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Allowing women to work in “dangerous” jobs may add two years to their life
Women in Uttar Pradesh cannot manufacture pottery, and women in Tamil Nadu cannot dye carpets. Across Indian states, women cannot work in 31 industries ranging from lock making to manufacture of bangles. These restrictions seem to be motivated by a paternalistic approach of protecting women’s health and safety from processes that are considered dangerous by the State. However, this approach to protecting women may be creating the opposite effect by worsening women’s lives.
The policy of banning women from certain jobs should be reconsidered because of two reasons. First, the jobs women are banned from do not seem to be scientifically identified. Second, banning women may not be the appropriate strategy, even if the jobs are proven to be more dangerous to women.
Interstate variation in danger
If women were banned from industries based on differential health impact, then the bans would largely be the same across Indian states. This is because the bans would be based on scientific evidence of disproportionate harm to women that does not vary by state. However, the industries closed to women vary widely across Indian states, which indicates that the bans are not being driven by health concerns that have been derived from scientific literature. For example, women are prohibited from working in the manufacture of pottery in six states but allowed to work in the same industry in seven states. Moreover, based on the reviewed literature, no evidence was found indicating that the manufacturing of pottery has a differential impact on the health of women. Similarly, states seem to swap the bans in some cases indicating that a scientific approach is not the driver for such bans. For example, Maharashtra bans women from abrasive surface treatment, but Uttar Pradesh allows women to participate in the industry. Conversely, Uttar Pradesh bans women from chemical works, but Maharashtra does not. The following table shows how the bans on some of the processes vary by state.
The variation between states throws up data that indicates that the bans may not be protecting women. Most states ban women from some jobs but two states have no bans at all—Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Sadly, no data about life expectancy by profession is available for Indian states. However, Indian states do provide data for deaths in industrial accidents. Female worker deaths should be lower in states with the most restrictions on women working in industrial jobs. However, there is no correlation between the two numbers. Consider Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Andhra Pradesh allows women to work in all industries but Uttar Pradesh bans women from 16 types of jobs. However, in 2017-18, Andhra Pradesh saw 2.82 female deaths per 100,000 female workers. In contrast, Uttar Pradesh saw 34.54 female deaths per 100,000 female workers. If complete prohibition translated into women’s safety, the rate of deaths in Uttar Pradesh should have been lower when compared to Andhra Pradesh.
Some of the jobs banned by states do indeed have a differential impact on women’s health. However, bans on women may not be a solution to protect women’s health. Instead, such bans may have the opposite result of harming women’s health in two ways—through reducing income of affected women and forcing women to take up jobs informally that are even more harmful to their health.
When women are banned from jobs, their choices decrease, and consequently, their ability to earn decreases. Reduced income is directly related to reduced life expectancy. While the ban on women’s roles may be protecting them from occupational risks, it may also be making women much poorer, thereby reducing their life expectancy. In India, a woman in the poorest wealth quintile has a life expectancy of 67 years at birth, while a woman in the richest wealth quintile has a life expectancy of 74 years—a difference of 7 years (Asaria et. al, 2019). This wealth quintile gap can be generated due to the difference in wages in India where industrial wages are higher than wages in other sectors like agriculture. An average Indian female worker earned more than Rs 300/day in manufacturing jobs but earned less than Rs 200/day when working in agriculture (International Labour Organisation, 2018)—a difference of 33%. Over a working life, this difference may lead to a difference in one wealth quintile, conservatively. This difference of one wealth quintile reduces the life expectancy for an average Indian female by 2 years.
The ban on women not only reduces their income. Such bans may also force women into more dangerous jobs or do jobs more dangerously. One example of such dangerous activity is harvesting crops. Harvesting crops is not generally seen as a dangerous activity. No law in India bans women from harvesting crops. However, due to economic pressures, women may be forced to take extreme health risks even in agricultural jobs.
In Beed, a district in Maharashtra, this pressure has played out in an unexpected way—sugarcane harvesting, a seemingly harmless job, has turned very dangerous for women. Women in sugarcane harvesting are undergoing hysterectomies to avoid getting pregnant and lose wages during the season (Varadarajan, 2021). The national average for hysterectomies is 3.2% with a median age of 42 years. However, in Beed, this figure jumps to 36% for the same age. This district is known for sugarcane cultivation. Manufacturing industries such as oil refineries and fuel production are also prevalent near Beed. Women may have fared better if they were allowed to work in oil refineries instead of harvesting sugarcane.
What should the state do? Banning women from working is not the solution. Instead, the state may limit itself to providing information to women and employers about health risks. The parties may then take an informed choice about employment and production. A deeper policy analysis is needed before we restrict activities between consenting adults, especially in India. Bans rarely work the way the policymakers intended. Policymakers should consider the alternatives that people will have to take when an economic activity is closed to them.
A solution that seems to have worked for a nation to quickly get out of poverty is to take slight risks. An example is to allow women to work in riskier operations. If India could be richer, women’s health would improve. Research suggests that India’s GDP could grow by 27% if its 264 million working-age population were to join the workforce (Lagarde and Solberg, 2018). Historically, East Asian countries were able to grow at a faster rate than South Asian countries because the women in those countries were mobilised in export-oriented manufacturing enterprises (Klasen and Lamanna, 2008). As per World Bank, countries such as Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam allow women to work in jobs deemed dangerous in the same way as men. For India to experience a labour-intensive export-led growth trajectory, employing its female workforce is the first step.
Asaria, M., Mazumdar, S., Chowdhury, S., Mazumdar, P., Mukhopadhyay, A., & Gupta, I. (2019). Socioeconomic inequality in life expectancy in India. BMJ Global Health, 4(3).
International Labour Organisation. (2018). India Wage Report: Wage policies for decent work and inclusive growth. International Labour Organisation.
Klasen, S., & Lamanna, F. (2008). The impact of gender inequality in education and employment on economic growth in developing countries: Updates and extensions. Retrieved from Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Ibero-America Institute for Economic Research (IAI).
Lagarde, C., & Solberg, E. (2018). Why 2018 must be the year for women to thrive. World Economic Forum.
Varadarajan, P. (2021). Bitter Reality: Mass Hysterectomy Of Women Workers In Beed’s Sugarcane Fields.