India’s rising unpaid care crisis: Prioritising social protection investments for inclusive economic growth

Blog Women's Economic Empowerment, Female labour-force participation and Healthcare

With India performing dismally in the domain of care work, and the pandemic having worsened the care crisis due to school and child care centre closures, along with mounting domestic work, it is imperative for policy responses to recognise and address the disproportionate burden of care on women. Low female labour force participation rates are a direct manifestation of this policy issue, and men whose opinions reinforce age-old patriarchal norms inhibit women’s employment opportunities. Policy responses such as universal social protection including cash transfer programmes, family friendly policies in the formal and informal sector, and overhauling India’s Anganwadi centres will likely go a long way in tiding over the current crisis.

Care work, both paid and unpaid, is a fundamental determinant of labour market outcomes and a significant contributor to a country’s economic growth. Yet, there are significant gaps and inequalities in the distribution of this work, especially unpaid care work. Globally, women perform most of the unpaid care work– on average, 3.2 times more hours than men. In fact, there is no country in the world where men and women provide an equal share of unpaid care work. While Europe comes close to gender parity, the situation in Asia is still worse with women spending 4.1 times more hours than men.

India, on the other hand, is one of the worst performing countries in terms of equitable distribution of care work. Less than 10% of the unpaid care work is carried out by adult men in India. The COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated this care crisis because pandemic-induced school closures, child care centres and rising domestic work shifted the burden of care disproportionately towards women. On average, school closures created 176 billion additional hours of unpaid child care, with women devoting, on average, ten times more hours than adult men.

This unequal distribution of care work has been a critical missing link in explaining the declining female labour force participation rate in India. The more time women spend at home with domestic work, the less they are available in the labour market. India has historically had the lowest female labour force participation rates in the world, which has worsened during the pandemic. The labour force participation rate for females (in the working age group 15+) has declined over the past decade from 32% in 2005 to 21% in 2019 and it hit a new low of 16.1% in urban areas during the pandemic.

Structural barriers such as social institutions and discriminatory social norms explain the rising gender gap in care work. The International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES) survey was conducted between 2009 and 2012 to understand men’s involvement in unpaid care work: 86% of men in India were of the opinion that “changing diapers, giving kids a bath and feeding kids are mothers’ responsibility”. Societal expectations of women’s role as caregivers and caretakers of the household has adverse ramifications, with women seeking work encountering opposition from their peers and families, further contributing to lower participation. Evidence has shown that these norms haven’t changed over the past two decades and they are highly correlated with women belonging to wealthier, higher income, and upper caste households.

Policy responses to care crisis

Designing transformative social policies is crucial to providing an enabling environment for women to thrive in the economy. This is critical not only from a social justice perspective, but also as a smart investment that could boost country’s GDP growth rate. India’s unpaid care work, performed by women, is valued at 3.1% of the country’s GDP, which is much higher than that for men (0.4% of the GDP). It is argued that investments in the care economy could create a ‘triple dividend’ by (a) promoting early childhood development of children; (b) facilitating integration of women in the labour market; and (c) creating new and decent jobs in the care economy.

Scaling and prioritising investments in care infrastructure

In India, public expenditure on select care policies (pre-primary education; long-term care services and benefits; and maternity, disability, sickness and employment injury benefits) is dismal. It accounts for less than 1% of the GDP, of which most are dedicated to maternity, disability, and employment. Investments in long-term services, especially for young children and the elderly are even lower. This is despite the evidence of a strong positive correlation between investments in care policies and the employment-to-population ratio of women with care responsibilities. Investments in comprehensive care infrastructure such as providing affordable and quality early childhood services that meet the requisite demand; universal social protection including accessible public long-term care services, family-friendly working arrangements and cash transfers linked with individuals’ care contingencies can help bridge gender gaps in workforce and thereby stimulate economic growth.

Family friendly policies for the formal and informal sector

Family friendly policies, both for the formal and informal economy, are essential to ensure that men and women have the economic and social support to provide care in a sustainable way. In the formal sector, few employers are leading the way in providing work-based policies, including breastfeeding centres, creches for children, flexible working arrangements, etc. that enable women to remain in the labour market in the long run; this is limited, however, and needs to be standardised across all organisations. Moreover, the government needs to address gaps in the provision of family friendly policies at workplaces to ensure adequate parental and family leave. For example, while India leads the way in South Asia by providing 26 weeks of maternity leave and paid breastfeeding breaks, there is no provision for paternity leave which, by default, puts the burden of work on women. Moreover, parental leave programmes are paid by the employer which disincentivises organisations to hire women. Transferring from employer-liability programmes to social insurance, where employer, employee and governments pool resources, could provide increased protection to women.

Moreover, given that a large number of people work in the informal sector in India, these policies need to be extended beyond the formal sector to include all types of informal workers, including self-employed. While existing schemes like the Ayushman Bharat Yojana subsidises health insurance for informal workers and provide maternity benefits to women, there needs to be a more holistic approach to providing these benefits. All workers in the informal economy should be covered by national social protection programmes which are provided to the formal workers. ILO recommends at least four social security guarantees: (a) access to essential health care, including maternity; (b) basic income security for children, providing access to nutrition, education, care and any other necessary goods and services; (c) basic income security for people of active age who are unable to earn sufficient income, particularly in cases of sickness, unemployment, maternity and disability; and (d) basic income security for older people.

Strengthening existing non-contributory social protection programmes

Non-contributory programmes such as cash transfer programmes go a long way in supporting parents balance child care and labour market opportunities, while also protecting them from economic shocks. India has several national and state level social protection programmes to deliver social security benefits. For example, Janani Suraksha Yojana (JSY), is a national conditional cash transfer programme that makes a one time transfer to poor pregnant and lactating women conditional on institutional delivery. Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana (PMMVY) – provides cash transfers to all mothers over 18 years during the breastfeeding period. India’s Public Distribution System (PDS) is probably the largest system which distributes food and non-food items to the poor at subsidised rates. However, cumbersome administrative processes have resulted in low coverage of the scheme. A comprehensive evaluation of these schemes, and investments in grievance redressal mechanisms would help policymakers locate and address loopholes, and allow them to strengthen design and increase coverage of these programmes.

Reimagining the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme

Child care centres enable women to access the job market by freeing up the time spent on child care. India’s Anganwadi Centres (AWCs) can be a medium to provide quality, affordable, and accessible ICDS services for children in a sustainable way. Dedicating government budgets directed at revamping the physical infrastructure, enhancing salaries, providing social protection, improving working conditions and status of Anganwadi workers, and expanding the scope of these centres to become full-time day-care centres can help in generating demand for female employment.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the gendered intrahousehold bargaining power in India and its impact on the labour market , but also laid bare the inadequacies in financing the infrastructure needed for providing quality and affordable care services for all. Prioritising and scaling investments in care and more broadly social protection programmes are proven to not only enable families to better cope with the crises, but also has significant positive externalities in terms of increased human capital, increased equity – all of which contribute to country’s productivity and allow for an inclusive and sustained economic growth and recovery.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are those of the authors based on their experience and prior research, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IGC and UNICEF.