Why women are withdrawing from agri labour

A recent article from Livemint examines the reduction in availability of female agricultural labor.

India witnessed a massive exit of female agricultural labourers between 2004-05 and 2011-12, according to India’s official employment estimates published by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO). Thirty three million agricultural workers, mostly women, quit the labour force between 2004-05 and 2011-12.

… Landless labourers, considered to be the bottom of the rural pyramid since they have the lowest incomes and typically belong to historically disadvantaged caste groups such as the Dalits, are at the forefront of the changes sweeping the rural economy today. Even a few years ago, women in Mamta’s circumstances would have joined their parents to work in others’ farms. Not anymore.

Dalits are increasingly turning away from farms because they associate farm jobs with the indignities of the past, said Chandrabhan Prasad, a Delhi-based Dalit intellectual. Dalit women, in particular, have long borne the brunt of caste and sexual oppression in rural India.

Read more: Why women aren’t taking up farm jobs


Mobile phones and women farmers

Narbada Bai and Meera BaiThere is a lot of interest in using mobile phones as the “last mile” connectivity for providing various services in rural India:  Services ranging widely from education, awareness building, and a variety of health services.  Many of these services are intended for women.

My team’s study of women farmers’ access to and usage of mobile phones has thrown up some fascinating insights.

For example, while only 10-25% of women farmers own mobile phones, the majority have access to phones at some point in the day.  Our survey shows that women have access to mobile phones typically from 3 – 5 pm and 7 – 11 pm in rural Karnataka and from 7 – 9 am in Odisha.

But access does not mean attention: Competing with TV watching time and saas-bahu dramas can only lead to ineffective outcomes. Therefore, our study concluded that the best time to provide women farmers information through alerts or pre-recorded messages is between 3 – 5 pm and 9 – 11 pm in rural Karnataka and between 7 – 9 am in rural Odisha. 

Intriguing, isn’t it?

Programs targeting women often fail to understand the nuances of how women actually live and work, even though attention to detail such as this is critical for their success.

Read the full report with information on rural women’s ownership, access and usage of mobile phones here.

Caution: Women at work

“No, Mamma has to cook and Papa has to work on the computer,” corrected my daughter’s friend, to bring about the proper stereotype in their Mummy-Papa role play.  So dutifully the father typed away frantically on a pretend laptop while the mother fretted away in the kitchen trying to get dinner ready.

I used to think that times are changing as a greater percent of women are entering the workforce, and by the time today’s kids grow up, the reality of women and work would be different.  However, a friend who researches women and work pointed out that women’s participation in the workforce in India has actually been declining.

At first I assumed that this was a purely rural phenomenon, a result of no employment options for women.  But when I dug up national level data and research, I realized that the trend is much stronger than I originally suspected.

The Facts

The labor force participation rate (LFPR) of rural women has been declining from 31% in 1983 to 24% in 2012, and roughly stable for urban women at ~18%.  These numbers are for “principal status”.  Principal status is defined as the main activity undertaken by an individual for more than six months in the year.  If we take into account subsidiary status (activities taken up for less than six months), the rural LFPR dropped from 37% to 30% and the urban one from 21% to 20%.

In rural areas there is actually a decline in absolute number of women in the workforce over the last decade.  In urban areas, while there has been an increase in absolute numbers, the growth rate has barely kept pace with increase in population of women, leading to a more or less flat LFPR across the years.

Here are the pertinent numbers:

Women work 1

The LFPR% chart below shows a long term trend of withdrawal of women from the workforce, with a small exception of an upward trend in the last two years in urban areas.

Women Work 2

The ‘U’ curve

Economic and sociological theory holds that as the income of households at the bottom of the pyramid increases, women withdraw from the workforce to focus almost entirely on domestic activities.  At even higher income levels, households produce highly educated women who participate in the workforce, competing with men for similar kinds of jobs. This results in a ‘U’ shaped labor force participation curve mapped against income deciles.

The ‘U’ shape more or less holds for urban India, although two noticeable changes have taken place in the last decade and half.

