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Advancing Gender Parity Could Boost India’s GDP Up To 18% By 2025

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By Annette Francis and Dheeraj Dubey:

India has one of the lowest female labour force participation rates in the world. Between 2005-06 and 2015-2016 this figure has reduced by almost 12 percent. Economists use the feminisation U-hypothesis to explain this trend; it predicts that the women workforce participation of a developing economy declines and rises again later due to the changing nature of socio-economic factors within the national ecosystem.

The decline in the curve is a result of factors such as the incompatibility of work and family duties, the stigmas surrounding women working outside the home, and the high incomes of their spouses rendering their contribution to family income negligible.

In India, female labour force participation rates are 22 points below their expected level on the curve.  While there are several factors which contribute to these numbers, internal migration must be recognised as one of the key factors which deters the entry of women into the higher education, skilling and employment ecosystems.

Women And Migration

Census 2011 revealed that women form almost 70 percent of the internal migrant community.

For migrants in the 20-34 age group 38.5 percent of men have cited cause for migration as ‘work/employment’, while only 2.7 percent of women say the same. The numbers are reversed when we observe ‘marriage’ as a cause for migration, with an average of 3.1 percent men, and 71.2 percent women.

The contrast between the numbers reflects a pattern: men migrating for work/employment, and their wives migrating with them. While it is probable that these women may have found employment later, work wasn’t the trigger for their migration.

One could speculate based on these numbers, that while the Indian community hasn’t resisted the idea of women moving out of their native homes to other regions, the resistance for mobility of women arises when the reason is non-marriage related.

Challenges surrounding migration and the subsequent hesitation to migrate, are often cited as the main bottlenecks that affects the impact of educational and employment initiatives like Skill India, for women.

When It Comes To Migration, Women Face Both Social And Structural Barriers

1. Agency

A women often must seek the approval of her father, brother, husband, in-laws, and sometimes the village panchayat, in order to work or learn skills which might make her employable, while still bearing the almost sole responsibility of caring for her children.

2. Technology

A smart phone can be the tool for acquiring a variety of skills, the medium for financial flexibility, a source for exploring opportunities and finding jobs, and much more. However, several recent studies by LIRNE AsiaPew Research and GSMA have all consistently affirmed that in India, a significant percentage of Indian women are restricted from using smart-phones and accessing the internet, making it all the more challenging for them to leverage the benefits of technology.

3. Women and the workplace

Informal workers from low income backgrounds, especially migrants, do not have basic entitlements such as identity documentation, housing, and financial services. Migrant women are additionally subject to gender-centric challenges, which includes lower pay compared to their male counterparts

“The acute lack of female leadership has made the informal labour sector non-aspirational for women, resulting in the sector becoming a male-dominated game.”

Discrimination of women in the workplace takes numerous forms ranging from the absence of maternity benefits to sexual harassment at the workplace. In a sample of Skill India participants, 62 percent of unemployed women reported that they were willing to migrate for work, but 70 percent said they would feel unsafe working away from home (IHDS, 2012). The acute lack of female leadership has made the informal labour sector a non-aspirational one for women, resulting in the sector becoming a male-dominated game.

4. Urban planning and policy

Below is an excerpt from the Census 2011 document, which lists the criteria for recognising an area as a Census Town.

“A minimum population of 5,000; at least 75 percent of the male main working population engaged in non-agricultural pursuits; and a density of population of at least 400 persons per sq. km.”

By definition therefore, the system is choosing to not focus on the number of unemployed or employed women, essentially rendering their contribution to the economy invisible.

This definition has been in place since 1971, was active in 2011 when the last Census was undertaken, and continues to remain unchanged. There were 3,894 areas defined as census towns in Census 2011. If we were to modify the definition to include women as a part of the ‘main working population’, chances are those numbers would be considerably different.

If such exclusion exists in policy documents, how can one expect reforms to trickle down into action?

What are the implications of these barriers?

Women have limited opportunities as they are restricted to ‘traditional’ jobs which are closely linked to typical ideas of what women can and cannot do. According to a 2018 McKinsey Global Institute report, India could add up to USD 770 billion to its GDP—more than 18 percent, if it simply advances gender parity in work and society.

“Women are restricted to ‘traditional jobs, closely linked to typical ideas of what women can and cannot do.”

The above narratives tell us that when it comes to women migrating for work, social norms become excuses to delay structural reform, and in turn, these institutional barriers prevent community mindset change. This results in a perpetual cycle, thus, reinforcing the existing status quo.

What Are The Solutions To Correcting These Wrongs?

The multi-faceted nature of this challenge makes it a tough one to tackle. But the good news is that there are organisations that have been working to drive change. Based on their work, below are some strategies that need to be adopted and scaled by corporates, nonprofits and other stakeholders.

1. Childcare support

“The starting point of increasing women’s workforce participation is recognising that they are primary caregivers”, says Namya Mahajan, Managing Director of SEWA Federation.

SEWA runs 13 childcare centres in Ahmedabad with about 30 children per center, allowing women to take up better paying jobs and spend longer hours working. “We have seen women’s income increase by more than 50 percent on an average”, adds Mahajan.

2. Technology-based interventions

“Bringing digital devices into a village, helps not just women get access to content for learning new skills, it also changes the nature of learning within the community”, says Medha Uniyal, Program Director of Pratham Institute.

Since 2016, Pratham has been able to connect over 35,000 women to access to smart devices and digital content, through various skilling interventions in rural areas. These women have gone on to start their own beauty parlours, run tailoring classes, and even work as mechanics in cities, dispelling misconceptions surrounding women and technology.

3. Women as entrepreneurial leaders

“We have noticed high rates of attrition when it comes to women in informal labour, especially given that the informal sector is marred with several issues like low pay and exploitation. And so, we believe, there is a growing need to foster self-employment,” says Poulomi Pal, Deputy General Manager at Godrej Consumer Products Ltd (GCPL).

By partnering with several non-profits, the GCPL Salon-i programme has reached out to 1300 salon micro-entrepreneurs who are in turn reaching out to 90,000 women, building their capacity in technical skills and financial literacy. The spillover benefits which are triggered by empowering women to run their own enterprises, contributes to bringing about changes in the workplace ecosystem.

4. Advocacy

“It is important to recognise the economic contribution of women migrants – both within the country and abroad. This is the key prerequisite for removing the barriers to female migration while safeguarding their rights and welfare”, says Varun Agarwal, CEO of Indian Migration Now.

At this juncture, we need policies to tackle the structural barriers which prevent women from being recognised as key component of the budding Indian workforce. India Migration Now works towards this end through, a comprehensive set of migration research, policy and media projects.

While it may not be possible to change norms overnight, now more than ever there is a need for collective ownership and constructive solutions.

Stakeholders working on women and economic development need to focus their attention on resolving structural problems around migration, which is key to allowing women to pursue education, skilling and employment pathways.

This article was originally published on India Development Review. You can read it here.

About the authors:

Annette Francis: Annette works with Pratham’s vocational training and entrepreneurship arm known as Pratham Institute. She currently focuses on research and innovation projects being pioneered by the organisation. Her primary area of interest is researching technology-based solutions for mitigating challenges in the development sector, specifically within the livelihood and education space. She has previously worked in a teaching capacity with nonprofit and for-profit organisations based in India and Scotland.

Dheeraj Dubey: Dheeraj is a documentary filmmaker currently working with the vocational skilling arm of Pratham, on media and research projects. His key area of interest lies in the study of visual mediums such as film and imagery. He has previously worked on various documentary films under the ambit of education, art and livelihoods.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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