Women’s work? Gender, work & human development

by Andrew Redpath, Executive Director at Jeevika Trust

The theme of the UN’s latest Human Development Report is ‘Rethinking Work for Human Development’ : “Work provides livelihoods, income, a means for participation and connectedness, social cohesion, and human dignity”. With huge changes in the definition of work, in work mobility and the internet and digital world, is the new shape of the world of work ‘enhancing human development’?

Not only is the workplace transforming but so are the types of work – care work, voluntary work, creative work –  which according to the UN need to be taken into account in assessing the human development benefits of work.  And in this, the whole question of gender has become more prominent. While women perform over 50 % of all ‘work’ in the broader sense, they are still systematically disadvantaged in terms of equality.  For the past 20 years the Human Development Index, measuring nation by nation all the criteria for development, has incorporated the Gender Development Index (GDI) and the Gender  Empowerment Measure addressing gender-gaps in life expectancy, education, and incomes.

The GDI considers income-gaps in terms of actual earned income but much debate has arisen from related questions such as the value of house and child-care work versus men’s work (globally women perform 3 out of every 4 hours of unpaid work), different wage levels between the genders (globally women are paid an average 24% less than men), etc – and there are still several adjustments to be made to improve the comparative picture. But it remains clear that women’s role, potential and empowerment are very real issues in not only the gender balance but the future of trends in development.

In India specifically, education and income gaps vary substantially by class, caste and gender, and unpaid care work that falls on women alone pushes them out of the workforce, resulting in India having one of the world’s lowest female participation rates in the labour force, as traditionally defined.

Translating these criteria to Village India and village livelihoods, Jeevika’s experience is broadly in line with the ‘gender-gap’ measurements above, but we have seen and demonstrated at first hand how women have responded to the opportunity of working in self help groups (SHGs) as a relatively new dynamic with endless potential for generating knowledge, confidence, energy and their own earning power : generating their own individual income streams, albeit small, and sharing the moral and economic support of self help groups in tackling well-conceived and funded projects for communal benefit has visibly created in the past decade or more a huge, irreversible and growing wave of human energy and contributed to village prosperity.

A women's Self-Help Group

Hence, in terms of the basic theme of the Report – the role of work in ‘human development’, – it is clear that both broader definitions of what constitutes ‘work’, and the ways in which women are able to contribute to such work in more dynamic ways, are key.  Both are valuable indicators to us in equipping women with the skills and opportunities they need in order to build rewarding and sustainable livelihoods.

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