Throughout history, society has assigned the role of breadwinner to man and expected him to provide for himself and for his family. A woman has all along been assigned the role of a helpmate, to look after the family and contribute wherever possible, to the earnings of the family. The role of women in India as an economic contributor to the family has varied over time and from society to society. As in other nations of the world, role of women in Indian society has not been static and has all the characteristics of a society in transition from tradition to modernity. A great majority of tribal women in India have been engaged in the production and marketing of their handicrafts. They still supplement the earnings of the family by working on construction sites and agricultural areas. Women in India of the urban middle and upper classes normally did not do paid labour at home or outside, because of the feudal concept that the status of the family depended on whether the women in India engaged in paid work or not.
Some supporters of women’s liberation feel that the emancipation of women is closely associated with women rights to work. Obviously, they referred to paid work as in agrarian societies work is more often a hardship to be borne than an income earning activity. Rural women in India are not confined to their homes and most of them work, fields as agricultural labour to help their menfolk. In some parts of south India, women workers actually agricultural labourers.
The feudal tendency to disapprove of women in India who do paid work outside the home has a direct bearing on the attitude towards work especially manual labour. Manual labourers are paid very low wages despite government measures to ensure a minimum wage for them. In agricultural economies, certain jobs were traditionally performed only be men and others exclusively by women in India. There were only a few tasks in which both men and women in India participated. In justification of this division of labour, it was claimed to be the natural result of the physiological and psychic differences between men and women in India. However, an appraisal of the different tasks assigned to the men and women in India men does not substantiate this contention. For example, in India as well as in Europe, farming is considered to be principally a male occupation, whereas in Africa farming is normally done by women even up to the stage of marketing their produce. In many African countries, most of the retail trade is in female hands. In India, many tribes have a similar setup, but the Hindu set up (rural as well as urban) assigns trade related activities only to men.
Another typical trait of Indian society is the custom of engaging women labour for building construction, which is rarely seen in other parts of the world. Similarly, secretarial help such as typists, stenographers, etc. is normally considered to be a female task, but in India, men outnumber women in this profession.
In these circumstances, the concept of specialisation based on the physiological and psychic differences between the sexes cannot be justified. In fact, the assignment of tasks based on gender seems to be rooted in the development of the cultural traditions of each society. In primitive times, when each family produced all the goods and services required by it, there developed a sharp distinction between male and female tasks. The fathers taught their sons to perform their jobs and mothers taught their daughters the tasks that they did.
When society progressed from traditional agriculture and household industry to organised industry and services and the urban sector began to grow rapidly, the traditional division of labour between the sexes ceased to operate. In an industrial economy, most of the work traditionally assigned to men can be done by women in India and vice versa. The unit of labour under the industrial economy is the individual against the household in the agricultural economy.
India is mainly still an agricultural country. The traditional village community comprises cultivators, artisans and those doing labour, and the village women play a distinct role in the family’s effort to earn a livelihood by contributing their labour. In the present socio-economic setup, this contribution of labour by women in India is not adequately recognised. A great majority of women in India participate in the family’s earning effort as unpaid family workers. Women’s efforts in running the household, freeing the husband to pursue his vocation, remains unrecognised even by law.
Quite a number of women in India who were employed before marriage give up their jobs after marriage in order to be able to devote their time to family obligations. This renders them economically dependent on their husbands and discredits the concept of the economic status of women in India as being an indicator of the stage of development of a society.
The various development activities of post-independence India, and the expansion of women’s education and their training in various trades and crafts, as also the social changes that have taken place in society, have gone a long way to enable women in India (tribal, rural and urban) to avail of the new opportunities of earning provided by industrialisation. They are now entering new professions and occupations that were closed to them earlier. With the shift over from cottage to modern and organised industry, a majority of the female labour force, apart from those in agriculture, suffered a setback as they were illiterate and not trained to meet the needs of organised industry.
Before the development of the modern marketing system, most traditional occupations open to women in India were divided according to caste; for example, spinning, weaving, basket-making, midwifery, etc. were all, more or less, monopolies of different castes. With the introduction of organised production and marketing, earnings from caste-monopoly occupations were minimised. The government is undertaking various programmes to provide training and credit facilities through women’s polytechnics and rural credit banks to enable the affected women in India to go in for alternative employment and ensure their economic emancipation.
Besides, the unorganised sector comprising agriculture, construction and village and small-scale industries, the organised sector of India’s economy provides employment to women in India in services under the Central and State governments and non-agricultural private establishments. The latter sector, which is governed by laws, rules and regulations, is increasing rapidly.
Article 16(1) of the Constitution of India guarantees equality of opportunity for all citizens in matters relating to employment and appointment to any office under the State. In the wake of the growing awareness of women rights to work, the Indian woman can today enter any profession, old or new, that she chooses and is restricted only by her own predilections and prejudices. Nothing stands in her way to meet the exacting demands of a profession except the demands of marriage and a private life of her own. It may still be that, to some extent, marriage stands between a woman and her total commitment to a profession at the highest level in India.
Increasing opportunities for employment of women in India as a result of expanding education, urbanisation and industrialisation is significant of the emerging new India. Once limited to household chores and farm labour, the scope for women in India has widened tremendously. In ever-increasing numbers, they are entering the fields of education, industry, administration, legal and political activity. This has particularly benefited the urban middle-class woman.
Present scenario of women rights to work
One of the major thrusts in Mexico in 1975 was on women’s employment and this was seen as the critical entry point for women’s integration into development. This expression came from the assembled women’s knowledge that women in India needed income for survival; it also came from the knowledge that women in India in any case were working for survival.
Database of women rights to work
A worldwide problem in statistical measurement and analysis is the difficulty in pinpointing the statistical economic profile of women in India. This has been the drawback in India as well.
However, the decennial population census gives some indicative information of the trend. The national Sample Survey, the Labour Bureau and other sectoral data sets provide further supplementary data. Some of the important facts are briefly presented below:
In 2001, the women labour force was 90 million. Between 1971 and 1981 the overall Work Participation Rate (WPR) for males declined by one point from 52.61 percent in 1971 to 51.62 percent in 1981. For females, the WPR increased from 12.06 percent in 1971 to 13.99 percent in 1981. The increase in the WPR among females is shared by all age groups except the age group 60 and above.
In the primary sector, the proportion of both male and female main workers has declined, while in the secondary and tertiary sectors, it has increased. A sectoral shift is taking place with males moving away from the primary to the secondary and tertiary sectors. Females are also shifting, though in a smaller way.
Both in rural and urban areas, more females than males were reported as marginal workers, who form a substantial proportion in all age groups among females. Among males, this proportion tapers off rapidly above the age of 25. The female WPR in urban areas has not increased much between 1971 and 1981, especially when compared to rural areas.