A rather substantial decline in female labour force participation rate (LFPR)from about 29% in FY05 to just around 22% in FY12as reported by two recent rounds of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), has been a matter of wide academic and public debate in the country. India presently has the tenth lowest female LFPR among 130 countries in the world, and it is much lower than all its South Asian neighbours except Pakistan. A large number of experts and commentators have attributed this decline to the marginalisation of women in the labour market. Others have termed it as a positive development because of rising educational enrolments of women in schools and colleges as well as withdrawal of a large number of women from work due to rising income (called income effect in economic discourse). Very often, in this polarised debate, the real issue concerning womens employment and economic empowerment has been missed.
It needs to be noted that in a poor country like India and more so in the rural areas, due to a variety of reasons, a very large percentage of women are engaged part-time in several economic activities along with their domestic and care duties which are very often not properly counted and captured by the national statistical surveys resulting in lower reporting of economic participation of women. This invisibility of womens work has been widely documented and analysed in feminist economic literature and is not unique to India, but at the same time, this is a rather significant factor in the so-called reported lower female LFPR. This is amply revealed by an extensive survey conducted by the Institute for Human Development (IHD) during 2009-10 in a stratified random sample of 36 villages in Bihar. As against a ridiculously low estimate of LFPR of women in rural Bihar around 6% by the NSSO, the IHD survey reports 35% participation. Notwithstanding some differences in survey tools and approach, the under-reporting of womens work is closely revealed by this survey. In addition, several experts have also pointed towards deterioration in the quality of NSSO investigators as well as supervisory staff, most of whom have been hired on contractual basis overtime.
In fact, the under-counting of women workers may be one of the most important reasons for the recent reported decline in female LFPR. However, at the same time, other factors have their own share in the reported decline. There is significant increase in enrolment of women in educational institutions; at elementary level it is now universal and at other levels also it has increased significantly. The female student population increased from 118 million in 2004-05 to 151 million in 2011-12. That is why the drop in female LFPR during 2005-12 is sharpest in the age group 15 to 24 years, although the data reports decline in other age groups also. The effect of enhanced income due to tightening in the labour market among certain groups motivating women to withdraw from labour force needs to be investigated to fully discern the phenomenon.
However, it is very important to note that the higher female LFPR, per se, does not necessarily indicate higher economic empowerment of women in a poor country like India where a majority of the women workers are concentrated in low paid and subsistence activities. This is quite clear from the fact that while around two-third women workers (close to 80% in rural areas) are engaged in agriculture and allied activities, the percentage of such male workers is only around 43%. In many other low paid subsistence activities too, women are proportionately much more than their male counterparts. As such, in addition to low LFPR, it is equally important to analyse the types of employment in which women are are currently engaged in as well as new employment opportunities that are being created.
Some important features in this respect need to be noted. First, the decline in employment of women has been largely in rural areas, and in urban areas it is only very modest. Further, in rural areas there has been an absolute decline of employment growth at the rate of over 4% per annum between 2004-05 and 2011-12 in agriculture and allied activities, whereas in case of males, this decline is marginal. Most of the employment created in which women have been engaged during these seven years are construction and services (such as health, education, public administration as well as extremely low-paid and exploitative domestic service). Manufacturing, mostly unorganised in urban areas, is another sector where women workers have been absorbed, although it is much less than men. On its own, in a limited sense, it is rather a welcome development, as it indicates a relative decline of womens work in low-paid activities and gradual shift to relatively more remunerative jobs. However, this is true only in a very broad sense and still women, much more than men, are concentrated in low-paid activities. On the other hand, their employment as regular and formal worker is much lower than their male counterparts, as can be seen in the accompanying table.
It should be a matter of concern that the changes occurring in womens employment structure are much slower than the socio-economic changes taking place relating to women. In the wake of rising educational enrolments, the coming years will witness a big surge in educated women, a large number of whom will be educated at graduate and above level such women have much higher LFPR than overall females (around one-third as against 22% overall).
It is worrisome that the country has not been able to create appropriate jobs, even for the limited number of educated females and this is reflected in the unusually high rates of educated young female unemployment in the country. It is worth mentioning that young female educated unemployment (15 to 29 years of age) is around 23%, which is double than the male counterparts. If unemployment rates for graduates and above are seen, they are considerably much higher. As such, the challenge for creating suitable employment opportunities for the youth bulge, likely to accelerate sharply in future and more in backward states, is much more daunting for females. The country has to address this challenge in a holistic manner taking into consideration factors such as needs of the much more mobile and aspiring women in future. The measures include creation of maternity and child care facilities, easy access to safe transport, availability of safe places of residences (particularly for unmarried and single women), and most importantly creation of more jobs suitable for women.
Amrita Datta is member of the faculty and Alakh N Sharma is director, the Institute for Human Development, New Delhi