When the economy is not in the best of health and the collaterals, like rising unemployment, have long crossed over from being unholy statistical data to a subject of political-electoral slugfests, the talk of a sharp decline in women’s participation in the workforce may seem extraneous. But a recent World Bank report on the sharp downturn in women’s employment in India is a worrisome eye-opener for a different reason.
Based on data compiled by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), the report pertains to the period 2004–05 to 2009–2012/13—a period that saw GDP growth of around 8.6 per cent. Taking a rather optimistic view of the alarming data, some see the better economic parameters as a possible reason, in the sense that households could afford not to send their womenfolk to work.
But then the drop in women’s employment in rural areas was faster than in the urban pockets: 11.2 per cent in the rural areas and 5 per cent in the urban belt between 2004-05 and 2009-10. The pattern continued into 2011-12, the latest NSSO data shows. In 1993-94, the participation of women in the workforce had risen to 42.6 per cent, post-economic liberalisation, only to drop to 31.2 per cent in 2011-12 and a dismal 27 per cent in 2013.
What happened? Did the job guarantee scheme have an unwritten male preference in employment? Or did women merely get pushed into the unregulated unorganised sector, which does not show up on the national register? The decline has pulled down India’s ranking to 120th among 131 countries, worst among the BRICS nations. At 27 per cent in 2013, it’s only relatively better than the Arab world and Pakistan, as per the Global Employment trends report of ILO. States like Chhattisgarh, Mizoram and Nagaland, however, show 50 per cent participation of women in the workforce. Surprisingly, the southern states, which usually have better human indices, perform poorly. If statistics indeed lie, someone needs to tell the truth about this.