Women and employment: How economic liberalisation failed to address inequalities

Women's Reservation Bill
The Women's Reservation Bill could be a watershed moment in enhancing women's representation in state and national policymaking, marking a pivotal step towards achieving gender parity.

By Sanghamitra Kanjilal-Bhaduri

The employment story of women in South Asia that emerged after the implementation of structural adjustments programmes (SAPs) warrants attention, as these macro-economic policies were neither gender-neutral nor class-neutral. As such, they have exacerbated conditions of poverty and deprivation for a majority of the population, especially the most vulnerable ones . Women thus find themselves reeling under the adverse impact of SAPs to this day.

The demand for labour had increased immediately after the implementation of SAPs, but the increase was not shared evenly in rural and urban regions, between men and women, as well as regular and casual work. By and large, the demand for casual and intermittent work increased faster than that for durable and regular work. The structure of employment moved away from the primary sector for rural men, but rural women lost out on employment opportunities.

Three decades since the implementation of SAPs in most countries (barring Sri Lanka where SAPs were introduced in 1970s) the scenario is much the same with a little hope here and there. Thus, it can be safely said that the rollout of SAPs in developing countries did not meet the needs of women, especially poor women. The experiences in South Asian countries show that this package has resulted in increased miseries for the poor. Since women constitute a lion’s share of the poor in developing economies, they were very badly hit by SAPs.

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Women earn less, own less and control less

The impact of intensification of work time as well as the work itself on the well-being of women has received scant attention. Though some studies have been made in the quantitative aspects, the qualitative aspects have not received the required attention. Both quantitative and qualitative aspects of women’s work need to considered for a holistic view of the impact of SAPs.

Thus a number of factors such as (i) women’s workforce participation rates, (ii) women’s unemployment rate, (iii) female-male gaps in labour force and literacy rate, (iv) share of income earned by female labour force, (v) sectoral composition of female labour force (whether they have increased work opportunities in prospective sectors, rate of growth of the sector), and (vi) health indicators need to be taken into account to analyse the impact of SAPs on employment and the general well-being of women.

Such a demonstration is always confronted with the lack of reliable data on women’s activities and nutritional status. Country studies have revealed that many aspects cannot be measured or quantified, which appears due to a misunderstanding of the actual performance of women and the statistical concept of ‘economic activity’. Despite of all these difficulties in measurement, it can still be said that the employment story does not paint a rosy picture about the position of women. It seems, women have been affected by recession, debt crises and the structural adjustment policies. The heaviest burden of SAPs has been on poor women who earn less, own less and control less.

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Women at work: Neither for pay, nor for profit

Traditionally work has been defined as activities for pay and profit. In official statistics also, the term economic activity rather than work is used to maintain the consistency with the concept of economic production (in the UN System of National Accounts – SNA). Although the definition of economic activity has been broadened over the years, the underlying emphasis on paid work has not changed. This income-oriented approach to the definition of work can capture only those who are in:

  • wage and salaried employment,
  • self-employment outside the household for profit, and
  • self-employment in cultivation and house hold industries for profit.

In traditional economics, activity is evaluated in terms of capital growth and accumulation which invariably places quantitative relations in commodity production as the supreme factor . As the market is a place where these relations are articulated, it becomes the formal expression of economic activity. The result is a logical exclusion of all activities outside the market mainstream as peripheral and non-economic. But such a definition is inadequate in a partially commoditised economy where a significant proportion of the production of goods and services are for self-consumption.

In the rural setting, since most of the pre-harvest and post-harvest operations in which women indulge are carried out at home, a large number of self-employed women are excluded from the count. Moreover, allied agricultural activities such as dairying, poultry farming along with firewood/fodder collection and procurement of water are not considered work if they are for self-consumption. However, the silver lining here is that in most of the countries more sensitive attempts are being made to capture women’s work.

In India, National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) has been more sensitive in measuring women’s contribution to work by adopting multiple approaches to define economic activity. The Time Use Survey (TUS) data provided by Central Statistical Organisation of the government of India provides official visibility to women’s work burden by collecting data on various household and non-household activities.

In Pakistan, the estimates derived from the Pakistan Fertility Survey, the National Impact Survey and the Contraceptive Prevalence Survey Record are nearly double that derived from the country’s official statistics. In Nepal, a more liberal definition of gainful participation yields a higher share of work for women compared with men.

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Income-generating and efficiency-oriented work

The discussion on the nature of growth of the developing economies of South Asia reveals the inability of the economy to generate quality employment, thereby pushing more and more persons into the informal sector, where they could be listed in data systems as employed and yet be below the poverty line. The harshness of such a situation is experienced more by women who have to combine the tasks of production and reproduction with serious consequences to their well-being. Although immediate or short-term employment prospects for females had appeared promising, yet the following crucial questions still remain answered.

Female labour has proved to be income generating and efficiency oriented. It is also proved that it cannot be simultaneously interchanged with household chores. Does this mean that women’s entry into the labour market is the result of a substitution for other work for them? Would it be in addition to their role as housewives resulting in a further increase in their total labour time? Would the increased work burden be accompanied by a changed sexual division of labour within the household? And the biggest question here is whether women’s work status ultimately led to their empowerment and enhanced status.

Even after three decades since implementation of SAPs in these countries, it seems rather too early to be able to predict a conclusive outcome of the shift for female labour. It is difficult to comprehend fully the implications of labour absorption. But one point can be made with certain conviction — economic liberalisation has not overturned the existing inequalities and social institutions.

(The author is a post-doctoral researcher at department of economics, University of Algarve, Faro, Portugal.)