How to bolster the presence of women in India’s labour force

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By Amar Patnaik

According to the 2018 Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS), 22% of women in India above 15 were part of the labour force, as against 71.2% men between July 2017 and June 2018. In Nordic countries, almost three in four working-age women are part of the paid labour force. This rate is currently 46.8% in the US, 47.3% in Canada and 48% in France. India lags far behind countries like China (61%), Vietnam (73%), Singapore (60%), Bangladesh (36%) and Pakistan (24%).

Ironically, soon after the Covid-19 lockdown kicked in, the country, particularly in states like Odisha and Kerala, experienced the productivity and resoluteness of women force in its fight against the pandemic, be it in making masks, gloves and sanitisers, door-to-door vegetables retailing in containment areas, and distributing dry ration and cooked food to vulnerable households. They also spread awareness among communities about preventive protocols for breaking the chain of the virus.

All the work they did would ordinarily have been conducted in the formal sector as a paid service, and counted as an output of the labour force. But most of their work is counted as being in the informal sector and, therefore, not counted as labour output. While this may be a technical issue of economic statistics, it is an eye-opener about women in rural areas who can be brought into the labour force by organising them into self-help groups (SHGs), and by promoting micro-entrepreneurial activities among them.

The patriarchal family structure, lack of education and required skills, restriction to household chores, lack of access to a safe workplace, maternity benefit and gender gap in pay are some reasons that deter women to participate in India’s labour force. GoI’s ambitious ‘Startup India, Stand Up India’ campaign has also failed to attract women entrepreneurs without government-guaranteed credit support.

The Odisha government’s Mission Shakti movement launched in 2001 involving seven million rural women has been successfully organised into about six lakh women SHGs. Another success story is of Kudumbashree, the Kerala state poverty eradication mission launched in 1998, which covers 4.39 million women into about three lakh SHGs.

In both cases, financial assistance is provided to these SHGs through extremely soft bank loans to encourage them to take up various self-employment works and micro projects. This explains a higher level of female participation in the labour force in Kerala compared to other states.

Recently, the Odisha government went a step further and tied them to a marketing support of Rs 5,000 crore in the next five years through government procurement systems such as PDS, midday meals and other nutrition support programmes besides medical supplies and infrastructure maintenance works.

Thus, an appropriate ecosystem promoting formation of such women SHGs, empowered by basic vocational training in low technology-intensive micro enterprises like making candles and masks, tailoring, driving and computer literacy on the lines of ‘Skill India’ is the only way to bring women into the labour force, though still in the informal sector. This is one important takeaway from the Covid-19 lockdown.

The writer is Rajya Sabha MP from Odisha.

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