Intra household dynamics and women’s participation in NREGS

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, or NREGS, was established in 2005 as India’s flagship rural employment guarantee program. Under the program, households must apply for job cards which entitle them to 100 days of work per year. Wages are determined by each state and increases in the wage rate over the years have been extremely low. 2021-22 saw the highest jump in wage rates and still NREGS workers are paid between $3.30-$4.00 an hour, depending on the state. Because of this and the work conditions, NREGS work is generally seen as paid work of last resort but has extremely wide coverage in rural India, providing employment to women, Dalits and Adivasis.

In this blog post, I explore how women engage with NREGS and how the household affects women’s decisions to participate in the program using IHDS Round 2 data from 2011-12. Women’s participation in the scheme declined more recently due to Covid, but generally hovers around the 50% mark nation-wide. Given the low and declining participation of women in the labour force overall, NREGS stands out as an important program to consider for the future of women’s paid employment.

IHDS collected data on how many days respondents reported worked for NREGS, conditional on access to NREGS work. For upto 29 days, more men tend to work for the program than women. However, this trend begins to even out and we see more women work 50 days and up than men. At the extensive margin (decision to work or not), NREGS is known to be an important program for women. However, it seems to be just as important at the intensive margin as well (how many days to work for).

This led to me to consider the next set of questions: what factors influence how many days women work for? First, there don’t appear to be major differences by caste within Brahmin/Savarna, OBC, Dalit and Adivasi groups. Muslim women however do tend to work fewer days under the program.

IHDS also asked women about their position within the household as well as who within the household influences their decision to work in general. Married women, both who are more senior in the household and those who are less so, tend to work for a higher number of days under the program. For both senior married women and junior married women, having a spouse who has migrated for work or absent for some other reason leads to more women working up to 30 days per year, but their participation in the program drops off in comparison to their married-only counterparts after 30 days. A higher percentage of divorced women tend to work upto 29 days in comparison to the married-only group, but then fewer divorced women work beyond 30 days.

Interestingly, the position within the household isn’t just an age story. I replicated the same graph above by age, and see no major differences across age groups. It’s not a woman’s age but rather her position in the household that is correlated with her participation in NREGS at the intensive margin.

Finally, I look at the effect of who the decision maker is in determining women’s participation in NREGS. Here the story seems to get a bit complicated. If women themselves or their husbands are making the decision about whether or not she should work, it results in about 33-34% of women entering the program. However, if the senior male or female in the household are making the decision, women only enter the program about 15-19% of the time.

However, once women enter the program, she works more days if senior males and senior females are the key decision makers. In this case, women are very likely to work upwards of 50 days. If women themselves or their husbands are the key decision makers, they work fewer days in comparison. It’s unclear how to interpret this without also understanding how households where women themselves are the key decision makers about their work are different from households where senior men are. It’s possible that senior men and women in the household are more encouraging of women’s participation in NREGS, or that they coerce women to work more than they would otherwise to increase family income.

Overall, it seems to that intra-household dynamics are important factors to study in trying to understand women’s workforce decisions in general, but also their participation in NREGS specifically. Demographic factors like caste and age do play a role, but might be overshadowed by factors related to restrictive gender norms, like women’s position in the household and who has the most say in her decision to work.

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