PUCL Bulletin,

August 1984

Working women: Contradictions between reality and statistics

In India, it is taken for granted that economic activities are exclusively the prerogative of males while domestic work, child bearing and child rearing are the sole occupations of women. However, this is not true of the women from the weaker sections of Indian rural society. These female workers carry not only the load of domestic work but also carry a significant part of the load of economic activity. Their contribution to economic activity is in fact on the higher side than what is revealed by the different Indian Censuses.

For the first time in the year 1961, the term 'actual worker' in place of actual earner and 'non-worker' in place of dependent was introduced by the Indian Census. This term 'worker' included all persons who were on work and /or who were carrying out business-whether personally or by employing servants.

Though the 1971 Census maintained the basic catergorisation similar to that of 1961, the Census authorities went for an altogether new conservative definition of the term 'worker' and 'economic activity of a person'. The 1971 Census directed its enquiry only towards the main economic activity of a person decided to neglect the supplementary economic activity. This implied that any supporting work in cultivation or in household economic occupation was not enumerated as main activity. Therefore millions of female workers working on their family farms and in household economic occupations were declared as non-workers. The result was that the Census eliminated nearly 28 million female workers from the category of workers. The following table explains the position:

(figures in '000)

In all the Censuses, the enumerators generally met only male members in the rural households. As the status-conscious male respondents were not positive in their replies to questions on economic activities of the female members of their families, the enumerators too naturally came to the conclusion that the women were mainly active in domestic chores and their economic activity was only incidental. They also concluded that the males were the bread-winners and the females were housewives and non-workers. But in most cases this was not true. The Census enumerators also did not make any study to evaluate the work load and women's time-disposition either in family farming or in house-hold economic occupation.

The National Sample Survey (NSS) 29th Round showed an increase of 49% among the male earners; 60.6% among female earners and 77.3% among child-earners in the decade from 1946-65 to 1974-75 and the total increase in respect of total earners at 54.8% of the total rural labour households. The increase among female earners was 60% which meant 28% more than the increase in the households. This proves that the increase among females in more that that of males though it is true that increase among the child labourers in more than females.

The 1981 Census has tried to correct this situation partly by introducing a new term called 'marginal workers' mainly for part time and casual workers. To some extent this does remove the confusion created by the 1971 Census. The 1981 Census has thus revealed that there are 27 million marginal working persons of whom 23.4 million are in rural areas. Out of this latter total, as many as 18.1% million are females and this number is out of the total female marginal workers in India, i.e. 20.3 million. This means that out of every 10 marginal female workers, 9 are from rural areas.

In 1977 the percentage of total workers to total population was 33.09%. This increased to 33.44% in 1981. In the case of working population of males the participation rate of labour marginally decreased from 52.61% to 52.23% while the participation rate in the case of female labour force increased to 14.42% from 12.13%. This clearly shows that during the last decade more women have started working in economic activities.

According to the 1981 Census, there are 45.9 million female workers having economic activities as their main activities and out of them, 40,4 million are in rural areas. Out of these 40 million women workers, 20 million are agricultural labourers and 14.9 million are cultivators who generally belong to poor section of the cultivators like marginal and small farmers. Various studies show that no sooner does the socio-economic status of families in rural areas of India improve, then the number of working women diminishes.

While working mothers in urban areas have received some attention from organisation, committee, trade unions, cooperatives and public authorities, the welfare of working mothers in rural areas has received almost no attention from any organisation - governmental or non-governmental. Whenever people in India talk of working mothers, only the working women in urban centres are invariably on their mind. Even the report of the Committee on Status of Woman appointed by the government is not an exception to this. It is evident there-fore that underlying this reality are the attitudes of discrimination and non-recognition of women's work. And it is here that interventions are also necessary.


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