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women in agriculture

Women in Indian Agriculture: Trends and Correlates

By: Sucharita Sen, Abraham Daniel Raj, Sreenita Mondal & Soumi Chatterjee, The authors are Executive Director and Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Research Associate and Research Fellow at SaciWATERs, Hyderabad and PhD Research Scholar, Jawaharlal Nehru University respectively.
The paper explores the trajectory of defeminisation in Indian agriculture for over three decades based on NSSO and Labour Bureau data between 1983 and 2015. It concludes that withdrawals due to education and increased household incomes can only partially explain the trends.
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With structural changes and neo-liberal globalisation there has been some evidence of feminisation of agricultural workforce in developing countries(Deere, 2005; Allen and Sachs, 2007). It has been observed that while proportion of labour force working in agriculture declined over the 1990s, the proportion of women working in agriculture increased in developing countries (Cornheil 2008).

The Indian case, however, seen in a long-term perspective, captures a trend which is contrary to the above-mentioned literature. For the last three decades, there has been a consistent fall in both female labour force and work force participation, both in rural and urban areas; the fall in the rural area is more consistent and sharp, in relation to male work participation.

This paper traces the unusual trajectory of decline in female work participation in Indian agriculture till 2015, relative to that of men. The paper revisits the two major reasons that emerge from existing literature to explain this trend, i.e., higher participation in education and prosperity-induced withdrawals. We highlight two processes in conclusion that may have some effect in explaining the trend but have not been explored so far.

Women in Agriculture – Data and Concept

This paper uses unit level data from the Employment-Unemployment rounds published by the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO), Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MOSPI) (from 1983 to 2012) and Labour Bureau Survey conducted by the Ministry of Labour and Employment (MoLE) (2015).

The definitions and concepts used in NSSO and Labour Bureau Survey are more or less comparable, particularly with respect to how a person is classified as ‘working’ or ‘seeking or available for work’. This paper uses the ‘usual’ activity status, which is available from the two data sources. In usual status criterion, the broad activity status of a person (employed, unemployed and not in labour force) is decided by majority time criterion within the reference period. For example, if an18-year-old woman is a student for 7 months in the year, though she may have been looking for a job for 3 months and worked for 2 months, she would be classified as a student, i.e., not in the labour force in the usual principal status (UPS). Subsidiary status is also recorded to understand if a person has done any work for less than 6 months but more than 1 month. In the example given above, the woman would be classified as a worker in the subsidiary status. UPSS (usual principal and subsidiary status) has two components, i.e., usual principal status and subsidiary status and captures short-term jobs too, which is extremely important to capture women’s work and jobs that are seasonal.

Three Decades of Defeminisation in Indian Agriculture

Rural India, unlike its South Asian neighbours is experiencing a trend encapsulating an increasingly defeminised labour-force, contrary to a process of feminisation of agriculture due to male selective outmigration. In Nepal the female work participation is extremely high, comparable to that of men, while in both Bangladesh and Pakistan, the latter albeit from a very low base, the female work participation rates have increased over time (Verick, 2014). Agriculture, being the least paid sector within the rural economy, is expected to witness increasing participation of women, with men seeking better options within and outside rural areas. Figure 1 shows that the share of women workers in agriculture has fallen from 44 to 30 per cent  for a period of three decades, barring the exceptional year of 2004-05. A number of reasons has been offered for less ranging from increased attendance in educational institutions of women, higher income levels of households and an associated prosperity induced withdrawal, a structural shift away from agriculture, increased mechanisation in agriculture as well as fall in the importance of animal husbandry and lower international demand for labour intensive industries (Mehrotra and Sinha, 2017; Abraham, 2013; Lahoti and Swaminathan, 2013; Kannan and Raveendran, 2012; Neff, Sen and Kling, 2012). Some of these reasons are not gender specific and are likely to impact both men and women, possibly not equally, as education and mechanisation related withdrawals.

The absolute fall in women’s work participation rates (WPR) need not necessarily be a gender concern; a fall in economic opportunities and lack of jobs could potentially lead to a fall for both gender categories. As observed in Table 1, both the female and male work participation rates have fallen, but the former has fallen more sharply than the latter, which is reflected in the ratio of these two. The ratio of the female to male WPR has fallen from 0.58 to 0.40 from 1983 to 2015.

