Income and education must move hand in hand to empower women

Empowerment is assumed to strengthen vulnerable groups’ participation in decision-making. Employment is expected to bolster the individual’s autonomy both within and outside households and play a key role in achieving equality. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data offers us scope to look into whether economic empowerment bridges the Indian gap in gender equality as it collects information on women’s decision-making in various domains: intra-household decisions like household purchases; meeting friends/relatives; own healthcare needs; spending own money; and on family planning and the use of contraception.

Income and education must move hand in hand to empower women

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Marginal deference

Women’s own earnings challenge gender norms: Though survey findings fall short of equal intra-household decision-making power for men and women among married couples, women with their own cash income enjoy marginally better agency in different domains of life in comparison with other women. The NFHS 5 (2019-2021) reveals that a little more than 85% of married women with their own cash income have agency of joint decision-making with husbands on important expenditures. The rest have mostly husbands (or someone else) making unilateral decisions on household purchases, their healthcare needs, meeting with friends/relatives, and how they spend their own money. While this signifies control over some of the important decisions in working women’s lives, for other women, unilateral decisions by husbands or someone else on major expenses are only marginally higher. For all women, irrespective of whether they earn cash income or not, 8% do not have any say on using contraceptives and the sole decision-maker is still the husband.

Urban women enjoy higher freedom to spend in comparison with rural women. Among urban women with cash income, up to 90% have a say in major expenditures related to the household. This share is 82-84% for rural women. The data also reveals that 66-73% women with cash income make joint decisions on these various issues. However, the reporting on joint decision-making should be used with caution as it also includes responses like no conversations on these decisions and situations where the female spouse’s opinions are heard or considered but men have the final say. Thus, reports of high participation in joint decision-making may be a slight overestimation of the reality on decision- making by women.

Higher education level leads to higher decision-making power for women: The data shows that higher levels of education correlate well with greater participation of women in decision-making in various domains like the use of contraception, spending their own money, major household purchases, healthcare access for themselves, and meeting friends and family. The data shows that for 16-17% women with cash income but without any education, husbands solely decide on all the above. The share comes down significantly to 7-8% in decisions on how to spend their own money, meeting relatives/friends, major household purchases, and to 11% on decisions regarding healthcare access, when the women’s education is higher than the secondary level. On the use of contraception, this share comes down from 11% for women without any education to 3% for women with education higher than secondary level.

It is also found that being married to more educated men increases women’s participation in decision-making. For approximately 16-17% women with cash income who are married to men without any education, husbands alone decide on those issues, whereas for women married to men with education higher than secondary level, that share is lower at 9% on decisions related to how their wives spend their own money, 10% on decisions related to household purchases, 8% on deciding on meeting relatives/friends, and 12% on decisions related to wives’ healthcare needs.

Earning higher than their husbands is not leading to higher decision-making power: Norms are rigid. The data shows that even when women earn more than men in a household, the overall participation in decision-making does not change substantially. In certain specific instances, especially on the use of contraceptives and specific expenses related to healthcare needs, husbands remain the primary decision-makers. This remains true for more than 15% of those women who earn more than their husbands.

Findings from NFHS data show that education plays an important role in ensuring the participation of women in intra-household decision-making. This increases marginally when women start earning. However, vice-versa is not true. Specifically, women without education cannot exercise their opinion even when they earn more than their spouses. Women’s opinions are included in household decisions more when their male partners are educated. Thus, it is amply clear that education for all, complemented by own earnings of women, do improve intra-household decision-making in favour of women. Women’s own education level, husbands’ education level and women’s own earnings appear to be crucial enablers to reach the goal of gender equality.

Policies designed to increase job opportunities for women need to be complemented with raising the educational attainment of both men and women for the country to achieve gender equality.

Bidisha Mondal & Aparna G. are, respectively, a research fellow and research associate with IWWAGE-Lead.

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