Women were the major producer of food, textiles and handicrafts throughout human history and continue to provide a major labor input where production is still in the small-scale subsistence sector. The components of women's work include housework, paid and unpaid work related to home base craft activities, family enterprise or business and paid work outside home. The kind of work women do is determined by women's position in the society and family's location in the social hierarchy. The basic elements of women's work within the home are related to the division of labor between men and women. Activities included under housework broadly differ according to age, gender, income, occupational group and rural/urban and size and structure of the family.
Much of the work that women do in household industries and processing of agricultural products if unpaid is not recognized as work in the economic system. In rural areas the women from poorer households engage in various activities such as cooking, processing of food for household consumption, storing grains, childcare, collection of water and forest produce, taking care of cattle and fodder. The women largely do work important for the maintenance of families.
In the agricultural sector small and marginal farmer households utilize family labor, as they cannot hire labor from outside. In the non-agricultural sectors such as handicrafts, handloom weaving, pottery, food preservation and processing etc. a large proportion of women are home-based workers. Activities like dairying, small animal husbandry, fisheries, weaving and family activities and every member assist in some aspects of production. A major part of the work is done within the home and women are not accorded the status of a worker. Non-valuation of women's unpaid work within the home results in non-recognition of women's crucial economic contribution.
Girls continue to provide free labor in home-based production. Studies on rural girl child labor show that she works nine hours daily providing goods and services which keep her out of school. Many girls also work in the hazardous occupations as well like fire crackers in Sivaksi, match making and carpet making etc. while many are employed as domestic workers .The girls working in home based industries are beyond the preview of child labor laws. These laws are not enforced even in factory-based industries. Such works cut them off from schooling, literacy, technical skills and improving their job prospects.
Women also work for wages in fields, forests, mines, factories, offices, small scale and household industries. The nature and extent of such work differs according to the location of family in the social hierarchy. In the rural areas the subsistence work burden falls heavily on women while in higher castes and higher income groups non-work of women is given more value. Many studies have suggested that women in the subsistence sector have no option but to work. However their options are limited as they are non-entrants or drop-outs from school. They are often the primary breadwinners of the family but the ideological bias views men as the primary bread earner of the family.
The spread of education among the middle and upper class women has opened up new avenues of employment. However education does not necessarily lead to employment. On the one hand illiteracy among the majority of women in the lower economic group constitutes a major barrier to increasing and diversifying work and training opportunities. On the other hand pre-defined roles ideology and labor market forces in a labor surplus economy effectively restrict women's work opportunity among educated women of certain sectors. In middle class families women work for improving or maintaining the standard of living of the family or to provide an additional source of income. However even if they are working they are made to do all domestic responsibilities. The dual burden of work creates physical, mental and emotional strain.
Gender inequalities exist in all sectors. Inequalities are reflected in distribution of women workers in different sectors in job hierarchies and in wages and earnings between men and women. Industrialization has created more work opportunities for a small section of educated women but at the same time has reduced work opportunities for unskilled women workers who were the traditional workers in textiles, jute, mines etc.
For women in services and professions there is limited wage discrimination but they are concentrated in certain jobs like teachers, nurses, typists etc. and very few occupy higher positions in administration, business, technical jobs and professions. Despite increasing number of educated women in urban areas the gap between men and women in the services and professions is large. The division of labor between men and women works against women in the form of wage differential. They not only get unequal pay for equal work but many jobs that women do are considered as low skilled jobs for which lower wages are paid.
A majority of women are working in the rural and urban unorganized sector without the protection of labor legislation regarding wages, hours of work, working conditions; health and maternity benefits and child care services.
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Dube,L and R Patriwala ( ed) 1990.Structures and Strategies: Women, Work and Family : New Delhi