India Insight

White-collar jobs for rural women needed to enhance gender equality – new book

December 10, 2013

Family planning, health and education programmes have done a lot to improve the lives of women in rural India, but getting more young rural women to work in jobs that don’t involve wage labour is the next step for gender equality and the country’s economic health, according to Dr. Carol Vlassoff, author of a new book, “Gender Equality and Inequality in Rural India: Blessed with a Son.

Vlassoff, 69, has been studying the village of Gove in Satara District of Maharashtra state since 1975. She determined through her work there that bringing rural women into the modern economy in India means making more job opportunities available to them, particularly professional, white-collar jobs.

Doing this also could lead to slowing population growth in India, one of the world’s most populous countries with an estimated 1.2 billion people. She found, according to a press statement accompanying the book, “that self-employed and professional rural women were more likely to use contraceptives and delay having their first child than unemployed women with the same amount of schooling.”

This, she said, also helps promote gender equality at a time when parents, although fond of their daughters, consider a son essential. Daughters can be a financial burden on parents because, despite the abolition of dowry, grooms’ parents often expect substantial gifts. As a result, in Gove and elsewhere, parents sometimes choose to abort a female fetus. Half of the women Vlassoff interviewed in the village said they knew of women who have done this, she said.

Vlassoff, who worked at the World Health Organization on women’s empowerment, has been conducting studies in the village, which now has a population of 3,600, since 1975. The nearly 500 women in her latest study are 15 to 49 years old.

How did you choose Gove as the village that you wanted to study?

I was studying (at) the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics in Pune. This village was actually ideal because it was far enough from Pune to not be affected by the urban sprawl even at that time. And it was a very rural village which was a subsistence village at that time, so quite poor actually, but quite attractive because it was on the Krishna river and people were quite welcoming. I’m a Canadian and I had traveled around. I had just finished my master’s degree and I was really interested in the culture in India. It was 1971. I found the population kept hitting me in the face, knowing it was a major issue, even in the 70′s. I got really into the study of population which led me to demography and a Master’s degree in population studies.

What is the conventional wisdom about women and work that you want to challenge?

The conventional wisdom is that women should stay home once they’re educated. The idea that women could be educated is fine. And that’s enough. And that’s widespread, certainly, in rural India. To me, that was probably the most important finding because I found that employment over and above education made a difference. If you employ women, you will have better outcomes in terms of their reproductive health. I found that especially in contraceptive use. Women who are educated at the same level and women who are educated and employed, those women use contraception way more and delay their first child.

What kind of work should women be doing to improve their lives and society at large?

Having small shops, for example. Handicrafts. Promoting them and not just making them for someone else. Employment in fields like teaching, clerical work, secretarial work, computers, there are a lot of opportunities for women to learn in that village.

How can the central government or state governments help make this happen?

The policies have to change to direct more attention to this issue. There should be incentives created to get women to work. Businesses should get incentives to employ women. They should be encouraged to make their hours more convenient to women so they would have the danger of having to travel in the dark, for example.

How has education at the village level helped, based on what you’ve seen in Gove?

I found that in the first study in 1975, the girls did way poorer than boys. By 2008, the girls were outperforming them in almost everything. This is one reason why I think it was an interesting village even though there are 600,000 villages or more in India. It was a really prevalent thing in the village that girls needed a grade 10 education before they got married. It didn’t happen as such quite with every case, but it was the norm.

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