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Reset rural job policies to recognise women’s work

Reset rural job policies to recognise women’s work


As the Indian economy comes out of the lockdown restrictions while the health implications of the COVID-19 is still looming, the labour market policy should be designed in a way to reverse the gender-differentiated impact the COVID-19 has had on the Indian economy.

This editorial discusses the need for designing and implementing policies to assist women.


2.1 Effect on jobs

  • The adverse economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are adversely huge on women but very little attention is paid on the adverse impacts of the pandemic on women due to paucity of official statistics on women workers.
  • Due to the inadequate and inaccurate data available on women's work, there is also a lack of specific policies and programmes to assist them.
  • A survey conducted by Azim Premji University on 5,000 workers across 12 States, 52% of whom were women workers revealed that the adverse impact of the nationwide lockdown is disproportionately higher on women worker.
  • The survey revealed that while 71% of women rural casual workers lost their jobs during the lockdown, the number stands at 59% for men.
  • Data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) also confirms the above finding. It reveals that job losses in April 2020 were larger for rural women than men when compared to the data for April 2019.

2.2 Effect on health and nutrition

  • As the nationwide lockdown significantly lowered employment in agriculture and allied activities and halted non-agricultural employment completely, the burden of care on women mounted up.
  • All the members of the family were at home during the lockdown. Men out of jobs or working from home, children out of schools, the chores of cooking, cleaning, childcare and elderly care became more onerous.
  • Managing the increased amount of household work that too during a crisis when provisioning has to be done at reduced levels of income and tight budgets will surely have significant long-term effects on the physical and mental health of women.
  • High levels of malnutrition among rural women is most likely going to worsen as rural families survive on reduced food intake.


  • For a thorough examination of COVID-19 impact on women workers, we analyse the situation before the pandemic.
  • 25% of adult rural women were counted as “workers” in official data for the year 2017-18 in the national labour force surveys.
  • However, the situation changes drastically when we examine the data from the time-use survey.
  • A time-use survey collects information on all activities undertaken during a fixed time period (usually 24 hours).
  • Presently, there are no official time-use survey data available.
  • Although, the National Statistical Office conducted a time-use survey in 2019 the results are not available.
  • This editorial uses a time-use survey from a village in Karnataka.


4.1 Crisis of regular employment

  • Rural women face a crisis of regular employment.
  • It suggests that women not reported as 'workers' in official surveys are so because of lack of employment opportunities and not due to “withdrawal” from the labour force.
  • The crisis of regular employment has definitely intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic and the nationwide lockdown.

4.2 Participation by women from all sections

  • Several independent surveys have revealed that women from almost all sections of the peasantry participate in paid work outside the home barring some regional exceptions.
  • Therefore while considering 'potential workforce' women from a majority of the rural household should be taken into account and not just women from sections of rural labour or manual worker households.

4.3 More participation by older women

  • Relatively younger and more educated women often do not seek work because they aim at finding work in skilled non-agricultural sectors while older women are more likely to work as manual labour.

4.4 Rising wage gaps

  • Another crucial finding is that wages for the same work for women are rarely equal to wages for men, barring some exceptions.
  • The gap between the wages is highest for non-agricultural works, which is the new and expanding source of employment.

4.5 Exceedingly high work hours

  • A women's workday in rural India is significantly higher.
  • When all forms of work are included viz. economic activity and care work (which includes household chores as cooking, cleaning, childcare, elderly care) the total work hours for women is exceedingly long.
  • Surveys reveal that total work hours for women (in economic activity and care) ranges from 61 to 88 hours in the lean season and up to as high as 91 hours (or 13 hours a day) in the peak season. All women have at least a 60-hour workweek.


5.1 Effect on jobs in the agriculture sector

  • Various surveys have shown that during the lockdown period no agricultural activity was undertaken during the lean months of March to May in large parts of the country where rain-fed agriculture is prevalent.
  • In parts of India where irrigated agriculture has a significant presence, there were some harvest operations (such as for rabi wheat in northern India) but these activities were largely mechanised.
  • In yet other harvest operations like that of vegetables there was a low tendency to involve hired labour out of the fear of infection and a majority of households relied on family labour.
  • Hence, summing up even as agricultural activity continued during the lockdown period, employment avenues for women were severely restricted.
  • Similar was the case for agriculture-allied activities like animal rearing, fisheries and floriculture. Both income, as well as employment in agriculture-allied activities, were adversely affected by the lockdown.
  • Village studies show that women are inevitably a part of the labour process in case the family owns animals whether milch cattle or chickens or goats.
  • During the lockdown, demand for milk fell by at least 25% due to closing up of hotels, restaurants and eateries as well as fear of infection by households.
  • Incomes from the sale of milk to dairy cooperatives fell down for women throughout the nation.
  • In the fisheries sector as well women could not process or sell fish and fish products as fishermen could not go to sea due to the lockdown.

5.1 Effect on jobs in Non-agricultural sector

  • Jobs in the non-agricultural sector too halted completely as construction sites, brick kilns, petty stores and eateries, local factories and other firm were completely shut down in the lockdown period.
  • Studies have shown that women have accounted for more than half of workers in public works. But there was a dearth of employment available through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS).
  • Therefore, in the first month of lockdown, there was a total collapse of non-agricultural employment for women although there was a big increase in demand for NREGS employment.
  • Government schemes most importantly those in health and education sectors have been one of the new sources of employment for women in the last few years like women working as Anganwadi workers or mid-day meal cooks.
  • During the pandemic, Accredited Social Health Activists or ASHAs, 90% of whom are women, have become frontline health workers, although they are not recognised as “workers” or paid a regular wage.


  • First and foremost we need to redefine the contours of the rural labour market by including the contribution of women as the country emerges from the lockdown.
  • For the immediate and short-run provisioning of employment for women, the NREGS can be expanded with a special focus on women.
  • A medium to long provisioning of women-specific employment can be done by generating more employment in skilled occupations and in businesses and new enterprises.
  • Women have already been playing a significant role in health care at the grass-root level and therefore in the proposed expansion of health infrastructure in the country, they must be given recognition as 'workers' and should be duly compensated.
  • The announcement of rural infrastructure expansion by Finance Minister is a laudable step but at the same time, safe and easy transport for women from their homes to workplaces needs to be ensured.
  • As the lockdown is slowly opening up, the children and elderly remain at home. The burden of care for them rests on the shoulders of women.
  • In addition, men have seen to have a higher likelihood to contract COVID-19 infection than women do which in turn increases the burden on women to earn the family bread.
  • Given these facts, we also need to reduce the drudgery of care work for women like delivering healthy meals for schoolchildren, elderly and the sick can significantly reduce the burden of home cooking.


Women should be seen as equal partners in the rural workforce and in transforming the rural economy.

To achieve this we need to accurately capture workforce data on women and use it to design and implement policies specific to women.

Source: The Hindu