Women on the move

A paper titled “Mobility in India, recent trends and issues concerning database” by Professor Amitabh Kundu, distinguished fellow at the Research and Information System for Developing Countries, says the number of women migrating within India is increasing at a higher rate than men. The paper, according to a report published in The Indian Express earlier this week, takes into account the 64th round of the National Sample Survey (NSS), the most recent for which migration data is available, as well as figures from the 2011 Census and the National Health and Family Survey IV.

The most significant finding is that while marriage continues to play an important role in women migration, economic factors such as employment, business and education have gained in importance. The paper cites macro-level indicators that confirm this. “The National Health and Family Survey IV shows that the percentage of women aged 20-24 married before the age of 18 has gone down from 47 in 2005-06 to 27 only in 2015-16. Furthermore, women aged 15-19 already mothers or pregnant at the time of the survey has become half from the alarming figure of 16 per cent in 2005-06,” Professor Kundu’s paper says.

This new reality of reduced dependence on marriage as the overwhelming factor behind women migration is good news. But the momentum can be sustained only if the government, both at the Centre and the states, puts in place a gender-sensitive and rights-based approach in developing labour migration laws and policies.

The picture as of now is far from perfect, as a result of which India still has one of the lowest female labour force participation rates — typically measured as the share of women who are employed or are seeking work relative to the working-age female population — among emerging markets and developing countries. At around 33 per cent at the national level, India’s female labour participation rate is well below the global average of around 50 per cent and East Asia average of around 63 per cent. 

Part of the reason is the missing gender perspective on internal migration policies. A report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation says gender-related violence is a critical issue as these women are vulnerable to sexual harassment and abuse, especially in the hands of agents and contractors.

Women migrants, especially those in lower-end informal sector occupations, remain invisible and discriminated against in the workforce. Female migrants are less well represented in regular jobs and are more likely to be self-employed. However, they are paid lesser than male migrants and don't have facilities like maternity leave and other entitlements. Lack of access to proper sanitation has serious health consequences but women and girls suffer in silence because of the stigma around women's personal hygiene issues.

Kerala provides a model that other states can take inspiration from. The state has launched a free health care-cum-insurance scheme for migrant workers. Under the scheme called Aawaz, any migrant worker employed in the state, between the ages of 18 and 60, is eligible for free medical treatment worth up to Rs 15,000 and insurance coverage of Rs 200,000 for accidental death. Medical treatment will be available from all government hospitals and also private hospitals empanelled with the scheme. 

Another big issue is the gender pay gap, which is not restricted to lower-end jobs alone. But companies say such gender pay gap exists because of divided work-family loyalties, as women take more time off from work to care for their families, leading to long career breaks. By the time they return to the job market, they have often missed the bus. Evidence exists that women lose out through voluntary termination of service at a rate two or three times faster than men once they have attained the experienced, mid-career level.

India, in fact, sees the highest drop in representation of women from junior to middle-level positions, unlike several other Asian countries where such a drop occurs from middle- to senior-level positions. This, in turn, impacts the supply line for higher levels. Data also shows almost one-third of women employees have not resumed work in the absence of a support system at home to take care of the child. And despite the better numbers on women migration, the fact is that close to 80 per cent of eligible female graduates still choose not to participate in the organised workforce.