Empowering Women: Unpaid Care Work’s Influence on Labor Force Engagement”

Context: As the International Day of Rural Women approaches, it is disheartening to note that India not only recorded one of the lowest female labour force participation rates (LFPR) in the world, but that it was also lower than other South Asian countries except Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) data indicates that for women in the working age group (15-59 years), LFPR is only 35.6 per cent in India with the participation rate being 39.3 per cent and 26.5 per cent, respectively, in rural and urban areas in 2021-22. Notably, from 2017 to 2021, women’s LFPR increased relative to men, particularly in rural areas because of the larger engagement of rural women in agriculture and allied activities.

More Facts:

  • Education and age group-wise classification of LFPR reveals that the recent increase in rural women’s LFPR is entirely explained by the increase in self-employment. Nearly three-fourth of rural working women were involved in agriculture and allied activities and more than half worked as unpaid family helpers (in household business without getting any payment) during 2021-22. 
  • The Time Use Survey (2019) reveals that on average, women spend over five hours every day in unpaid domestic services and more than two hours in unpaid caregiving services in rural areas which is substantially more than men. Rural women also spend over seven hours every day growing crops for the market and household use in 2019.
  • Despite their crucial role in agriculture, the agriculture census (2015-16) reported that only 14.7 per cent of the operational landholdings were owned by women, reflecting the gender disparity in ownership of landholdings in agriculture. There is also a concentration of operational holdings (57 per cent) by women in the marginal and small holding categories. Owning land can enable women to get access to different agricultural schemes, compensation and relief measures in case of crop loss to sustain their livelihood.

About Unpaid care work

According to OECD, refers to all unpaid services provided within a household for its members, including care of persons, housework and voluntary community work. These activities are considered work because theoretically, one could pay a third person to perform them.

  • Unpaid = the individual performing this activity is not remunerated 
  • Care = the activity provides what is necessary for the health, well-being, maintenance, and protection of someone or something
  •  Work = the activity involves mental or physical effort and is costly in terms of time resources

Need for recognition of unpaid care work

  • Mis-estimation of Economic activity: Non-inclusion of unpaid care work in national accounting statistics like GDP grossly misestimates the level of economic activity.
  • Female Labour Participation: The burden of unpaid care work on women limits their skill development and employment opportunities. This resulted in a low level of female labour participation.
    • According to The International Labor Organisation (ILO) estimates that unpaid care work is amongst the most critical barriers preventing women from joining and remaining in the workforce. This disproportionate burden of unpaid care work creates what is called “time poverty”, which inhibits women’s ability to dedicate time to paid work and acquire the skills necessary to seek better job opportunities. This experience is not unique to India. Globally, in 2016, 46.7 percent of women attributed their absence from the workforce to domestic duties, as compared to only 6.3 percent of men. 
  • Wage Gap: often domestic care work by women is treated as unproductive and it is reflected in low wages for women in the labour market when compared to men.
  • Rural women working as regular and casual wage workers faced a higher gender wage gap compared to urban women and self-employed women received less than half of men’s earnings, indicating a higher gender earning gap as compared to other categories of workers in rural areas (PLFS).

Measuring the contribution of household chores performed by women can bring about several benefits to both the economy and women in particular.

  • Recognition of the economic contribution of women: Measuring household work can recognize women’s significant contribution to the economy, highlighting the economic value of unpaid domestic services and their role in the country’s economy.
  • Better policy formulation: Data on women’s household work time can inform policymaking, leading to more targeted policies for women and their families, in areas such as health, education, and employment.
  • Improved economic planning: The measurement of household work can help in improved economic planning and decision-making. This can provide policymakers with a more complete picture of the economy and help them make more informed decisions. 
  • Empowerment of women: Measuring household chores as part of GDP can empower women by recognizing their work as valuable economic activity, leading to increased labor force participation, better wages, and working conditions.

