To get more women into the workforce, invest in crèches - Hindustan Times

To get more women into the workforce, invest in crèches

ByJanmejaya Sinha
Jun 01, 2022 06:58 PM IST

If mothers had a safe place to leave their children, it would empower them to seek jobs easily. At the lower-income end, a clean space, with drinking water, toilets, and food can be beneficial

There are different estimates of the participation of Indian women in the workforce. But whichever estimate we use, the numbers are abysmal. One of the better numbers being used by many is 27%, which still ranks us below Saudi Arabia. A 2020 World Bank study has shown us at 18% participation rate, which is lower than Pakistan and barely edges out Afghanistan at 16%. It doesn’t matter whether the study is precisely wrong or not, the directional data suggests we have a fundamental problem that needs fixing.

We will need high-quality and dependable personnel to manage these crèches, who are not to be confused with domestic help. (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
We will need high-quality and dependable personnel to manage these crèches, who are not to be confused with domestic help. (Shutterstock)

If we were to check in with our traditions or look at the pantheon of gods in India, we find many gods — wealth (Lakshmi), education (Saraswati), and Durga, who killed the asuras that the male Gods failed to destroy — are women. Even in modern India, many important leaders in various fields have been women. India boasts of more women leaders than most countries — a president, a prime minister, chief ministers, Supreme Court judges, police officers, bank chief executive officers, Reserve Bank of India deputy governors, and sports champions. As a nation, our medal tally in numerous international sports meets — whether wrestling, boxing, badminton, or tennis — has been on account of Indian women. The Indian women’s cricket and hockey teams are internationally competitive.

Yet, our workforce participation of women is dreadful.

Stereotypes about women everywhere see them at home and in the kitchen. But why are we worse than Saudi Arabia? While no single factor can fix long-held beliefs and customs, we must tackle this important issue.

Empowered working women are good for society and the nation in multiple ways that don’t need repeating; but what type of policy action can stimulate movement towards this? The long-term solutions for women’s equality are education, stronger legal rights, and better law and order. However, to spur a movement, a shorter-term technical fix could begin with the institutionalisation of crèche across the country.

As important as primary education is for all in India, access to crèche facilities for infants aged one to six is equally necessary. We have about 120 million children in this age group. We should assume about 60 million of these children are residing in semi-urban, urban, and metro areas. Most of these children are likely born in lower-income households, where the mothers are the primary caregivers and part-time income supplementers.

If these mothers had a safe place where they could leave their children, it would empower them to seek jobs more easily. At the lower-income end, just providing a space that is clean, with access to drinking water, toilets, and nutritious supplements at lunch can be very beneficial.

Here’s why.

At present, 40% of our children are malnourished, with a consequential impact on their long-term development and learning. Further, hygiene-related diseases are a major source of ill health in children. These are additional collateral benefits that would accrue to India if we could provide safe and clean crèche. An investment in the nation’s children cannot rank lower than any other investment we conceive for ourselves as a nation.

This will not be an easy initiative to implement. There are many issues that will arise: Acceptance, access, proximity, safety, and perceived quality. This is before we talk of the capital and the trained staff that will be required. We will need high-quality and dependable personnel to manage these crèches, who are not to be confused with domestic help. These people will be entrusted with the early development of the child.

Just as we conceived of Kendriya Vidyalayas across the country, for access to education, we will need to conceive of the creation of accredited Kendriya Creches (KC) at a much grander scale. Salaries in these KCs should be on par with teachers and must include benefits. For this, a host of training institutes for crèche personnel will need to be set up. A collaborative scheme will need to be worked out at various levels. It should begin with lower-income households getting crèche vouchers, which they could use in accredited KCs. These KCs should come up in the private sector and be monitored by parents’ committees and state government officials. The location of these crèches will be a critical parameter — close to urban conglomerations, slums, residential complexes, and construction sites. Further, crèche investments should be considered valid corporate social responsibility (CSR) expenditures for companies.

A scheme like this will require a lot of thought. To catalyse such thinking, we should constitute a high-powered committee (comprising women leaders, academics, politicians, government officials, and respected members of civil society) to thoroughly and collaboratively examine the idea, obtain feedback to a draft report, and thereafter, finalise the details. We should obtain across-the-board political support for the scheme before we move forward. But move forward we should.

As they say, “There is no wrong time to make the right decision.”

Janmejaya Sinha is chairman, BCG India 

The views expressed are personal

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