Augmenting the dwindling labour force participation rate for women requires strong political vision, alongside an economic perspective — rather than social empowerment
Though women constitute 48 per cent of the Indian population, the labour force participation rate (LFPR) is one of the lowest in the world. It has declined from 30 per cent in 1990 to 21 per cent today which is not even half of the global average of 47 per cent. Some economists think that the low LFPR is due to exclusion of the 'unpaid work' by women in agricultural and allied activities, family occupations, caregiving and, small businesses etc. But frankly, 'unpaid work' of this nature is mostly family-oriented and it is difficult to evaluate contribution in economic terms typical of the labour market. However, it surely serves as a subsidy to the economy and also is an indicator of potential labour supply by women. Actual and proportionate participation of the women labour force both in formal and non-formal sectors is crucial for ensuring women's rights and gender equality. The declining rate of participation in formal and non-formal sectors is a setback for empowerment.
According to ILO research paper (2014) by Steven Kapsos and others, increase in attendance of Indian women in educational institutions and, increase in household incomes accounted for a 38 per cent decline of LFRP while the rest 62 per cent was due to insufficient job opportunities stemming from occupational segregation and social norms, an additional disadvantage for women. In the rural sector, MANREGA is a shining example as 33 per cent of participation of women labour is mandated by law. Likewise, the government sector has job reservations for women, but the private sector is free from such obligations or social responsibilities.
Economic development certainly enables nations to reduce gender gaps; but progress in education, financial and digital inclusion, legal protection and unpaid care work are equally important to achieve full participation of women in the workforce. Perhaps we may look to the east to learn a thing or two. 'Womanomics' is associated with Japan's economic vision as propounded by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (referred to as 'Abenomics) in his second tenure started in 2013. Japan is not only the land of the rising Sun but also happens to be a nation with rising female work participation (71 per cent), more than that of the US and Europe. Gender diversity, more than an option, has become an economic and business imperative for Japan. Generous parental leave benefits, gender transparency and work style reforms mandating equal pay for equal work made all the difference which many countries in the world are yet to implement. The agenda had four areas of thrust: increasing FLPR of women from 68 per cent in 2012 to 77 per cent by 2020, normalising 'M-curve' (returning to work after childbirth) from 38 per cent in 2010 to 55 per cent by 2020, targeting 30 per cent representation in a leadership position and, expanding day-care facilities for children eliminating waitlist by 2017. The 'Act on Promotion of Women's Participation and Advancement in the Workplace' enacted in 2015, mandated all companies with more than 300 employees, to submit data on 'ratio of female employees", "ratio of female directors", along with diversity plans for future.
The experiment was a phenomenal success as FLPR rose to a record high of 71 per cent vis a vis 63 per cent in 2013 in the past six years and the target for 2022 is now raised to 80 per cent. To facilitate working women, total day-care capacity was expanded by 27 per cent, and the waitlist has fallen to an 11-year low of around 19,900. It seems unconscious biases and gender role stereotypes in Japanese society still are challenges. Nevertheless 'womanomics' has worked in Japan and it is estimated to have boosted its GDP by 10 per cent in 2019.
Earning perse is not economic empowerment. It is not even distribution of sops like, free gas connections, cash transfers on the birth of a girl child, free marriage grants, or free cycles and auto rickshaws that are highlighted in party manifestos just before polls. According to the UN, 'it is the ability to participate equally in the existing markets, access and control over productive resources, decent work and control over time, lives and bodies with increased voice and participation in economic decision-making at all levels from the household to international institutions.' It is observed that though education and upskilling are essential in today's technological and digital world, gains in education haven't got translated into better labour market outcomes for women. A study by UNDP revealed that while lack of business management skills is a disadvantage for most women, access to credit is another barrier for setting up businesses. According to the Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs (MIWE) 2018, India ranks 52nd out of 59 countries in terms of availability of conditions for the promotion of female entrepreneurship
Given the potential of the women workforce in terms of contribution to GDP, female work participation needs to be seen more as an economic imperative rather than an obligation for social justice. The Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana (PMMY), Stand Up India scheme, and other few interventions signal a good beginning but are not good enough to address the challenges. Similarly, various schemes and programs of economic empowerment barely help women to cross the poverty line and are no substitute for real participation in work. There is no 'Gender Budget' either, let alone the much orchestrated 33 per cent reservation bill. A few days ago, the Government announced direct admission of women to NDA after higher secondary as part of permanent commission to Armed forces of India. It is an epoch-making decision. But such positive interventions happen only in fits and starts and largely through judicial activism rather than being natural outcomes of a vision and road map. Laws against gender discrimination alone will not guarantee equal participation, in the absence of opportunities and effective mechanisms to ensure them. We need a broader vision and strong political will to create the necessary ecosystem to ensure the just and fair participation of the women workforce in the economy.
An interesting reason for 'womanomics' in Japan was its shrinking population with a corresponding decline in the workforce. From 128 million in 2008, it shrunk to 126 million in 2014 and a further drop of 30 per cent is expected by 2055. Conversely, in the Indian context, though the population is on the rise, the sex ratio is alarmingly on the decline, from 898 in 2014-16 to 896 in 2015-17. In this scenario, 'womanomics' is all more relevant in India than anywhere else.
The writer is a former Addl. Chief Secretary of Chhattisgarh. Views expressed are personal