Subscribe and track India like never before..

Get full online access to
Civil Society magazine.

Already a subscriber? Login


Comment here

Learning skills: Women come into their own at a SEWA centre in Kupwara district of Kashmir

Everyone benefits when women earn

Reema Nanavaty

Published: Jan. 30, 2024
Updated: Jan. 30, 2024

WOMEN in the informal sector in India work for almost 16 to 18 hours a day, often in difficult working conditions. Yet they earn less than men. Their assets are barely one percent of what men own. They have limited access to water and sanitation. Or even to clean air and light. And hardly any social protection in terms of insurance, pension or medical aid. 

There are millions of women who work out of their homes. They could be makers of toys, incense sticks, kites or beedis. Some roll tapes and others wind circuits. They could be cooking and selling meals or into packaging things from food to air fresheners.

In the rural economy, women pursue traditional family occupations.  They are in animal husbandry, dairying, farming, floriculture, horticulture, weaving, salt farming and more in rural areas. Even though their contribution equals or exceeds that of men, the family’s assets, be it land or tools or animals, are owned by the men. Women’s work remains unaccounted for, unprotected, and invisible, not only to the economy but also to the family and to herself.

It has been so for four decades. With economic liberalization, globalization and climate change the inequality they endure has worsened in the past 20 years. Where they haven’t been replaced ruthlessly by machines, they toil harder in adverse circumstances — be it on farms or exploitative factories run by global companies drawing on cheap and unorganized labour.

Participation of women in labour markets has been declining. In the informal sector they remain invisible and aren’t counted as workers. Their contribution to the economy goes unnoticed. But even if fewer women are formally employed it doesn’t mean their workload and family responsibilities are reducing. They are, in fact, increasing and increasing at an accelerated rate. Never before have women had so much work and so many roles to play for such small amounts and sometimes no amount at all.

As Ela Bhatt,  founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) put it: “If there is poverty we can assume there is discrimination based on class, caste, colour, religion, gender, or language; we can assume there is intimidation and fear in the community, in the family, in the workplace, and in the environment; we can assume hierarchical institutions where one thrives at the cost of another, and one dominates over others in society and individual relations.”

She also said that as women become active in the economy, with decent work, basic income, access to basic needs, and social protection, and a future, poverty cannot continue.

This remains SEWA’s experience over the  past 50 years with thousands of women in hundreds of trades and businesses in more than 19 states of India. Let me draw from this perspective to look at women’s economic participation in the workforce.



The ILO (International Labour Organization) Convention 177 on home-based work has not been ratified by any country, including India. South Asia has the highest number of home-based workers. As a result,  global supply chains benefit by their contractors sub-contracting work to these home-based women workers at exploitative wages and in very indecent working conditions.

Similar is the situation of vendors and hawkers in India. In spite of their contribution to the city’s economy and in peri-urban and rural areas, they are not recognized as entrepreneurs — rather they are seen as encroachers! Construction of a mall is seen as infrastructure development. But no city will consider setting up an entrepreneur school or centre for the women vendors — because they are dirty, poor, illiterate and women. This is odd because even now over 80 percent of city dwellers buy around 70 percent of their daily food and other needs from vendors and hawkers.

No Indian city has bothered to create spaces for vendors with lighting, sanitation and waste disposal facilities. There is a national law for regularizing street vendors, but many cities have yet to formulate a policy for vendors. Better arrangements and rules would bring more women into vending and make them a part of the urban economy. The female workforce is overlooked by cities and citizens.



The reality of rural women today as shared by Shardaben Jhala of SEWA is, “Agriculture is getting mechanized. So the work where women were used as agricultural labour is now done by machines. And women are not invited to run these machines.”  Such changes push women out of work in rural areas.

With agricultural land turning into industrial land, women lose their roles in the rural economy. Men migrate and educated young women work as labour in factories. The older uneducated women only get casual work such as collection of wood, fuel, wild berries and so on. This is all seasonal work and that too for a few days in a month. They are paid small amounts for their work. And often such payments are delayed. They face extreme events, floods, heat, and cyclones almost each year and some years all three in one season. As happened in Gujarat in 2022.

Rekhaben Jaiswal says, “Initially every house used to keep one or two cows. Now there are large cattle sheds owned by big farmers. Women go and work at these cattle sheds occasionally. From being cattle owners they have become cattle labour.” This means low wages, long hours, and no say in work-related decisions.

Activities such as tailoring and vending have slowed down as so many mobile retail vans bring readymade, packaged goods to villages. When local markets wind up, women suffer.



Women in family occupations mostly don’t have  access to the market. Socially and culturally, too, they are excluded and therefore their contribution is unaccounted and unrecognized. The traditional skills women have, which should be considered valuable heritage, are also not recognized. Women as artisans — embroiderers, knitters and dye workers — possess exquisite skills but do not benefit from the commercial value created from them. Most of the money goes to the designers, traders, stockists and middlemen. Graduates from institutes of fashion and design are called professionals. But what about the skills of artisans? We hesitate to recognize our own women and their work that has sustained our economy and culture.



At SEWA we believe in the need for skill development to bring more young women into employment. These may be new skills, old skills, traditional or modern. We see skilling as an effective way of integration. While higher level skills have been given a good deal of attention, as a result of which we have highly qualified professionals in every field of whom we are proud, the same is not true with the majority of young people who have basic schooling or no education at all. Education without skills is lame, Elaben often said.

Elaben also said, “No skill should be allowed to become redundant or obsolete from our skill-rich country, India. We must develop a market for skill training with fair and higher returns. With skills, employment opportunities open up. It is only when women come into their own in the workplace that they will be recognized as nation builders.”

Equally, it is important to formally recognize the contribution made by women in households. Should work at home not be regarded as work? Managing the family’s budget and taking care of children are important responsibilities. Household chores are hard work. Planning family events is work.

As technologies swamp workplaces, there is the danger that fewer women will find employment. There is immediate need to implement the recommendations of the ILO’s 'Global Commission on Future of Work’ report.

This report calls for a human-(may I say woman)centred approach to work. This approach has three pillars of (a) increasing investment in people’s capabilities, especially those of women; (b) increasing investment in the institution of work such as women’s cooperatives and small businesses and associations; and (c) increasing investment in decent and sustainable work where women are in large numbers. This is the key to more participation of women in India’s labour force.


Reema Nanavaty is the director of SEWA.



  • Nikita Patel

    Nikita Patel - Feb. 16, 2024, 10:44 p.m.

    This issue arises specifically in developing countries, in rural places where women are not permitted to work as a wage earner. Despite this, women have historically made significant contributions, particularly in rural areas, albeit the article notes that these contributions are uncountable. Indeed, prior to this scenario, women were able to fulfill a variety of roles; this is merely an addition to their list demonstrating their potential. In a nation like India, where numerous female politicians have held leadership positions for an extended period of time, women's contributions are not acknowledged, and it is assumed that they limit their abilities.

  • Siya

    Siya - Feb. 14, 2024, 12:33 p.m.

    "Never before have women had so much work and so many roles to play for such small amounts and sometimes no amount at all" This really makes one stop and think. I have shared this article with many of my male family members who refuse to see the plight of women. Nothing can tell the truth better than real facts. Thank you for writing about this. The content was so valuable and I especially loved the title. Everyone does benefit when women earn.