As 2021 draws to a close, some of the most lasting memories of this second year marked by the pandemic have been those of the women in the news. The first and probably the biggest headline is Falguni Nayar, founder of the beauty and fashion e-commerce platform Nykaa. Her digital business became a unicorn at the start of the year, and she went on to launch an IPO that was underwritten more than 82 times. This resulted in a market cap of over Rs 1 lakh crore. Described as hype by many critics, the former investment banker’s company made a profit in the last fiscal year, outperforming many other unicorns with men at the helm.
The second person to gain attention was Gita Gopinath, until recently Chief Economist at the International Monetary Fund and now recently appointed First Deputy Managing Director. Gopinath has been very visible throughout the Covid crisis, speaking with calm authority about its impact on the global and Indian economy. Arguably, she has done more than anyone to humanize the IMF, once seen as a Bretton Woods institution aimed at exploiting developing economies. His declared concern with trying to eliminate inequalities, whether in terms of vaccines or development issues, has certainly resonated with him in this country.
Another woman of Indian descent earned laurels in the global corporate arena at the end of the year. Leena Nair, until recently hailed as the first Asian woman and the first woman to serve as global director of human resources at Unilever, has been appointed managing director of luxury fashion house Chanel. His career chart shows how his skills were initially honed through tough assignments at factories in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu.
The success of these women is bound to prove inspiring in the long run. But unfortunately their stories do not represent the major trends for working women in this country. In fact, they look more like outliers in the context of data on women in the labor market. Successive studies have shown that the participation of women in the labor market has declined in India. It had fallen to 20.1 percent in 2019, from more than 26 percent in 2005. The periodic Labor Force Survey for 2019-2020 had shown that it had risen to around 22.5 percent, but is then fell to 16 percent in the July-September quarter of 2020. It may have increased since, but apparently it is more difficult for women to return to their pre-pandemic jobs than it is for men, according to surveys by the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE).
The participation of women in the labor market tends to be higher in rural areas than in urban areas. A worrying trend is that it remains largely in the area of agriculture and related fields. In other words, the quality of work remains at the level of agricultural labor. Although 3.6 crore women were identified as cultivators, based on the 2011 census, they were not identified as “farmers,” denying them the benefits of institutional credit and grants, according to Oxfam. . In fact, despite what is described as the feminization of agriculture, women own only 12.8 percent of the land in the country. The other goal of migrating educated women to work in industry has also not been met and women remain confined to low wages and unskilled work in rural areas.
Some studies have shown that women get bogged down in domestic work after marriage, leaving no room for maneuver for work outside the home. That is, unless there is a crisis and the family is in dire need of resources. This appears to have been corroborated, the researchers say, as periods of rural distress have coincided with an increase in female labor participation, largely among women with little or no education. Likewise, data on the extent of women’s domestic work in this country was documented by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2019. It found that women spent up to 352 minutes per day on it. day at household work, compared to 52 minutes per men at household chores.
The solution to many of these seemingly intractable gender issues is not only societal but also political. Unless women occupy positions of real power, it will not be possible to implement policies that will uplift the largest minority in the country. The Trinamool Congress got it right in both the last Lok Sabha and Assembly elections by fielding more women candidates than any other party. Pollsters now say women prefer to vote for other women, believing in their ability to do constructive work with integrity. Another permanent winner of the election, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, also placed emphasis on women in BJD with equally excellent results. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has not lost a beat and now offers a monthly stipend of Rs 1,000 to women in Goa and Punjab if they win the elections.
However, it is essential for traditional national parties to try to give women a greater voice in the management of the economy. Neither the BJP nor Congress has lobbied to revive the 25-year-old bill to provide for a 33% reserve for women in parliament and state assemblies. With its massive majority, the ruling party could easily pass it, but there is a lack of political will in passing a law that could potentially undermine the role of men in government. The number of women nominated by both parties in general elections is also pathetically low. As a result, women parliamentarians in both parties represent only 12 to 13 percent of their total membership.
The situation of women is thus worsening in the country, with the dominant parties reluctant to give impetus to political empowerment or economic participation. No wonder the country has already lost 28 places in the 2021 Gender Gap Index to 140 out of 156 countries. The outlook remains bleak for the millions of women working in low-skilled and low-paying jobs. So we can celebrate the achievements of a few, but the reality of the lives of most of the women in this country should not be forgotten.