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How to boost women’s workforce participation

Updated: Nov 4, 2020

Surbhi Ghai

Schemes that promote female employment are not enough. Childcare services can make a big difference, as in Brazil’s case

There has been much clamour over the fall in female labour force participation rates (FLPRs) in recent years. The data from the Labour Bureau indicate that the FLPR for ages 15 and above has declined from 30 per cent in 2011-12 to 27.4 per cent in 2015-16.

Additionally, estimates suggest that not only has there been a fall in FLPR, but the size of the total female labour force has also shrunk from 136.25 million in 2013-14 to about 124.38 million in 2015-16, a drop of 11.86 million in two years. If the ILO projections are any indication, the FLPR is slated to fall to 24 per cent by 2030 which will certainly detract India from achieving SDG (sustainable development goal) 5 — eliminating gender inequalities by 2030.

In recent years, government policies aimed at addressing the falling FLPR have mainly focussed on launching employment programmes with special provisions to incentivise female employment such as MGNREGA, PMEGP, MUDRA; diluting protective legislation; launching special skill training programmes; and heavy investment in programmes that support education of the girl child.

However, not much attention has been given to addressing the underlying social norms that compel women to be primary care-givers and disproportionately place the burden of care responsibilities on women. According to the NSSO, the proportion of women engaged primarily in domestic duties has only increased between 2004-05 and 2011-12 from 35.3 per cent to 42.2 per cent in rural areas and from 45.6 per cent to 48 per cent in urban areas.

One thrust area in which government support can have direct implications for reducing the time burden on women is child-care support. Child-care subsidies free up mothers’ time to enter the labour force and have had significant implications in impacting female employment. A study has found that implementation of free child-care services in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, almost doubled the employment rate of mothers (who were not working prior to receiving this benefit) from 9 per cent to 17 per cent. Additionally, child-care subsidies can also have positive spillover effects on the education of young girls for they no longer have to be left behind to take care of their younger siblings.

More recently, the government has taken a proactive stance for provision of child care for the organised sector women workers through the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017. The amendment has inserted an additional section that provides for crèche facility in every establishment having 50 or more workers.

However, there are two important considerations that warrant the attention of policymakers. Firstly, the threshold for applicability of this provision is high and should be reduced. And, secondly, the law perpetuates gender stereotypes to the extent that it recognises that child care is just the mother’s responsibility by not giving male employees an equal benefit to visit their child during the day. All of these limitations must be looked into.

Concomitantly, with respect to the unorganised sector, the Centre must ensure the implementation of the National Creche Scheme that targets the provision of child-care facilities to unorganised sector women workers. A recent report suggests that reductions in the Centre’s contribution from 90 per cent to 60 per cent in 2017 have resulted in delayed and non-existent payments from the States prompting many crèches to shut down across the country.

The Nepal example

Further, in the backdrop of gradual breakdown of traditional family arrangements of child care, a community-based approach to provision of child-care services can be looked into. In this regard, the Second National Commission on Labour, 2002 cited the ‘praveshdwar home-based childcare programme’ of the Government of Nepal as an excellent example of community-based child care which catered to the children aged 0-3 years and was run by mothers themselves.

Mothers often formed groups of six and took turns to look after children at their homes. Concomitantly, the government can also work towards making reflective programmes on gender equality in secondary education compulsory that challenge the traditional dynamics that dictate the duties of woman to be a ‘caregiver’ and man to be a ‘bread-winner’.

Care responsibilities are often a barrier for women in realising their workforce participation aspirations; therefore, programmes to boost female employment without any arrangement for reducing the care responsibilities of women will only increase their burden.

Today, Indian women are poised to take part in the rapidly expanding economy. The government’s strategy to address the time burden barrier to female participation will certainly be a proactive stance.

This article was originally published in The Hindu Business Line on January 27, 2019.

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