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45 percent elderly women in India literate, 13 percent employed, reveals HelpAge India’s new study

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Releasing its latest report, ‘Women and Ageing: Invisible or Empowered’, on June 14, HelpAge India, a leading NGO of India, working for disadvantaged elderly population, has revealed some salient statistics which highlight certain trends taking place in the Indian society, among the aged population.

Beginning its report, HelpAge India states, “In recent years, population ageing has been recognized as a global trend, that is set to impact all countries in varying capacities. This global ageing is being linked with significant improvements across the development spectrum, including mortality, longevity and health. Between 2015 and 2030, the world’s aged population i.e., age 60 and above is set to increase by around 56 percent. This would mean that the aged cohort will reach a strength of nearly 1.4 billion individuals, thus comprising of nearly 17 percent of the global population”.

This colossal impact of the changing demographics across the globe suggests that there is a need to recognize the needs of older persons, at the same time, including them as important contributors of socio-economic development. With India being no exception to population ageing, as per the Longitudinal Ageing Study in India (LASI) conducted in 2021, the country’s older population is said to be the world’s second largest.

Touching upon how gender further impacts the phenomenon of ageing, the report suggests, “As per the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Older Persons, gender is an important dimension of ageing. While women tend to outlive men, they are subject to increased marginalization as compared to their male counterparts, owing to inequalities in income, access to education, decent work as well as health across the life cycle. Prevalence of gender norms and limited social security benefits are also factors that exacerbate these existing inequalities. The compound effect of the discrimination faced by older women, due to their gender, in addition to class, caste, illiteracy, unemployment, disability and marital status, thus it needs to be understood to inform the national level advocacy efforts”.

‘Women and Ageing: Invisible or Empowered’ has been prepared by collecting data from a total of 7911 older women from 20 states, 5 metro cities, and 2 Union Territories of India, with at least 1 aspirational district in each state to add to the existing literature on the experiences of older women in India. This is to highlight the existing needs and aspirations of older women in India. This report provides key insights into the status of elderly women from an economic security, health, and social inclusion perspective.

The primary aim of this study is to understand the existing socio-economic conditions and aspirations of older women across the country. This will help facilitate dialogue at the national, state and grassroot levels, thus influencing policies and programmes related to welfare of older women in a positive manner. Out of the 7911 primary respondents who took part in the study, majority of the elderly women belonged in the age category of 60-69 years, followed by those aged between 70 and 79 years, and then those aged between 80 and 90 years.

If we look at the household attributes of the participant women, it is seen that most women, 28 percent, belong in the SEC C category households, followed by 25 percent in Category B, 22 percent in Category C, 19 percent in Category D, and 6 percent in Category E. The SEC system is used in India to classify households, based on the educational qualification of the primary earner, as well as the ‘number of consumer durables’ owned by the household.

Looking at the marital status of the respondents, 54 percent of them are married, 43 percent are widowed, and 1 percent each are separated, divorced, and unmarried. It is also seen that the rate of widowhood is higher than the national rate in some states, including Tamil Nadu, 61 percent, West Bengal, 61 percent, Uttarakhand, 58 percent, Kerala, 58 percent, and Jharkhand, 55 percent, among other states. For metro cities, the rate of widowhood is seen to be slightly higher in some cases and lower in others. When it comes to UTs, Chandigarh is at 30 percent, and Delhi at 39 percent, and both show a lower level of widowhood than the national average. Urban older women showed a higher rate of widowhood, 51 percent, while that of rural areas is similar to the national trend observed as part of this study.

Next, the living arrangements of the women reveal that 81 percent of them live with family, 8 percent live with their spouse only, 1 percent live with relatives, and 9 percent live alone. As far as the working status of the respondents is concerned, it can be seen that 74 percent of them are not working, 13 percent work full-time, 12 percent work part-time, and 2 percent are involved in unpaid volunteering work. Studies show that within India, nearly 65 percent of older persons are dependent on others for meeting their daily requirements, especially financial needs. Of the proportion of older persons that are financially independent, older men fare better than older women, of whom only less than 20 percent are financially independent.

Looking at the state-wise comparison of older women not undertaking paid work, it is seen that states like Haryana, 94 percent, Uttar Pradesh, 91 percent, Kerala, 84 percent, and Gujarat, 82 percent, have shown a much higher percentage of such older women than the national overall observed as part of this study.

