Confirming signs of a demographic shift in India, the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data reported that there are now 1020 females per 1000 males. NFHS is a sample survey and a clearer picture would emerge once the next national census is conducted. The survey itself advised the readers to be cautious while interpreting the trends as “some States/Union Territories may have smaller sample size”. Additionally, the sex ratio at birth stood at 929 females per 1000 males which was only a slight improvement from 919 reported by NFHS-4 in 2015-16. While this points to the continued prevalence of preference for sons over daughters, it is important to recognize that this is the first time that the sex ratio has skewed in favour of women. The finding has major implications for policies affecting the lives of women in the country.
Participation in Paid Work
According to the Periodic Labour Force Survey 2019-20, the labour force participation rate for women aged 15 years and above stood at 30% as compared to 76.8% for men in the same age bracket. The fifth edition of NFHS confirms the poor participation of women in paid work. The percentage of women aged 15-49 years who worked in the last 12 months and were paid in cash improved only marginally, from 24.6% in NFHS-4 to 25.4% in NFHS-5. This underrepresentation of women in paid work is undoubtedly linked to their agency at home.
Factors such as lack of safety, insufficient jobs in female-friendly sectors, unaffordable childcare, and so on, are often held responsible for the dismal participation of women in the labour force.
Apart from these, the burden of unpaid work falls disproportionately on women and acts as a barrier to women’s economic empowerment. The government, therefore, needs to step up and invest in public healthcare, education, social security schemes, and childcare facilities because it is the women who have to fill in for the lack of social services.
Access to Internet
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated digital adoption in countries across the world. Educational institutes and work had to transition to online mode and women found themselves to be at a disadvantage. Limited access to the internet and digital tools leads to widening gaps and greater inequality. According to NFHS-5, the percentage of women (aged 15-49 years) who had ever used the internet was 33.3% as compared to 57.1% of men in the same age group. Measures to bridge the gender digital divide are of prime importance so that women can realise the opportunities offered exclusively by the digital world.
Feminisation of Elderly Population
As per the NFHS-5, the total fertility rate (TFR) in the country is now 2, which is less than the replacement level fertility rate for the first time ever. Even though India’s population is still quite young, a fall below the replacement level fertility points to the shift of demography towards an aging population. According to the recently released Elderly in India Report, an increasing trend in the proportion of the population belonging to the age group 60 years and above has been observed.
The life expectancy of Indian women is more than that of Indian men. This, coupled with the sex ratio now being tipped in favour of women, indicates that the trend of the elderly female population outnumbering the elderly male population will only strengthen with time. In fact, by 2031, the elderly female population is projected to rise to 100.9 million as opposed to the 92.9 million elderly males.
Such a trend will have its own unique challenges, one of them being the increasing population of widowed females. Widowhood in India is often associated with social exclusion and puts women in more precarious conditions. Lack of access to health care and social security schemes coupled with economic insecurity due to inheritance practices that favour sons, require policy support to address the needs of older women.
The improvement in the sex ratio reflects that the decades of initiatives and programs to support women have borne fruit but it is not enough to simply have more women than men. India’s shift towards a predominantly female population implies that there is an urgent need for policymakers to address the challenges affecting women. This will ensure that the demographic shift is accompanied by improved socio-economic conditions for the women of this country.