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"An economy can grow faster if more women participate"

Feb 15, 2013

South Asia would reduce poverty faster if more women are at work but security remains an issue, says Yoshiteru Uramoto, Regional Director, RO-Asia Pacific. Here we present the speech given by him recently in New Delhi.

Ladies and Gentleman,

It is an absolute pleasure to be here in New Delhi for this workshop on women’s labour force participation in India and South Asia.

This is my first visit to India as ILO Regional Director for the Asia and the Pacific, and I would like to thank my hosts, the Ministry of Labour and Employment for their generous hospitality.

We are gathered here to discuss a matter of critical importance, particularly in this region: How can women get more opportunities for decent work, so contributing to their economic empowerment?

The ILO has long stressed that gender equality is critical for achieving “Decent Work for All Women and Men”. Let me make clear what I mean by gender equality. I mean equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities for all, regardless of whether someone is born male or female. The ILO believes that gender equality is a vital part of the social and institutional change needed for sustainable development with equity and growth.

However, a lack of gender equality - so-called gender gaps - continues to be the norm around the world. The ILO’s Global Employment Trends for Women, released in December 2012 found evidence for this. Among its conclusions were:

Women continue to be over-represented in informal and vulnerable employment and are less likely to be in regular, formal jobs.  ILO estimates show that just 15.8 per cent of women in South Asia are in waged and salaried work, compared to 23.4 per cent of men; alternatively, women are far more likely to be engaged as unpaid family workers (40 per cent versus 10 per cent for men in South Asia)

Even when educational and occupational differences are taken into account, there is still a gap between what women and men earn for doing the same work – the so-called gender wage gap

Women are still predominantly found in certain lower-skilled and less-well-paid jobs.

Until recently, India enjoyed rapid growth, averaging around 8 per cent.   This impressive growth brought promises and hopes for social as well as economic progress.

Yet this period of high growth did not generate a large number of new jobs. Indeed, some economists have used the term “jobless growth”. During this time many women actually withdrew from the labour force. As a result, 2009 to 2010 there were 21 million fewer women working in India in than five years previously.  93 per cent of these women were in rural areas.

To summarize this fall took place during a period of unprecedented economic growth, which we all admire, in a country which already had a very low rate of female labour force participation. The consequence is that, using the 2009/2010 figures, just 29 per cent of women were in the Indian labour force. This trend also obviously influences the overall female labour force participation rate in South Asia. In 2011 this was just 31.8 per cent. The only regions with lower rates are the Middle East, at 18 per cent, and North Africa with 24 per cent. By comparison, in East Asia around two-thirds of women are in the labour force, the highest regional figure in the world.

So, why should we be concerned about this?  What does labour force participation tell us about the status of women?

Firstly, female labour force participation tells us something about the economic potential of a country, because, along with productivity and demographics, labour force participation is a driver of GDP growth. So, an economy can grow faster if more women participate.

Conversely, if women are discriminated against, growth will be lower than it could be. The ILO’s Global Employment Trends for Women 2012 estimated that if the gap in the employment-to-population ratio in South Asia dropped by half by 2017, GDP would increase by an extra US$516 billion.

In other words, India, and other countries in the region, would grow faster if more women were working, and this in turn would contribute to poverty reduction.

Moving from the macro level to the micro, we have seen how the participation of women in the workforce reflects the need of households to stabilize their consumption patterns and protect their families from poverty. In 1998 in the wake of the East Asian Financial Crisis, many women in Indonesia took up informal work to counteract the effects of their husband’s losing their jobs.

But the issue of female labour force participation is about much more than economic growth and household incomes.   Access to better jobs and decent work are an important step along the way to the general economic and social empowerment of women at many levels – from their own household’s right up to national forums.

For this reason, this workshop is both timely and relevant. It not only seeks to answer the question of why female labour force participation rates in India have fallen,  it will also look at some of the more complex issues  that underlie the question of women’s empowerment.

What is already clear is that the promotion of gender equality and women’s economic empowerment requires some quick responses from policy makers and other stakeholders The ILO’s Global Employment Trends for Women 2012 report highlighted some of the key policy areas. These include:

Reducing the burden of home duties through better infrastructure. If a women or girl has to walk hours every day to collect water they can’t pursue the education or skills training that will help them find the job which, in turn, would lift them and their families out of poverty.

Reducing the burden of unpaid care work by providing care services, especially child care.

Making the division of paid and unpaid work between genders more equal. We already know that as women spend more hours in paid work they do not do less at home.

Public campaigns to challenge gender stereotypes, and to support the effective implementation of anti-discrimination issues.

In addition to these recommendations from the Global Employment Trends Women report, I would also stress the importance of skills development and education programmes.  A key question is whether young women will have the necessary skills to take up jobs in the future.  Such training programmes can play an important role in overcoming occupational segregation and preparing young women for the job opportunities of a rapidly changing economic environment.

Finally, I must mention another critical issue. That is safety and access to jobs. We have all been shocked by the recent gang assault and rape in Delhi. This has led to a great deal of discussion and debate about the rights of women. A fundamental right for women is to be able to freely travel and work without fear of discrimination or harassment. A failure to deliver these rights clearly affects the ability of women to seek out and take up employment.  A survey by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, carried out after the gang-rape attack, shows that women are less willing to work night shifts.  This is important because one of the growing sources of jobs for women in recent years has been places such as call centres, which operate 24 hours a day.

At the ILO gender is a top priority. This is reflected in events like this workshop and the research that has been undertaken for it. In addition, we are working on all aspects of gender equality and women’s economic empowerment, at country, regional and global levels.

I leave you with my best wishes for a successful, productive and thought-provoking workshop. I look forward to hearing your conclusions and suggestions for areas that we can work on together to improve the lives of India’s working women and their families.

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