Age-specific changes in work participation

Do education-related withdrawals explain the gender differences in trends of WPR? The changes in the female and male age-specific WPRs reveal notable differences, though the common element is that the fall in both cases is the starkest in the age groups below 20 (Figs 2 and 3). This is clearly indicative of education-related withdrawals from job market, which is a positive sign for the future of the society and economy, though this does not explain the relative decline of women’s participation in rural work. In the 15-20 age-group, for example, the fall in the female and male WPRs are 48 per cent to 11 per cent and from 71 per cent to 28 per cent  respectively. The differences between Figures 2 and 3, however are revealing. While there is a significant fall in the WPR of women between 30-60 age groups, i.e., the peak working age, for men, there has been no corresponding change for these age categories. The fall for men, other than the younger age groups, has been in the 60 + age-groups, while the elderly women have been working at the same rates over the three decades in question.The gender differences in the trajectories of WPR over time, have clearly resulted from the withdrawal of women from the primary working age groups.

One of the major reasons of the relative fall in the female WPR that has been cited by several scholars is prosperity-induced withdrawals. It has been argued that over the period under question, particularly after the nineties, there has been an overall increase in the rural household incomes (Mehrotra and Parida 2017; Neff, Sen and Kling, 2012). This has been explained citing the patriarchal restrictions on women and their mobility, which has resulted in them withdrawing from the workforce following the increases in household incomes coupled with an increase in real wages. Though a detailed analysis is outside the scope of this paper, we attempt to validate this argument from an analysis of the changes in spatial patterns of female WPR (relative to that of men).

In Figure 4, relative female WPR (as used in Table 1) of 2015 has been subtracted from that of 1983; in other words, Figure 4 depicts the changes in female WPR, relative to that of men, over this period. The question we ask here is, have the states with high per-capita agricultural income experienced higher falls compared to those that have lower incomes?

Figure 4 reveals that some of the states with high per-capita agricultural income like Punjab and Himachal Pradesh have experienced a high fall. Also, most of the states that have registered an increase in relative WPR have comparatively low per-capita agricultural GDP. Notably, however, these states also have a high share of tribal population, with relatively favourable gender relations, where women in work-space are both accepted and required.However, there are inconsistent states as well. Kerala, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh are within the same category (second highest category in terms of rate of decrease), with varying levels of per-capita agricultural incomes. The relatively high decline in Kerala is hard to explain, because of the relatively progressive gender relations in the state; it is unlikely that women in the state would withdraw from the workforce in response to high incomes. Though an analysis of spatial variations in changes of relative WPR is inadequate to conclusively comment on the phenomenon of prosperity induced withdrawal, it appears that this explanation can, at best, only partially explain the fall in work participation
of women.


The overall fall in female work participation in India is of concern, though part of the explanation lies in positive changes like higher participation in education. Rural women’s withdrawal out of the labour and work force due to reasons of education and high income appear to be inadequate to explain the process of defeminisation in rural India. The effect of agrarian distress on women, on the one hand, and degradation of and exclusion from common property resources making women’s job of collecting fodder, fuel and water more arduous, on the other, are relatively underexplored areas with respect to the issue under discussion, which needs to be taken up in future research.

Acknowledgement: The authors are grateful to Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, that is supporting the project entitled ‘Understanding Women’s Role in Agriculture in the Eastern Gangetic Plains: The Macro and Micro Connections’ being carried out at SaciWATERs. This paper is a preliminary output from this project.


Abraham, V., 2013. Missing labour or Consistent De-Feminisation, Economic & Political Weekly, 48 (31) pp 99-108.

Allen, P. and Sachs, C., 2007. Women and Food Chains: The Gendered Politics of Food, Journal of Sociology of Food and Agriculture, 15(1): 1-23.

Cornhiel, S. L., 2008. Feminisation of Agriculture: trends and driving forces: Background Paper for the World Development Report 2008. Washington DC: World Bank.

Deere, C. D., 2005. The Feminization of Agriculture? Economic Restructuring in Rural Latin America. UN, UN Research Institute. Geneva: UN

Kannan, K. P., and Raveendran, G., 2012. Counting and profiling the missing labour force. Economic and Political Weekly, 47(6): 77-80.

Lahoti, R., and Swaminathan, H., 2013. Economic growth and female labour force participation in India, Working Paper 414, Institute of Management, Bangalore.

Mehrotra, S., and Sinha, S., 2017. Explaining Falling Female Employment during a High Growth Period. Economic & Political Weekly, 52(39).

Neff, D. F., Sen, K., & Kling, V. (2012). The Puzzling Decline in Rural Women’s Labor Force Participation in India: A Re-examination. GIGA Working paper no. 196, ECONSTAR.

Mehrotra S., and Parida J.K., 2017. Why is the Labour Force Participation of Women Declining in India?, World Development, 98, (C), 360-380.

Verick, S. (2014). Women’s Labor Force Participation in India: Why is it so low. International Labor Organization, Country Office, New Delhi.

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