Urban Female LFPR by MPCE
Urban Female LFPR by MPCE

First, the overall U sits lower along the y-axis due to overall reduction in labor participation in the last decade.  Second, the upper income (right) portion of the curve now rises lower as more and more high income women are withdrawing from the workforce. Among urban high-income households, it is unclear to me why there is a discreet jump from ~30% LFPR in the 80s and 90s, to ~15% in 2000s rather than a spread, as in the case of urban poor.

Rural Female LFPR by MPCE percentile
Rural Female LFPR by MPCE percentile

In rural areas, the ‘U’ curve was never in place in India due to no economic opportunities for educated women.  This sad reality hasn’t really changed in recent years.  As in urban areas, the drop in labor participation of urban women is higher in the higher income brackets.

‘Producing’ status

Data shows that this withdrawal from workforce cuts across all age groups, and is not limited to typical child-bearing age in rural or urban India.

And, the reverse also holds true: that is, female participation in domestic activities as their primary occupation has been increasing, after adjusting for increase in enrollment in institutes of higher education.

So what value does a household get out of withdrawal of women from the workforce?

The act of withdrawal of women from wage-earning work signals financial security.  Secondly, the women’s focus on domestic affairs enables greater investment in children’s education and household wellbeing. Thus instead of producing income, women focused on domestic work produce ‘status’.

In 1983, 61% of urban women graduates participated in the workforce, compared to only 26% now.  Education is widely regarded as one of the key tools of empowerment of women to enhance their autonomy and agency.  But if the women are focusing entirely on domestic affairs and the production of household status, how does education matter?

According to research cited in this paper, “Education among women does not necessarily increase their ‘autonomy’ in substantive ways, rather it may only lead to modernization and internalization of patriarchal norms”.  In fact, “ ‘Schooling seems to inculcate discipline, self-restraint, patience, routine and obedience to authority among girls.’”

More marginalized work

In the agriculture sector, which is the main employer of rural women, we find that women who work are withdrawing from agriculture as a primary activity and focusing on home-based activities such as preparation of seeds, cleaning, storing, etc. or on livestock. And those at the bottom of the economic pyramid are engaging in more work as ‘casual labor’.  So not only are women withdrawing from work, the ones who do engage in production activities are engaging in marginal activities rather than core activities.

What does this add up to?

So, we have fewer and fewer % of women working overall.  And in rural areas, those who are working are increasingly working in supplemental activities or as casual labor.  In urban areas, 85% of educated women are choosing to invest their effort exclusively on household activities.

Whether this reflects their actual preference or is a reflection of societal pressure or lack of spousal support in household matters, I can’t say.

But what I can say is that the stereotype scenario played by young girls the world over is more prevalent in India now than it was 20 years ago.

[Note: LFPR data and charts cited in this article are reproduced from “Missing Labour or Consistent ‘De-Feminisation’?” by Vinoj Abraham, Economic & Political Weekly, August 3, 2013. Agriculture related information is from NSSO reports.

A version of this article also appeared at http://social.yourstory.in/2013/10/disturbing-trend-women-shrinking-rural-urban-workforce/]

Changing patriarchy through milk

Meera Bai and Kajori Bai
Meera Bai and Kajori Bai

I looked up in disbelief when I heard her say “I sent my daughter to Duni [a small town 15-20 minutes away] to study for her exams. We have rented a room for her in the town so that she can study without distraction.”
“You sent her there all by herself?” I asked, surprised that the resident of a tiny village in Rajasthan would take such a drastic step going against entrenched social norms against mobility and education of girls. “She is staying with other girls from her college”, the mother replied confidently even as she called to someone to go and deliver milk to her daughter on his way.

Kajori Bai lives in a village 80 km from the nearest city. Until 8 years ago she observed purdah and hesitated in speaking to men.  She was married at the age of 11 though allowed to complete schooling until 8th.

Her daughter is studying home science in college. Kajori is not planning to marry her 20 year old daughter just yet, although she already arranged the engagement some years ago, at the time of the older daughter’s wedding.  Narbada Bai, who lives in a nearby village also related a similar story concerning her thirteen year old who although engaged is also going to be allowed to finish 12th before being sent to the in-laws.

