When a recent report by the National Sample Survey revealed that the female labour force in India has decreased drastically, several economists at the World Bank suggested in a paper that India lacks ‘suitable job opportunities’ for women.
The argument made by Martin Rama, Urmila Chatterjee and Rinku Murgai, all lead economists at the World Bank for different regions, is that Indian women tend to prefer jobs that are flexible, safe and not too far from their homes so that they can easily get to their families if needed. So job opportunities for women that do exist are often turned down because they’re deemed unsuitable.
It is imperative to understand why women are refraining from participating in paid work, when their earnings could increase family incomes as well as give them a say in household matters which is very empowering.
The figures in the NSS report puts India at the 120th rank among 131 countries for which data on the female work force is available. The survey that followed tried to understand why the numbers had declined, and emerged with the findings below:
A. Increase in household income
B. Increase in time at school for girls
C. The rise of nuclear families, which means women have no family members to leave their children with
The second point is definitely good news, but it does not explain why older women are staying away from work.
It could be argued that the NSS data is skewed, operating as it does on a strict definition of the word ‘job’ while, in fact, most women in India work in the informal sector.
According to the Self-Employed Women Association (SEWA), 94 per cent of the labour force in India is employed in the informal sector, 60 per cent of which are women. SEWA’s general secretary Jyoti Macwan told opendemocracy.net that the organisation’s aim is to help these women get work security, income security, food security and social security, since women who work in the informal sector are “invisible” to the national economy, simply because they are not regarded as “workers”.
This means that job opportunities for women do exist, but they are not on the national radar.
“I see more women going out to work today. And I don’t just mean those who are educated but also among the lower strata of the population,” says Ishani, a 25-year-old media professional in Mumbai. “Safety is a concern for many women, but for how long do you stay home worrying about it?”
That’s an almost unanswerable question. Almost as unanswerable as: what are ‘suitable’ job opportunities for women?