Increased female participation in economic activities does not always equate to empowerment

Pranita Bhushan Udas
Neetu Choudhary

The increased participation of women in economic activities is perceived to be a sign of empowerment. Development targets such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and the current Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) emphasise on the importance of women’s participation in the workforce in achieving women’s empowerment and gender equality. The process of empowerment, however, is not this simple. This is true particularly in relation to women’s work in rural settings: first, because women have always been engaged in productive activities, and second, in most cases, when women participate in market based activities, it is still primarily out of economic compulsion, not occupational choice. For the women of rural Bihar who live in villages vulnerable to both floods and droughts, there is rarely a choice. Quantitative data collected from 32 villages in 11 districts of Bihar located in in the Koshi River Basin, substantiated with qualitative information from selected villages in Koshi and four flood prone villages in the Gandaki River Basin in Bihar clearly illustrate this. 

Street of a hamlet West Champaran 
Photo Credit: Pranita Bhushan Udas/ICIMOD

The villages studied show an increase in the number of de facto female headed households (FHHs) as a result of male migration for employment. Work destinations for these men include other parts of India where they work as labourers. Male absenteeism, applicable to individuals as young as 12 years old, for a minimum 6-12 months a year applies to almost all the households in these villages. Male members of the family move out to other Indian states searching for better financial return so that their families’ food and shelter needs are met. Other expenses include health costs, and dowry and marriage expenses. Migrant households are also burdened by high amounts of loan which means families are trapped in a vicious cycle of vulnerabilities and poverty. Gendered hierarchy is sharp in these communities. Women are responsible for household and domestic work, and men for outside work and for earning cash incomes for their families. The high fertility rate and interest in having children, especially male children, prevalent among couples who are landless, or marginal landowners, is driven by the hope that a male child is able to work outside the house and earn an income to support the family. Women in these villages are increasingly being left behind to take care of household as well as outdoor, laborious work.

Data from the census of India (2011) shows sharp fluctuations in female work participation rates (WPRs), unlike male WPRs which remain constant across study villages. This is attributed to circumstantial factors such as exposure to natural calamities, cultivation pattern, male outmigration, and the compulsion for women to fulfil household labour requirements demanded on different occasions. These women are participating in economic activities outside households, and greater work participation does seem to be associated with their elevation to the status of ‘main’ workers from ‘marginal’ ones. However, greater work participation for women often means greater engagement in agricultural labour. An analysis of data from 32 villages in the Koshi Basin shows nearly 69% of female workers in these villages are agricultural labourers. A miniscule proportion of FHHs are cultivators on their own land. Since only a very small proportion of FHHs own cultivable land, a majority of them, are compelled to work as casual labourers. Moreover, landlessness is linked to limited employment options for FHHs – primarily confined to agricultural casual labour and domestic labour. 
Women in Bairia West Champaran Bihar
Photo Credit: Pranita Bhushan Udas/ICIMOD

Remittances from male out-migrants account for almost 50% of annual income of FHHs, substantiating their dependence on migration as a livelihood option. Agriculture and casual labour wages account for 25% of the annual income of FHHs, and are the second most important source of income. This is reflective of the precarious circumstances amidst which rural outmigration takes place. For the female (heads) who remain in villages, the nature and remuneration of their work reflects their vulnerable position, as their engagement is an outcome of the immediate need to fulfil food security for women, children, and the elderly who have remained behind in the absence of their husbands. In some households in villages in the Gandaki River Basin, the workload for women has increased also because their husbands have returned home with disabilities after having gotten into accidents while working in factories and performing challenging labour work in other states. Incidences where young sons have died while working outside their village have forced women in the family to get into labour work.   

The level of food security in FHHs brings to light a better understanding of the participation of women in work in these villages. In general, FHHs are more vulnerable to food insecurity and face relatively greater spells and extents of food shortage and inadequacy – 30% of FHHs face food shortage as compared to 19.8% of MHHs. Such shortage and insecurities emerge from disparities related to land ownership and farming. Most MHHs own land, and products farmed on their land meet their food requirements. 

Even among FHHs, a majority of those facing food shortage belong to socially backward communities. What is remarkable is the difference between FHHs which own land and those which don’t.  A livelihood based on agriculture ensures relatively stable access to food security for FHHs, whereas a livelihood based on wages earned as agricultural labourers does not. Access to food per day is higher among those FHHs which derive their main income from agricultural sources during normal as well as crisis seasons and cultivate on their own land than FHHs which depend on wages earned as agricultural and domestic labour. 

Women’s bargaining powers as agricultural labourers may have increased to some extent due to male outmigration, but this is not the same for those women whose participation in the labour force emerges from the immediate need to meet food security. Overall, working hours for women (in paid and unpaid activities) in such households exceed those of their men counterparts. Though increased work participation in general is perceived to indicate women’s economic empowerment, the question to be asked is for whom? Women’s engagement in the market due to compulsion for food security rather than as a result of their choice will lead to less possibilities for them to negotiate in the market, making them more vulnerable than empowered. The question of how much of women’s participation in work is actually negotiated by women in a position to alter the established, gendered power structure remains. Households in flood-prone villages along the Gandaki River are also burdened by loans, particularly in households that have many daughters. The dowry system prevalent in the region is a major contributing factor. Even in a changing context, persisting gender discriminatory practices are hardly challenged. Women’s work participation through economic empowerment in these villages requires critical analysis to address structural inequalities persisting from both unequal land ownership and associated capacities. The dominant equation where an increase in women’s participation in work and women’s empowerment are seen are being complementary and fully contusive to achieving national and international gender equity goals also requires critical analysis.