We met Meera Bai, 25, who convinced her husband to join a nursing course in Ajmer, while she herself works as a trained ‘pashu sakhi’ a para vet in her cluster of villages. She has travelled to Madhya Pradesh and interacted with women there on a trip organized by Srijan, an organization founded by Ashoka Fellow Ved Arya.

Four years into her marriage and she doesn’t have children yet.  She says, “My in-laws know the work that I am doing and how important it is.  They don’t put pressure any more. We will have children once we can stand on our own feet.” There’s no shy smile as she says this.  She speaks confidently and clearly.

All the women we met were affiliated with Srijan, which works on livelihood programs related to agriculture – cultivation and dairy – leveraging SHGs for creating village level structures and institutions.  They work almost exclusively through women.  According to Srijan team, when they started working on yield improvement programs for soya with male farmers, they realized that they had to do a lot of repetition and there was no cohesion in the farmer groups.  And they realized that much of the farm labor was provided by women. So they started leveraging SHGs for providing information about seed preparation, proper spacing, sowing of soya.  It was tough going at first.  It was difficult to convince people that if you plant only half as many seeds, your yield will be 20% higher.  But when one or two women tried it out on one ‘bigha’ of land and compared the yield, more women joined.

In milk collection, they also relied on SHG model for dissemination of good practices in care of milch animals.  And later launched an all woman pashu sakhi (para vet) program. It seems that mortality of buffaloes was a big issue in the area. With the help of pashu sakhis, who focus on health, hygiene and preventive care of buffaloes and goats, the mortality was reduced to only a single calf perishing in 12 months.

But there was a design behind all of this seemingly “purely” economic activity. The payment for milk deposited at collection centers is only given to the women (they have to come collect it). The receipt for soya deposited at collection centers is issued in the name of women. All records at Srijan are maintained in the womens’ names.

There are many reasons that Srijan, the non-profit founded by Ashoka Fellow Ved Arya, has been able to bring about such change within 8 years of formation of the SHGs.  After having visited many such organizations and going through research on these topics, I believe that the reason Srijan has been able to achieve this has to do with the fact that the processes it has designed make it very clear to the women and everyone around them, that the extra income being brought home is due to the work of the household’s women.

The entire trip was one full of surprises.  While my colleague and I sat at Kajori Bai’s home discussing her work as SHG Federation president, as an operator of a milk collection center and as a ‘pashu sakhi’ (and many other roles), her mother-in-law quietly swept the courtyard and made tea for us. The father-in-law first sat near us, and then uncertain whether this was meant to be an SHG (therefore women members only) meeting, started moving away.  Someone from our meeting group told him that he can stay, it is only a discussion, not an SHG meeting.

When we enquired about Kajori Bai’s schedule for the rest of the day (she’d been with us from 7 in the morning), she said she had 3 more meetings to attend, one related to the SHG Federation, another relating to a visit to another SHG meeting (sort of like an inspection visit) and another in preparation for a PRA   to be conducted in a new village where they want to start an SHG.  She said that often people visit her with problems at their SHG, where she ends up resolving conflicts and such. Her schedule sounded as busy as any corporate CEO.

At Narbada Bai’s home and farm, we saw her husband sitting to one side and chopping green fodder for buffaloes, while Narbada Bai explained to us how she, an illiterate, keeps track of the dozens of animals under her care, as the village ‘pashu sakhi’.

Sunita Bai showing us fields
Sunita Bai showing us fields

At another household where we met soya farmers, the husband patiently hovered and waited during our discussion with about a dozen women, occasionally hovering but never interfering with his own ideas. Only once our discussion was over, he came across and sat down and started telling us about some of the services he provides to villagers as a Srijan service provider.

While all households might not be as emancipated as the three we visited, it is clear that these changes could not have been brought about if Srijan had followed more expedient ways of working. It may  have improved incomes for these families, but the processes, the new ways of thinking about agriculture, more scientific cultivation practices, and certainly the societal change relating to women’s stature would not have been possible.

One can only hope that now that the villagers understand a woman’s contribution to household and society, the next time a woman’s second child is also a baby girl she won’t name her Naraji (“upset”, as in “the gods are upset with us”) whom we met, or Mat-de Ram (“don’t give, Ram” as in “don’t give us more girls, god”) whom we heard about.