Agency building

In order to facilitate more women entering the workforce, women and their potential have to be brought into the national consciousness in a planned and systematic manner, utilising multiple avenues as a focussed agenda – there is an urgent need to move women’s agenda from a “good to have” status to “must have” status in policies and implementation processes. It has to be brought centre stage, giving it a substantially enhanced focus as compared to the current status afforded by political parties and civil society, and make women’s empowerment the core theme of their mandate, aligned with the transformation agenda of the nation. It has to occupy significant mind space of society by detailing the requirements to enhance the status and rights of women, just as the Right to Information Act (RTI) or Right to Education (RTE) had created few years ago.

Career counselling and exposure to career pathways aimed at women should be instituted in high schools as a nationwide compulsory initiative, which could be supported by CSR programmes. Bold initiatives such as reservation of jobs for women within the existing framework or fresh framework could be considered for a limited period of time until equality in numbers is established, just as other marginalised segments of society have fought and won the opportunity to elevate themselves in the society.

As per an Oxfam India report, Indian women’s unpaid work plays a crucial role in sustaining economic activity, equivalent to 3.1 per cent of GDP. However, much of the contribution goes unrecognised or is incorrectly measured, amounting to a systemic transfer of hidden subsidies to the economy. Accounting for unrecognised work to bring more players into the care and household work sectors and informal sector work along with establishing social nets should be actively considered.

Workforce reforms

The only possible equalisers across our vast, complex, and unequal nation in this scenario are long-term education, quality skills training and “good jobs” leading to a meaningful addition to the domestic income/savings/investments model and thereby contributing positively to the growth story over the long term. A UNICEF study highlighted the difficulties faced by young girls and women, especially in rural India, when not in school – lack of access to clean washrooms, sanitary products, and regular nutritious meals; risk of exposure to violence at home, and a further increase in burden of household chores during the pandemic-induced lockdowns. Additionally, anecdotal evidence point towards girls, especially those in the urban poor communities or in rural areas, dropping out of formal schooling in high school (after standard seven or eight) for numerous reasons – primarily, the onset of puberty, poor connectivity from their homes to the place of learning, looking after younger siblings/completing chores at home.

However, more recent survey findings report that there is a decline in dropout numbers for children aged between six and 14, and a shift from private to government schooling in rural areas. Three International Graduate Centre studies assessed the Government of Bihar’s bicycle programme from 2006, which provides girls in standard nine with money to buy bicycles. It was found that the programme reduced the gender gap in age-appropriate secondary school enrolment by 40 per cent and led to a 32 per cent increase in the enrolment of girls in secondary school, and school dropouts for girls falling below 5 per cent.

Transitioning from traditional low-paying, informal sector jobs to more productive, better-paid work is the key to retaining women in the formal workforce. In emerging economies, there is a visible trend of jobs being displaced in agriculture-related occupations. For instance, agricultural work is one of the three top occupational groups driving job displacements for men (21 per cent of losses) in Mexico but is not in the top three for women.

However, in India, where so many women work in subsistence agriculture, losses in this occupational category could account for 28 per cent of jobs lost by women, compared with 16 per cent of jobs lost by men. The Skill India Mission not only provides women with relevant skills sought by employers, it also ensures that training programmes are sensitive to their needs by helping provide safe transport, flexible schedules and childcare support. Women must monetise their skills to create unconventional job opportunities through compulsory vocational training programmes designed to address the needs of women from different segments based on the dynamic opportunities at different locations. Skilling will, therefore, be a mix of employment in corporates as well as sustainable livelihoods.

Just as in the 1960s and the 1970s there was an impetus to job creation through public sector enterprises, to create an impetus for job creation on a massive scale for many and livelihood opportunities for others, SEZs could be set up. Incentives could be given to encourage investment in large-scale ventures, which would result in exclusive or maximum jobs for women. The digital platform announced recently by the Ministry of Rural Development in partnership with Amazon for enabling women artisans to reach out to customers is a welcome initiative.

In order to make this initiative a success, a cooperative movement to support women’s livelihood initiatives should be encouraged, with finances and market access. Using multiple communication channels such as social media, targeted emails, surveys, firms may highlight viable re-entry opportunities for women who may have stepped away from the formal sector or for women who may be starting off at a later stage in life. Mentoring of such newly recruited professionals by senior colleagues will help build confidence and enhance teamwork and productivity.

Reimagining MGNREGA

The MNREGA programme has attracted more than 50 per cent women participation, although it was originally conceived as a scheme with priority to women participation being a minimum of one-third. Although this scheme has been beneficial to creating economic independence for women, it has to be noted that most men in the villages migrate to towns in search of jobs, leaving women to be part of MNREGA-led earning opportunities. The implementation of the scheme in most places is by men and, even with the introduction of women as counsellors or supervisors, the specific needs of women are not being fully addressed in many states. In time, many of the jobs performed by women that are pure physical labour will be replaced with automation. Therefore, it is time women from rural areas are trained for specific skills and are enabled to shift from sheer physical labour towards higher income opportunities in value-added agriculture or services or manufacturing sectors.

The government has announced an ambitious plan to provide healthcare support through Ayushman Bharat to every Indian citizen. In order to make this plan a success, the healthcare system in India will require last-mile touch points to provide timely and customised affordable medical care. The success of this plan will rest, to a great extent, on data collection of health status of citizens in every village and by deriving insights to enable deployment of resources and expertise to provide quality attention. Rural women could be encouraged to acquire skills in technology and data collection, and should be offered higher earnings through MNREGA or a similar new scheme aimed at technology adoption amongst rural women and aiding in healthcare transformation in rural areas.

Excerpted with permission from “Women’s Participation in Future Growth,” Uma Ganesh and Shilpa Phadke from India’s Pathway to Success: Winning in the Next Decade, edited by Ganesh Natarajan and Ejaz Ghani, Rupa Publications.