How Union Budget 2021-22 can support the women workforce

Only 16% employed women were able to keep their jobs during and after the lockdown as opposed to 60% men
How Union Budget 2021-22 can support the women workforce

There are 149.8 million women workers, out of which 121.8 million are in rural areas and 28 million in urban areas, according to Census 2011. Yet, women constitute only 18.6 per cent of the population working or looking for work, whereas the number is 55.6 per cent for men as of 2018-19.

This is the lowest the female labour force participation rate (LFPR) has fallen since Independence. The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic only worsened the situation with soaring unemployment in sectors ­like education, domestic work, tourism, restaurants and care work for the young and elderly, where a high number ofwomen are employed.

Both the disease and the economic shock hit some sections harder than others, exposing the pre-existing fault lines. One of these inequalities is the gender gap in terms of paid and unpaid work.

Women have experienced an increase in household chores and unpaid care work, an increase in risk of violence against women, reduced health and nutrition outcomes and reduced economic opportunities. While both men and women were hit by the economic crisis, men have seen a steady rise in job recovery.

Only 16 per cent women employed in December 2019 were able to keep their jobs during and after the lockdown as opposed to 60 per cent men, according to a recent working paper by Centre for Science and Environment, a Delhi-based non-profit organisation. And the major brunt of this was borne by urban women.

Of the 6.7 million women displaced from the labour force by November 2020, 2.3 million were rural women while 4.4 million were urban. This makes the situation worse, as the National Sample Survey revealed that the decline in women’s LFPR was in rural areas not urban.

Over the years, there has been a higher rate of migration of women for employment and business from rural to urban areas (from 47 per cent in 2001 to 58 per cent in 2011), according to the Census. Women are seeking and finding more opportunities in urban areas, particularly the informal sector.

One of the most disturbing effects of the pandemic has been on the employment of young women. Young women in their 20s were just emerging from demonetisation in 2016 and the introduction of goods and services tax in 2017; their workforce participation rate climbed up to 14.7 per cent, according to Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.

The economic recession has brought it down to 8.7 per cent.  In this context, government employment generation and support schemes can play a crucial role.

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) and National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) have played a key role in rural employment. But MGNREGS, which records women as more than half the beneficiaries, saw an eight-year low of person days (number of people working each day multiplied by the number of days worked) generated through women in 2020.

This can be attributed to the return of male migrants workers from cities. Despite an additional allocation and increasing minimum wage under MGNREGS, the scheme could not benefit as many women.

In the upcoming budget, the government must allocate sufficient funds to accommodate as many workers as demand and increase the number of work schemes and work days. But it may not be easy for women to come back to the workforce.

In addition to employment generation, the government must ensure maternity benefits under Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana, pensions and social security for women workers. Even the informal sector could be provided through National Social Assistance Programme and child-care centres near work places under the National Creche Scheme.

Another barrier to women’s participation is the lack of safety. Women experienced increased incidence of violence during the pandemic. The Nirbhaya Fund can be used to provide a range of critical services including helplines, counselling, shelter homes and legal aid.

Additionally, the long standing demand by experts for an urban employment guarantee scheme will be beneficial for urban women. This will not only raise wages and provide women a fall-back option but also improve urban infrastructure and services and increase capacities of urban local bodies.

This will help improve women’s agency and recognition as economic agents, playing an important role in rebuilding our cities.

This is the seventh in a series on the Union Budget 2021-22 in collaboration with Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability

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