Patna, March 8 IANS) Tetri Devi and her co-villager Sugia Devi in a flood-prone village in impoverished Koshi region of Bihar have been working and earning as farm labourer to fulfil the needs of their family, like millions of other women across the state. But, they are yet to feel empowered.
Both Tetri and Sugia symbolise increasing women's participation in the workforce towards achieving women's empowerment and gender equality. The process of empowerment, however, is not this simple.
According to a latest research paper, based on data collected from 32 villages in 11 districts of Bihar located in the Koshi and the Gandaki river basins, sharp fluctuations are evident in female work participation rates (WPRs), unlike male WPRs, which remain constant across study villages.
This is attributed to circumstantial factors, such as exposure to natural calamities, cultivation pattern, male out-migration and the compulsion of women to fulfil household labour requirements demanded on different occasions.
As women step into economic activities outside households, greater work participation seems expected of them with their elevation to the status of "main" workers from "marginal" ones.
However, the report says, greater work participation for women here often means greater engagement in agricultural labour.
"An analysis of data from 32 villages in the Koshi basin shows nearly 69 per cent of female workers in these villages are agricultural labourers. A miniscule proportion of Female-Headed Households (FHHs) are cultivators on their own land," according to Neetu Choudhary and Pranita Bhushan Udas, the researchers who conducted the study jointly.
Choudhary is Assistant Professor at the Patna-based A.N. Sinha Institute of Social Studies and Udas is Gender, Water and Adaptation Specialist in the Livelihoods Theme, at the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, ICIMOD.
"However, since only a very small proportion of FHHs own cultivable land, a majority of them, are compelled to work as casual labourers. Moreover, landlessness is linked to limited employment options for FHHs -- primarily confined to agricultural casual labour and domestic labour," the research paper said.
According to the researchers, remittances from male out-migrants account for almost 50 per cent of the annual income of FHHs, substantiating their dependence on migration as a livelihood option. Agriculture and casual labour wages account for 25 per cent of the annual income of FHHs, and are the second most important source of income, they say.
"This is reflective of the precarious circumstances amidst which rural out-migration takes place. For the female (heads), who remain in villages, the nature and remuneration of their work reflects their vulnerable position, as their engagement is an outcome of the immediate need to fulfil food security for women, children and the elderly, who have remain behind in the absence of their husbands," say Choudhary and Udas in the report.
In some households in villages in the Gandaki river basin, the workload for women has increased also because their husbands have returned home with disabilities after having gotten into accidents while working in factories and performing challenging labour work in other states, they point out.
Incidences where young sons have died while working outside their village also force women in the family to get into labour work.
According to the researchers, the villages studied show an increase in the number of de facto female-headed households as a result of male migration for employment. "Work destinations for these men include other parts of India where they work as labourers. Male absenteeism, applicable to individuals as young as 12 years old, for a minimum 6-12 months a year applies to almost all the households in these villages."
Male members of the family move out to other Indian states searching for better financial return, so that their families' food and shelter needs are met. Other expenses include health costs, and dowry and marriage expenses.
Migrant households are also burdened by high amounts of loan, which means families are trapped in a vicious cycle of vulnerabilities and poverty. Gendered hierarchy is sharp in these communities. Women are responsible for household and domestic work, and men for outside work and for earning cash incomes for their families, says the paper.
"The high fertility rate and interest in having children, especially male children, prevalent among couples who are landless, or marginal landowners, is driven by the hope that a male child is able to work outside the house and earn an income to support the family. Women in these villages are increasingly being left behind to take care of household as well as outdoor, laborious work," reads the research paper.
The level of food security in FHHs brings to light a better understanding of the participation of women in work in these villages. FHHs are more vulnerable to food insecurity and face relatively greater spells and extents of food shortage and inadequacy -- 30 per cent of FHHs face food shortage as compared to 19.8 per cent of MHHs.
"Such shortage and insecurities emerge from disparities related to land ownership and farming. Most MHHs own land, and products farmed on their land meet their food requirements," Choudhary and Udas point out.
They observe that even among FHHs, a majority of those facing food shortage belong to socially backward communities.
"What is remarkable is the difference between FHHs, which own land and those which don't. A livelihood based on agriculture ensures relatively stable access to food security for FHHs, whereas a livelihood based on wages earned as agricultural labourers does not."
"Women's bargaining powers as agricultural labourers may have increased to some extent due to male out-migration, but this is not the same for those women whose participation in the labour force emerges from the immediate need to meet food security.
"Overall, working hours for women (in paid and unpaid activities) in such households exceed those of their men counterparts," the paper underlines.
Although increased work participation in general is perceived to indicate women's economic empowerment, the question to be asked is for whom? Women's engagement in the market due to compulsion for food security rather than as a result of their choice will lead to less possibilities for them to negotiate in the market, making them more vulnerable than empowered.
Households in flood-prone villages along the Gandak river are also burdened by loans, particularly in households that have several daughters. The dowry system prevalent in the region is a major contributing factor.
"Even in a changing context, persisting gender discriminatory practices are hardly challenged. Women's work participation through economic empowerment in these villages requires critical analysis to address structural inequalities persisting from both unequal land ownership and associated capacities.
"The dominant equation, where an increase in women's participation in work and women's empowerment are seen being complementary and fully conducive to achieving national and international gender equity goals also requires critical analysis," the researchers note.
(Imran Khan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)