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Informalisation and Women's Workforce Participation: A Consideration of Recent Trends in India (Draft)



Background paper prepared for the UNRISD report "Gender Equality: Striving for Justice in an Unequal World"

Work defines the conditions of human existence in many ways. It may be the case that this is even more true for women than for men, because the responsibility for social reproduction - which largely devolves upon women in most societies - ensures that the vast majority of women are inevitably involved in some kind of productive and/or reproductive activity. Despite this, in mainstream discussion, the importance of women's work generally receives marginal treatment simply because so much of the work regularly performed is "invisible" in terms of market criteria or even in terms of socially dominant perceptions of what constitutes "work". This obviously matters, because it leads to the social underestimation of women's productive contribution. Even more importantly, as a result, inadequate attention is typically devoted to the conditions of women's work and their implications for the general material conditions and well-being of women.

This is particularly true in developing countries, where patterns of market integration and the relatively high proportion of goods and services that are not marketed have implied that female contributions to productive activity extend well beyond those which are socially recognised, and that the conditions under which many of these contributions are made entail significant pressure on women in a variety of ways. In almost all societies, and particularly in developing countries, there remain essential but usually unpaid activities (such as housework and child care) which are seen as the responsibility of the women of the household. Several community-based activities outside the household also fall into this category. This social allocation tends to operate regardless of other work that women may perform. For working women in lower income groups, it is particularly difficult to find outside labour to substitute for household-based tasks, which therefore tend to devolve upon young girls and aged women within the household or to put further pressure on the workload of the women workers themselves. In fact, as Elson [1987] has pointed out, it is wrong to assume that unpaid tasks by women would continue regardless of the way resources and incomes are allocated. "Gender neutral" economic policies may thus imply possible breaking points within the household or the collapse of women's capacity. Social provision for at least a significant part of such services and tasks, or changes in the gender-wise division of labour with respect to household tasks, therefore become important considerations when women are otherwise employed.

This makes the consideration of work participation by women a more complex matter than is often recognised. Since most women are actually employed in some kind of productive/reproductive work, whether or not this is recognised and quantified by statistics, the issues relating to female employment are qualitatively different from those of male employment. Thus, the unemployment-poverty link which has been noted for men in developing countries is not so direct and evident for women: many women are fully employed and still remain poor in absolute terms, and adding to their workload will not necessarily improve their material conditions. Nor is the pressing policy concern that of simply increasing the volume of explicit female employment, since simply adding on recognised "jobs" may in fact lead to a double burden upon women whose household obligations still have to be fulfilled. Instead, concern has to be focused upon the quality, the recognition and the remuneration of women's work in developing countries, as well as the conditions facilitating it, such as alternative arrangements for household work and child care. All of these are critically affected by broader economic policies as well as by government interventions at micro and meso levels, in ways that will be elaborated below. And it is these together which determine whether or not increased labour market activity by women is associated with genuine improvements in their economic circumstances.

The relative invisibility of much of women's work has been the focus of a substantial amount of discussion. Since many of the activities associated with household maintenance, provisioning and reproduction - which are typically performed by women or female children - are not subject to explicit market relations, there is an inherent tendency to ignore the actual productive contribution of these activities. Similarly, social norms, values and perceptions also operate to render most household-based activity "invisible".