Calculating unpaid care work presents several challenges, as outlined below with examples:

  • Perception of “Work”: Unpaid care work is often not considered ‘work’ in the traditional sense. For instance, a mother caring for her children or a spouse looking after an elderly partner may not view these responsibilities as ‘work’ despite the significant time and effort involved. Consequently, when surveys ask about ‘work,’ respondents may exclude care activities from their responses, leading to underreporting.
  • Subjectivity and Variation: The nature of care work varies widely and can be highly subjective. Consider the task of cooking meals: one person might cook three meals a day from scratch, while another might use pre-packaged foods, making it challenging to standardize measurements. Additionally, caregiving responsibilities change over time – caring for a toddler differs from caring for a teenager, making it difficult to capture the full spectrum of care work.
  • Invisible Labor: Much of care work is invisible. Emotional support, mental labor (like planning and organizing), and managing family dynamics are essential components of caregiving but often go unnoticed. For example, a caregiver may spend hours coordinating doctor’s appointments and managing medications, which are critical aspects of care but not easily quantifiable.
  • Seasonality: Care work can vary seasonally. Consider holiday preparations – the workload for cooking, decorating, and gift-giving increases significantly during certain times of the year. These fluctuations make it challenging to capture the consistent level of care work throughout the year.
  • Cultural Differences: Cultural norms significantly impact how care work is perceived and distributed within households. For example, in some cultures, extended family members often share caregiving responsibilities, while in others, it may fall primarily on women. These cultural variations complicate efforts to standardize measurement across diverse societies.
  • Data Collection Methods: Traditional data collection methods like surveys may not fully capture care work. Respondents may forget or underestimate the time spent on caregiving, especially if it’s a continuous, fragmented task. They may also not recognize certain caregiving activities as ‘work,’ leading to inaccuracies in reporting.
  • Valuation of Care Work: Assigning a monetary value to care work is complex. For example, estimating the economic value of a stay-at-home parent’s contributions involves considering factors like the cost of hiring childcare, cooking, cleaning, and emotional support. These intangible contributions are challenging to quantify accurately.

Measures to address inequality

  • Investment in time-saving technologies and infrastructure like electrification, improved access to water, public transport etc.
  • Better access to public services like childcare and care for the elderly.
  • Provision of maternity benefits to informal sector labour.
  • Equal amounts of maternity and paternity leaves.
  • Tackling entrenched social norms and gender stereotypes can ‘defeminise’ caregiving.

So, the right combination of policy interventions and attitudinal changes will not only unleash the potential of women’s contribution to the economy but also achieves gender justice.

Further, ILO’s 5R framework for Decent Care Work which include – Recognise, Reduce, Redistribute, Reward and Representation to empower women and transform the care economy. 

Strategies include:

  • Recognise:  Recognition is one of the most central processes in empowerment, and for more than 150 million women in the country, the recognition of their primary occupation as genuine work, that contributes not only to the family but to the welfare of the nation state as a whole, is such that it gives them a claim to equality within the patriarchal Indian household that only recognises the work done by men.
  • Adequate Investment in care infrastructure such as Pre-Primary Education, Health, Electricity, drinking water, LPG connection etc. For example, A 2017 analysis by the Women’s Budget Group found that if an additional 2 percent of the GDP were invested in the Indian health and care sector, the country could generate 11 million additional jobs, nearly one-third of which would go to women. 

Social Protection Policies

  • Allow tax deductions of care-related expenses by the households for formalisation of domestic workers.
  • Provide for the cash transfer to women so that they can purchase childcare services from domestic workers.

Promote active labour market policies:

  • Paid maternity leave and Paternity leave to care for the children.
  • Efficient implementation of Public Works Programme such as MGNREGA
  • Enhance skill set through vocational training and retraining to enhance employability.
  • Provide Gender-sensitive work environments such as reduced or flexible working hours. 
  • Facilitate entry of women into Gig Economy
  • Nurture and promote women led SHGs.
  • Redistribute: Support NGOs and Private sector to care for the children and Elderly Ex: Old age homes, Pre-Primary Schools etc.

The above-mentioned strategies can contribute to meeting goals of SDG 1 (end poverty); SDG 3 (ensure healthy lives); SDG 4 (ensure inclusive and equitable quality education); SDG 5 (achieve gender equality); SDG 6 (ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation) etc.

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