The nature and scope of India’s Social Protection policy has been undergoing a paradigm shift in the last decade. Social assistance for poverty alleviation is now being viewed within a rights-based framework, and broadening the potential for development processes to incorporate the goals of equity, social justice and human rights. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) provides atleast 100 days of unskilled manual work at minimum wages to every rural household, and is the largest rights-based employment guarantee programme in the world today, reaching over 50 million households across India, with more than 48% of its participants being women workers (MoRD, 2012)
A popular claim of MGNREGS is its unique gender-sensitive approach that incorporates ‘gender equality and empowerment elements into its design. The participation of the poorest and the most excluded individuals and groups in the programme has the potential to address social discrimination and exclusion that is significant in pushing and trapping households into poverty. While MGNREGS is viewed both as a ‘Preventive’ as well as a ‘Promotional’ Social Protection measure, for it to realise its ‘transformative’ potential; as pointed out by Devereux and Sabates-Wheeler (2004), it would need to go beyond providing a safety net and redress the unequal power relations in society that create and sustain this poverty and vulnerability. Inequitable power relations between social categories of men and women form a key component of this structural imbalance. Hence, gender equality needs to be a strong focus in social protection policies.
Inclusion of women-friendly provisions in the MGNREG Act has empowered women to gain access to the programme. In many states, women’s labour participation has thus exceeded the stipulated one-third quota (MoRD, 2012). Access to employment through MGNREGS has had positive outcomes in women’s individual lives such as increased wages, food security, greater confidence, control over decisions relating to children’s education and healthcare, economic independence, increased mobility, a sense of security from guaranteed and less hazardous work, and increased participation in village meeting bodies (Jandu, 2008; Khera and Nayak, 2009; Pankaj and Tankha, 2010). But one of the most visible cracks in what is otherwise perceived to be a gender success story, comes through in the glaring fact that women’s participation varies widely between states; while participation rates are high in states like Kerala (93.0), Tamil Nadu (74.0), and Rajasthan (69.0), it is comparatively much lower in Uttar Pradesh (17.0), Bihar (29.0), Jharkhand (31.0), West Bengal (32.0) and Haryana (36.0) ( MoRD, 2012). This opens up a pandora’s box of debates related to what constitutes gender equality for development.
The ability of women in India to access paid employment is shaped by entrenched socio-cultural gender norms which is characterised largely by unequal gender relations. This is often reflected in the disproportionate allocation of resources to women which has long term adverse impacts in the form of low skills, dependence on male members, lack of decision-making authority and lesser control or access to income or assets. It has been seen that in states where women enjoy higher status or autonomy, they are able to exercise choice and access outside employment. For e.g. in a social audit in Tamil Nadu, “95% of women stated that it was their own decision to take up MGNREGS work” (Narayanan, 2008). Similarly, in Kerala, implementation of MGNREGS through community groups (‘Kudumbashree’) has drawn in women both as workers and managers (Sudarshan, 2011). On the contrary, in Uttar Pradesh, strict patriarchal norms among land-owning communities have restricted women from accessing manual labour outside of their homes (Raja, 2007). It has also been found that unequal distribution of work within the household place care responsibilities entirely on women, limiting their mobility and time available for paid work (Sudarshan, 2011).
This tells us that making opportunities available for women to access employment becomes meaningful to them only when they are able to actualise the potential that the resources hold for them. For e.g. non-implementation of child-care provisions ( which is stipulated in the Act) at many worksites has forced many women, especially single women, to give up work (Khera and Nayak, 2009). Women have low bargaining power when it comes to accessing work over men in the same household (ibid). Under MGNREGS, the interpretation of ‘household’ based on a ‘nuclear family’ has caused exclusion of single, divorced and separated women (Bhatty, 2008). But there is little effort on the part of States to make women aware about their entitlements or to encourage their participation (Pankaj and Tankha, 2010). The neglect of women’s interests and needs is a reflection of their gendered access to work and a re-inforcement of their secondary position in the labour market and in the household.
Here it is also becomes important to understand as Kabeer (1999) says, the processes by which access to resources translates into agency or achievements for women. In other words, there is a need to understand the different causes for women’s disempowerment. Women’s ability to exercise choice in accessing work and facilities is restricted not only by social structures but also by their own distorted perception of their needs and interests. For example, even when women are aware of their entitlements under MGNREGS, very few demand it either because they are either structurally disadvantaged such as in the case of female headed households (Bhatty, 2008) or because of internalization of inferior gender norms. It is seen that though MGNREGS has in-built mechanisms for democratic governance processes, women are unable to envisage an active or leadership role for themselves in it. ( Pankaj and Tankha, 2010).
Gender equality in MGNREGS is also closely related to gender equality in management and control rights to productive assets created under the programme (Kelkar, 2011). However patriarchal norms that have traditionally denied women control rights over assets also restrict their role in planning and management of MGNREGS works (Pankaj and Tankha, 2010). There is also a gender bias in the choice of productive assets that are created under MGNREGS. Most of the assets chosen enhance male productivity and the lack of ownership rights to them denies women any benefits from long-term multiplier effects of these assets (Kelkar, 2011). Women’s gendered status can be improved by creation of assets that can reduce women’s drudgery and time spent on collection of fuel, water and other raw material for household subsistence or service delivery assets that would transfer women’s unpaid care work to the market (Hirway, 2008).
Pankaj and Tankha (2010) note that women’s participation in the processes of selection of work under MGNREGS is seen to be almost negligible. Further, their findings show that the women who do attend community meetings only participate in issues related to work availability work or wage payment. When it comes to issues of community interests, such as the kind of assets that need to be produced, it is often the men who take the decisions. This again is a reflection of entrenched gender relations and structural constraints that prevent women from being equal partners because of male domination. Additionally it could also reflect how women perceive their domestic work as their personal responsibility and not as a policy matter.
Therefore, it is seen that the concept of women’s empowerment in MGNREGS is limited to providing women access to wage work without any concrete attempts to increase their strategic access to other economic, social and political resources. While this has allowed women to exercise choices related to practical matters in their daily lives, the implementation of the programme has failed in involving women in a process of transformation, thus restricting their ability to make strategic changes to their work or social environment.
MGNREGS thus provides an understanding of the way gender dynamics and power relations shape Social Protection policies and programmes in India, both at the design and implementation stage. Seen within the framework of social justice, it is imperative for Social Protection policies to transform inequitable power relations that create and sustain gendered patterns of poverty and vulnerability in society. Gender equality therefore should not be just a component of Social Protection but it should be integrated into its goals and vision of change. Social Protection programmes like MGNREGS can realize this transformative potential by conceptualising and implementing women’s empowerment measures within a multi-dimensional framework, that will enable women to realise their individual as well as collective strength. This is essential if we are looking at Social Protection to bring about individual as well as structural change.
Holmes, Rebecca and Jones, Nicola (2011): Why is Social Protection gender-blind? The Politics of Gender and Social Protection in IDS Bulletin, Vol 42 No 6, Institute of Development Studies, Brighton.