Review of "Women and Work in Rural India" by S. Mahendra Dev

One of the major issues discussed in employment and development literature is the work of women. The official estimates based on National Sample Survey (NSS) data show low and declining participation rates of women in labour market in India. Time use and other surveys including village studies indicate that there seems to be under counting and under estimation of women’s work particularly in rural areas.

The book under review seeks to broaden our understanding of the nature of women’s work in different sectors of the rural economy. It does so by drawing on new concepts and definitions and multiple sources of data, in particular, time use surveys, and gender disaggregated data from village surveys (p.xi). This volume contains 17 chapters covering the following six themes: (I) Conceptual, theoretical, and methodological issues in understanding women’s work; (II) Women’s work in agriculture and allied sectors; (III) Caste and class issues; (IV) Women in non-agricultural work; (V) Women’s wages and earnings; (VI) Access to finance.
The introductory chapter provides a very good overview of the themes of the book. It challenges the existing empirical findings on low work participation rates of women and their increasing withdrawal from the labour force in rural India. The other important issues on women discussed in the volume are: (a) how the poor peasant and manual worker households enter in the process of production and the caste and class issues relating to women; (b) large gender gap in agriculture and non-agricultural wages and (c) financial inclusion not reaching the rural women.

In this review, we focus mostly on the issue of low work participation rates and withdrawal of women from the labour market. The NSS data shows that women’s work participation rates (15 and above) declined from 48.5 per cent in 2004-05 to 23.7 per cent in 2017-18. These rates are considered much lower than those of East Asia, South-East Asia and countries like Bangladesh. In the literature, there have been several explanations for the decline in the participation rates of women. Rising education among the younger age groups is considered one of the reasons for this phenomenon. Another reason mentioned is the ‘income effect’ which indicates withdrawal of women workers due to rising incomes. Some others argue that the female workers are moving out because of ‘discouraged drop out effect’. In other words, they drop out of workforce as they perceive lack of opportunities in the labour market. 

The chapters in this book emphasise that existing employment surveys, concepts and definitions do not capture adequately women’s work in rural and informal settings. Time use surveys provide comprehensive and detailed information on how both women and men spend their time on different activities, usually in the last 24 hours. These surveys show women’s unpaid work as home makers in several economic activities and care givers is quite high.

The paper by Indira Hirway focuses on ILO resolution of 2013 which advocates the need to broaden the concept of work to include all economic activities, i.e., all forms of work. It advocates that the Indian government should implement this resolution which makes women’s paid and unpaid work visible. At the national level, we do not have recent time use surveys as the pilot survey was done more than 20 years back.

Several papers in this volume use the database generated by the Project on Agrarian Relations in India (PARI). This is a rich data base initiated by the Foundation for Agrarian Studies (FAS) and covers several villages in different parts of India. Madhura Swaminathan uses data from two village level time use surveys of Karnataka on time spent by women in different activities during the reference week. This study highlights two striking findings on the work participation of women. These are: (a) all women were workers if we go by the weekly status definition (at least one hour spent in SNA activity); (b) The work participation varied by season if one uses daily status approach and major time spent criterion. In the harvest season, the participation of women was near universal. However, it was low in the lean season and this is in line with the view that women withdraw from the work force when there are no suitable employment opportunities. The sample of this study is very low and the findings have to be examined further with large data sets.

Even with the NSS data, the paper of Yoshifumi Usami shows higher women work participation rates by estimating an augmented work participation rate. This rate is arrived by adding women’s engagement in specified activities such as maintenance of kitchen garden, work in household poultry, dairy, etc., including free collection of agricultural products for household consumption to the usual principal and subsidiary activities. The augmented definition provides higher work participation of women as compared to the standard definition of the NSS.
One feature of agrarian relations in India relates to differentiation and accompanying proletarianisation of the peasantry. Many of the studies on differentiation are on peasant households and not disaggregated by gender. Using the PARI data from 16 villages, V.K. Ramachandran’s paper examines the process of proletarianisation by focusing on female labour in peasant and manual worker households. The study finds significant differences in men and women working time in both peasant and manual labour households.

Some of the papers in the volume use the official NSS data. Jayan Jos Thomas analyses the trends in female employment across Indian States using the official employment and unemployment surveys. This study concludes that a range of  economic factors has been responsible for the low participation rates of women in rural India. One of the factors is that the non-agricultural employment opportunities were not available to females as demand for labour in agriculture declined. Using the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) 2017-18, Khalid Khan and Sukhadeo Thorat show inequalities across social groups in employment by industry and occupation. This paper, not surprisingly, highlights that although the participation rate is high among the Scheduled Caste women, “the conventional hierarchy among social groups persists in rural labour market, which keeps SC women in precarious conditions compounded by identity-based discrimination (p.203).

Wage gap is another important issue of discrimination between men and women. Arindam Das examines the trends in wage rates from 1998-99 to 2018-19 using the data from Wage Rates in Rural in India. The findings show that although it narrowed during the period of growth in wages, the wage gap between males and females remained wide and were the highest for non-agricultural operations.


On women’s work, the following two questions have to be addressed.
(a) What needs to be done to improve the concepts and methodology on women’s work and (b) what are the policies needed to increase the participation rates and quality of work for women?

On the first question, the volume offers the following thoughts for further research.

  1. Apart from using standard labour force surveys like NSS data, we have to work with new concepts, definitions, and other data sources including village surveys in order to count the women’s work better. We have to recognise the India should also consider the ILO resolution of 2013 to broaden the concept of work in economic activities.
  2. There is a need to study women in labour force in the present context of changing agrarian relations in different parts of India. PARI project has village level data for more than 25 villages including gender-disaggregated data. More such studies and data sources are required to examine the class and caste issues in rural areas.
  3. More research is needed on sector-specific issues relating to women. It should also include conditions of women’s work such as wages and earnings, work contracts and working hours.

On the second question, we provide the following few suggestions on policies for improving participation and quality of women’s work.

  1. It is true that we have to improve the count of women workers with other data sets. But, women have to be given more opportunities to enter the work force. In the literature, several explanations have been given for the low and declining participation of women. Most important one is the demand factor. The economic growth should create job opportunities for women so that they do not withdraw from the labour force.
  2. In order to raise the participation, wage rates of women have to be improved significantly. In general, they participate in low wage activities. Education and skill opportunities for women have to be raised to enhance the quality of their work.
  3. Public Policy: Agriculture is becoming increasingly feminized as men migrate to the non-farm sector. Around 73 per cent of rural women work in agriculture as compared to 55 per cent of rural men in agriculture in 2017-18. Agricultural policies should correct the gender bias in the functioning of institutions and support systems including property rights for women. Despite their importance, women are continually denied their property rights and access to other productive resources. In economies having women suffering from disadvantages arising from a variety of structural constraints, the result of unfettered operation of market forces may not always be equitable. The structural constraints women face includes the social environment dominated by patriarchy, legal framework, which are not completely gender neutral, unequal access to education and skill training. Similarly, social security and conditions of work have to be raised for women and this can attract more participation of women in labour market.

This book which uses both standard labour force surveys and village-level data for analysing women’s work in rural India is a very good addition to the existing literature on this subject. More studies are needed on this important area of research. The editors and paper writers make sincere efforts in providing some interesting insights on women’s work. This comprehensive and excellent analysis is a must read for all those interested in the work of women in general and rural development in particular.