The non-working status of older women in metro cities is also seen to be extremely high in some cases, with Hyderabad and Mumbai showing a non-working status for at least 85 percent older women. For aspirational districts like Mewat, 96 percent, Yadgir, 91 percent, Bahraich, 89 percent, Wayanad, 87 percent, Ramanathapuram, 87 percent, and Bhadradri-Kothagudem, 85 percent, it is seen that at least 85 percent older women per district have reported a non-working status.

In addition to the working status, the employment status of the primary respondents has also been looked at, in the study. It is seen that over 50 percent of older women have reported to never been employed in their life, with another 33 percent reporting that they have been employed at some point in their life. The rate of older women being currently employed is seen to be 13 percent. In states like Maharashtra, 44 percent and Himachal Pradesh, 32 percent, the proportion of older women who are currently employed is much higher than the overall currently employed trend.

The education status of the respondent women hence becomes the next important feature to be noted. 54 percent of them are illiterate, and 45 percent are literate. And if we look at the urban-rural divide, in the urban areas, 59 percent are illiterate, and the rest are literate. And in rural areas, 66 percent are illiterate, while 34 percent are literate. States like Madhya Pradesh, 88 percent, Karnataka, 83 percent, and Odisha, 79 percent, show a significantly illiterate older women population, with around 80% or more women reporting to be illiterate.

Looking at metro cities, however, the rate of illiteracy is seen as lower than the national trend, with only Hyderabad, 68 percent, showing an illiteracy rate higher than the overall. The status of illiteracy among older women in aspirational districts is different from that of metro cities. With 12 out of 17 districts having more illiterate women than what is observed at an overall level, it can be concluded that the rate of illiteracy is higher for older women residing in aspirational districts.

Another key indicator to determine economic and social security among elderly women is asset ownership. The HelpAge India study reveals that out of the total 7911 respondents, only 31 percent own assets of some kind, while the rest 69 percent do not possess any kind of assets, and this finding is consistent with data provided by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) through a study, which suggests that within India, nearly one third of older women do not own assets of any kind.

The study further goes on to show the type of assets owned by the respondents who agreed to having owned assets of any kind. It is seen that of the total sample of 31 percent, which agreed to owning assets of their own, a majority of them i.e., 88 percent, have admitted to owning a house. A significant proportion i.e., 28 percent of the said sample also owns agricultural land. It further reveals that this percentage is higher for older women belonging to rural areas, 42 percent, while only 17 percent of those residing in urban areas own agricultural land.

Further, the study shows that out of the total number of respondents, 53 percent believe that they have an employment friendly environment at home, while 47 percent do not feel so. On the other hand, 64 percent believe that they have an employment friendly environment at work, and 36 percent do not believe so.

When it comes to the reasons for considering their workplace environment to be employment friendly, it is seen that over half of the working older women who agreed to having an employment friendly workplace environment consider flexible hours as being a crucial factor. This factor has been deemed more important by older women in rural areas, 64 percent, than by those in urban areas, 48 percent.

Other important reasons for them to consider include having supportive and understanding managers, 36 percent, having their environment adjusted by employers to suit their needs, 35 percent, and also having access to wellness programs for elderly at their workplace, 31 percent. Factors like parity in pay, 9 percent, access to a work from home setup provided by their workplace, 6 percent, and having access to skill training opportunities for the elderly, 9 percent, are seen to be lesser effective reasons for considering workplace environment to be employment friendly.

The next aspect which has been touched upon in the study is the availability of employment opportunities. An absence of employment opportunities was reported by nearly 70 percent of older women. Looking at the state-wise data, the absence of such opportunities was seen to be the highest in Bihar, West Bengal, Punjab, Jharkhand, and Uttarakhand, being well over 80 percent. In the midst of the overall lack of employment opportunities for older women, the study has also looked to probe upon their employment aspirations, which would help in informing the development and implementation of employment accessibility measures for older women.

The first indicator looked at was the willingness to work over a period of time. It is seen that while 41 percent of the older women reported an unwillingness to work, a significant 59 percent did report the willingness to work over different periods of time, with nearly 32 percent of the total respondents wanting to work for as long as possible. This shows that a significant proportion of older women have the willingness to contribute to economic resource generation through meaningful employment.

In terms of suggestions on how to ensure better employment opportunities for older women, nearly half of those showing a willingness to work placed importance on having work from home opportunities, while 41 percent of these respondents also consider having jobs only for the elderly as crucial. An element of flexible working arrangements is also seen to be desirable among 35 percent of these respondents. This could perhaps be attributed to several reasons including health, ability to have a social life, COVID-19 pandemic and its focus of work flexibility etc.

Sonakshi Datta
Sonakshi Datta
Journalist who wants to cover the truth which others look the other way from.

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