part of such services and tasks, or changes in the gender-wise division of labour with respect to household tasks, therefore become important considerations when women are otherwise employed.

But even where women are recognised to be economically active, they operate under different constraints from their male counterparts. Consider the case of agriculture, which still accounts for more than half the Indian workforce and provides the basic livelihood for around two-thirds of all households. Women are increasingly the main cultivators as more men than women move out of agriculture. Around 40 per cent of all agricultural workers are women, and the proportion is well above half in several southern States. Agriculture is also more significant for women as an employer: compared to around half of male workers, around three-fourths of recognised female workers (and 85 per cent of those in rural India) find their basic employment in agriculture. But typically women farmers are denied land titles, and this in turn operates to reduce their access to institutional credit, irrigation water and other infrastructure, extension services, input provision and marketing support.

Similarly, outside of agriculture, women workers are disproportionately crowded into informal activities and low-remuneration self-employment, where also they confront greater difficulties than male workers. More than half of all women engaged in non-agricultural activities are self-employed, and the majority of the rest is involved in small, informal manufacturing and service activities and in casual work. One major problem is the lack of access to institutional credit, which still remains heavily skewed towards males and therefore raises relative costs and creates logistical problems for women petty producers. In terms of credit, the policy approach has been to focus on providing micro-credit for women, rather than stressing financial inclusion that would provide men and women equal access to institutional finance.

Since women typically have less access to skills training, they tend to remain in low-paid manual and irregular employment, while new technologies are transferred to and controlled by men. Even when they are part of regular public employment, the growing tendency within government is to try and deliver public services on the cheap by employing at the margin low-paid women workers. Thus anganwadi workers, ASHAs (accredited social health activists) and parateachers in Shiksha Kendras are not treated on a par with other government employees but are called social or voluntary workers who receive remuneration that is still below the minimum wage in most States. For all these reasons, gender wage gaps have been rising in India for broad categories of workers according to National Sample Survey (NSS) data, and average real wages of women workers have stagnated or even declined despite the high aggregate gross domestic product (GDP) growth.

It may be argued that this is all true and needs to be changed but that this requires different economic strategies, and that parliamentary reservation is not really the way to change things. In fact, the most common argument that is heard is that such reservation will not actually make a difference to overall empowerment of ordinary women; rather it will simply benefit those who are able to get voted into Parliament. There are those who suggest that it will be largely symbolic in its impact on the conditions of most women in the country. While the nature of this unfolding is yet to be seen, there is no question that this particular piece of legislation will set in motion a process that may be hard to reverse. That is why so many feminist activists and womens groups have stressed this particular law as a major part of their mobilisation.

Why should it make a difference? Indeed, no one would argue that this single measure would make a huge difference on its own to the economic conditions of most women in the country. After all, we cannot really claim that thus far all the women who have managed to achieve a certain position of leadership in national politics have really differentiated themselves by highlighting and championing the issues that are important for women. In fact, aside from some very inspiring exceptions, many elected women Members of Parliament have not made much of a mark in any major respect, leave aside the particular concerns of women.

But the point is that such a measure tends to unleash a broader process, because it is well known that there is a dynamic that can be set in motion by sheer numbers. Currently women constitute only 8.2 per cent of the MPs, which is lower (around half) than the proportion more than 20 years ago. This makes them a potentially lonely minority in a context where raising issues from a womens perspective or demanding that laws and policies be more gender-aware can be an isolating experience if there is not enough support from other members.

But when the numbers increase beyond such a small minority, things tend to change. It has been found in many countries where women are substantially represented in legislative bodies (such as in the Nordic countries) that such a presence increases the likelihood of more gender-sensitive legislation as well as the culture of the house, empowering individual women to speak up more and be heard, and generating many more women leaders who are then taken seriously across the political spectrum.

This does not simply mean a better deal for the few women who are able to get elected it is likely to translate into a different focus on policies and programmes that may help the majority of women. The significant effects of the 73rd and 74th Amendments on the empowerment of rural women through reservation of seats in local bodies are still being realised. And this is likely at the national level as well.

The factors affecting the economic empowerment of women such as lack of assets and education, inadequate access to credit and restricted ability to work out of the home are now well-known. What is additionally important and has direct relevance for a law that provides quotas for women as legislators is the role of legal systems and their implementation in the empowerment of women. The barriers for women come from the construction of the laws themselves and shortfalls in their substance (whether in terms of property and inheritance laws, allowing divorce on reasonable grounds, or protection from violence) as well as from unequal access for women to the legal system and other mechanisms for justice.

Given this, the urgency of having more women legislators who can shape the content of law as well as redirect policies to move away from the traditional male breadwinner model to a more gender-sensitive and inclusive approach is obvious. This in turn will make for an economic strategy that may be more equitable and sustainable than the current model. The passing of this legislation will therefore be a critical step forward not just for women, but for Indian society and economy in general.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Apr 09, 2010.)

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