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How far have women gained from India’s growth story?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 29-03-2017 Dipti Jain

The past decade saw India growing at its fastest pace ever. How did women fare during this phase? Data from the latest round of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) conducted in 2015-16 provides some answers. The data shows a steady, if slow, improvement in women’s health, indicating that gains in family incomes and public health initiatives directed at women may have had some impact. The data also shows some improvements in women’s status but the record here is far more mixed.

The share of women with below-normal body mass index (BMI) has fallen significantly while the share of women with anaemia has fallen slightly over the past decade, the data shows, even though stark differences across states still remain. The share of women with below-normal BMI declined 13 percentage points between 2005-06 and 2015-16 to 23% (corresponding figure for men is 20%). Over the same period, the share of women with anaemia fell 2 percentage points to 53% (the corresponding figure for men is 23%).

The NFHS also captures data on women’s participation in household decisions and violence they face at home. While such data is self-reported and hence must be interpreted with caution, they are among the most credible information available on women’s status in the country. The data shows that across the country fewer women now face violence from their partners even as female participation in household decisions is now increasing.

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But the overall gains mask some disturbing trends. In states such as Delhi and Haryana, the proportion of women who faced spousal violence actually increased even as their share in household decision-making fell, indicating that economic growth alone may not guarantee empowerment of women. Most (though not all) north-eastern states, which also tend to have relatively high levels of female literacy, fare better on these parameters compared to other parts of the country.

The most disappointing aspect uncovered by the survey relates to women’s economic status. The last employment survey conducted by National Sample Survey Office in 2011-12 had recorded a dramatic fall in women’s participation in the labour market. The latest results from the NFHS show that the situation may not have improved much in the intervening years. The NFHS enumerators ask women who reported having worked in the response period if they have been paid in kind or cash for their work. The proportion of working women who were paid for their work in cash fell 4 percentage points over the past decade to 24.6% . The decline has been felt across most Indian states.

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The low proportion of women who receive wages or salaries in cash (as opposed to those doing unpaid work or receiving wages in kind) indicates how little space women occupy in the fast-growing Indian economy. Women’s status in our society can see a quantum leap only when they become bigger stake-holders in the formal economy, and their economic status and purchasing power increase significantly. Till that happens, economic development will largely remain a male-centric phenomenon in the country.

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