The theme for International Women’s Day 2022 (March 8) is ‘gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow’.
Formal sector working women benefits:
- India is ahead of many advanced nations in instituting maternal health benefits, and its statutory maternity leave is among the global top three.
- The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017 more than doubled the duration of paid maternity leave for women employees to 26 weeks, proposing an option to work from home after this period, on mutual agreement with the employer, and made crèche facilities mandatory for establishments employing 50 or more women.
- However, these benefits are mostly enjoyed by formal sector women workers, constituting less than 5% of the women workforce.
- Another ILO study, in 2016, pointed out that a lack of access to quality childcare services forces women workers to leave the labour force, ceasing their earning, and exposing themselves to discriminatory employment practices, and to significant economic and health risks.
- India has paid less attention to address concerns around childcare support for informal women workers.
- Here are three ways to enable women to take up more productive paid work and improve their maternal and child health outcomes: extending the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) infrastructure; revitalising national crèche schemes, and improving maternity benefits.
Informal work affects maternal, neonatal, and child health:
However, gender equality is still a far cry for India’s female informal workforce.
According to a 2018 study by the International Labour Organization (ILO), more than 95% of India’s working women are informal workers who work in labour-intensive, low-paying, highly precarious jobs/conditions, and with no social protection.
Informal Women Workers:
A World Health Organization bulletin says that “women’s informal work is central to the feminisation of poverty”.
However, we know little about how informal work affects maternal, neonatal, and child health, with the lack of childcare solutions being a serious concern.
Need of the hour: Expansion of the ICDS:
The primary mandate of the Anganwadi centres under the ICDS is to provide maternal and child nutritional security, a clean and safe environment, and early childhood education, thus facilitating the ability of women to re-enter work post-childbirth.
However, it has two major limitations.
- First, it does not cater to children under the age of three.
- Second, it functions only for a few hours a day, making it inconvenient to send and pick up children during work hours or avail take-home rations provided to pregnant women and households with younger children.
Early intake of children in the Anganwadi centres can have dual benefits — allow mothers time for paid work and converge with the National Education Policy 2020 mandate that acknowledges quality Early Childhood Care and Education for children in the 0-6 age group.
Extending the hours of Anganwadi centres can also address time constraints for working women.
However, these expansions would also require expanding the care worker infrastructure, especially the Anganwadi worker and helper, who are already overburdened and underpaid.
Revitalize the crèche scheme:
- The National Creche Scheme lays out specific provisions for working women but has suffered diminished government funding.
- An inclusive approach is required to diversify worksite and working hours and overcome implementation gaps.
- Revitalising the provisions of the scheme and adding a network of public and workplace crèches can be hugely beneficial.
- Public crèches can be operated at worksite clusters such as near industrial areas, markets, dense low-income residential areas, and labour nakas.
- Crèches closer to the workplace allow for timely breastfeeding and attending to emergencies.
- This model has been tested successfully by Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) Sangini in some Indian cities.
- Where work occurs at a single site, such as a garment factory or construction site, worksite crèches will help; as seen in the construction site crèches run by Aajeevika Bureau (Ahmedabad) and Mobile Creches (Delhi).
- The construction sector is a case in point where the Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board mandates the running of crèches.
- The funds collected under the construction cess can be earmarked for running crèches at construction sites.
Policies and measures:
- Women and girls’ access to higher education (beyond secondary education) and skill training is critical to improve their employment outcomes.
- Women and their families need to be motivated to take up higher education through incentives such as scholarships as well as transport and hostel facilities.
- Enabling women to acquire both physical assets (through credit facilities, revolving funds, etc.) and employable skills is crucial for them to take up employment opportunities in new and emerging sectors.
- Skill training of women in job roles aligned to the gig, platform and care sectors as well as other emerging sectors such as those covered under the Production-Linked Incentive Scheme needs to be encouraged.
- Online skill training can also be beneficial to women who face constraints in physical mobility due to social norms, domestic responsibilities or concerns over safety.
- We need training programmes with well-defined outcomes for women’s digital access and to mentor them to take up employment opportunities in emerging sectors.
- Under cooperative federalism, for India to reap the potential of its FLFP, constant dialogue and engagement with the States on action strategies will be required. Inter-ministerial coordination is required.
The lack of affordable and quality childcare services and maternity benefits increase the burden on informal women workers, aggravating gender and class inequalities.
Presently, it is up to individuals and families to find a resolution to this tension of a worker-mother, putting women, girls, and children at a gross disadvantage.
Governments, skill training partners, private firms, corporates and industry associations as well as civil society organizations all need to come together to create enabling measures for women.
Policies supporting the expansion of care services along with gig and platform sectors can serve as an effective strategy to strengthen aggregate demand, while simultaneously improving long-term economic growth, gender equality and societal well-being.
It is imperative that we consider affordable and quality childcare infrastructure as an employment-linked benefit and as a public good.