What does NFHS-5 data tell us about state of women empowerment in India

All women work but only a few are salaried: Only 25.4% of women aged 15-49 years who worked in the last 12 months were paid in cash

By Shaurya Srivastava,
Published: Thursday 30 December 2021

Holistic development of women’s social, economic, cultural and political rights are critical to achieving economic growth and alleviating poverty.

India aims to achieve United Nations-mandated Sustainable Development Goal-5, which focuses on women empowerment and gender equality, by 2030.  To measure the progress of women’s rights in the country, we look at the findings of the recently released NFHS-5 fact sheets.

NFHS-5 provides data for 2019-21 and looks at the position of women on six key indicators — the percentage of currently married women who usually participate in household decisions; women who worked in the last 12 months and were paid in cash, women owning a house and / or land (alone or jointly with others); women having a mobile phone that they themselves use; women having a bank or savings account that they use; and women aged 15-24 years who use hygienic methods of protection during their menstrual period.

The authors came up with some interesting insights on the progress of women’s position in India in last half-a-decade by juxtaposing this data with the last NFHS survey.

Participation in household decision-making

Nearly 88.7 per cent of currently married Indian women tend to participate in the key household decision about healthcare for themselves, make major household purchases and visits to family or relatives.

We zoomed in to look at state-level variations and came across some encouraging figures. At least 16 out of 28 states and 6 out of 8 Union territories have more than 90 per cent women participating in household decision-making, a significant jump from 11 states and 2 UTs in the NFHS-4 survey.  

Nagaland (99.2 per cent), Mizoram (98.8 per cent) and Puducherry (97.9 per cent) topped the list. Ladakh (80.4 per cent), Jammu and Kashmir (81.6 per cent), Karnataka (82.7 per cent) and Andhra Pradesh (84.1 per cent) were the worst-performing states.

Delhi, Puducherry, Bihar and Haryana have shown massive improvement of over 10 percentage points in this category; Jammu and Kashmir, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur have seen a case of marginal reduced participation.

At 91 per cent, women from urban areas have a greater say in household decision-making. Rural women are not too far behind; More than 87 per cent of rural women in India participate in household decision-making. Women’s empowerment in decision-making processes at a household level is cited to have multiple benefits.

Studies have indicated a positive relationship between women’s autonomy to make decisions with increased dietary diversity, better child and maternal health outcomes and improved food security.

Participation in paid works

All women work but few are salaried. This quote seems particularly true in the case of India (2019-21): Only 25.4 per cent of women aged 15-49 years who worked in the last 12 months were paid in cash.

This figure is abysmally low with almost negligible improvement from the last survey (2015-16). None of the states crossed the 50 per cent mark in this category. 

Telangana topped the list and is followed by either north-eastern or southern states. With an exception of Lakshadweep, which is the worst offender at 11 per cent, the Hindi-speaking states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Jharkhand have taken the next lowest places in this category, as less than 18 per cent of women were paid for their work in these states.

Tamil Nadu has improved its performance by more than 10 percentage points since the last survey while Lakshadweep, Chandigarh, and Jharkhand have regressed significantly since 2015-16.

Interestingly, there is not much discrepancy between both rural (25.6 per cent) and urban (25 per cent) women have in this category, although improvement is essential in this category to realise SDG goals.

Being paid for work is a right in itself, as it provides women with economic autonomy and recognizes the monetary worth of women’s labor.

Owning a bank or savings account

Among all selected indicators, the percentage of women having a savings / bank account that they themselves use has made the most significant improvement.

At the national level, India has seen a 35.6 percentage point jump within a matter of five years. This progress could be credited to schemes like Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana and the increasing microfinance initiatives over the past five years.

Overall, erratic differences in land ownership patterns could be chalked up to a complex interplay of socio-cultural diversity that could not be captured in the data provided.

Currently, rural women at 45.7 per cent own more land than urban women, which is essential considering rural women are mostly employed in agriculture, and owning land, apart from being a right in itself, ensures autonomy over agri-production thus ensuring better livelihood outcomes.

Owning a mobile phone 

There has been a small increase in women’s access to mobile phones over the last half-a-decade. The figure has gone up from 45.9 per cent to 54 per cent between the two surveys.

Barring Haryana and Chandigarh, all states have shown a positive trend in this category. Small states and UTs have performed better, as Goa (91.2 per cent), Sikkim (88.6 per cent), Kerala (86.6 per cent), Lakshadweep (84 per cent) and Puducherry (82.9 per cent) are the top-performing states. Madhya Pradesh (38.5 per cent), Chhattisgarh (40.7 per cent), Uttar Pradesh (46.5 per cent) and Gujarat (48.8 per cent) are the states where women have the least access to mobile phones.

In general, no more than 50 per cent women in Hindi-speaking states have access to phones, while states in the North East and south have more women with mobile phones.

There is a significant gap between access to individual mobile phones between rural and urban Indian women.

Urban women (69.4 per cent) have disproportionately higher access to mobile phones as compared to their rural counterparts (46.6 per cent). Access to mobile phones is an important marker of women’s autonomy.

Access to that is associated with enhanced contraceptive use, easier access to financial services, leisure, and communication networks that go beyond kin networks.

The findings above suggest that in all discussed indicators, India has made notable progress.

However, the Gender Development Index had pegged India’s position at 140th among 156 countries, thus there is always room for improvement and greater efforts need to be made for rapid transformation of women’s position in our society.

Women’s progress in indicators mentioned above is not just a means to a healthier, more progressive society but an end in itself.

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