Earlier studies have shown that higher the caste status, greater the subordination of women. But among Dalit sub-castes or jatis, the story is far more varied.
Focussing on broad government-defined caste categories such as Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) can be misleading and inadequate for understanding the relationship between caste and gender, and for targeting anti-poverty programmes in India. The real story lies in what is known as the jatis or sub-castes.
When households are grouped together using conventional categories of caste such as SCs and STs, lower-caste women are seen to be more likely to participate in the labour market, have greater decision-making autonomy within their households, and experience greater freedom of movement.
But when households are grouped by the narrower sub-caste categories of jati— where caste is lived and experienced — the relationships are far more varied and nuanced.
The inverse relationship between caste and gender
Earlier studies have noticed that increased caste status is associated with a greater subordination of women. But many have argued that women from lower castes may actually be in a trap of material deprivation, low education, limited employment opportunities and inadequate safety. But there are significant variations among the jatis within the SC/ST categories.
Each region of India has several hundred jatis and there is no pan-Indian system of ranking them. Jati-based networks shape an individual’s prospects of marriage, employment and out-migration. But national surveys do not have jati-level identifiers. Caste, therefore, continues to be measured and generally understood only in broad terms, with the emphasis on categories such as SC, ST, OBC and ‘Forward castes’ (FC).
Examining data between 2011 and 2013 on caste and gender status from three states —Bihar, Odisha and Tamil Nadu — we looked at three sets of indicators for the status of women in all three states:
- Decision-making authority in key household decision
- Physical mobility
In Bihar, for example, we see that Musahars have significantly higher female employment than any other SC jati. They are 17 per cent more likely to work than the OBCs, FCs and Muslims, and are at least twice as likely to work as the Dobhas, Chamars and other SC jatis.
This is consistent with anthropological studies that have noted that this particular jati, geographically concentrated in Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh, has a very distinctive history and is one of the most politically, economically and socially marginalised groups in India.
We see that relative to the SC and ST groups, female employment is 7–8 per cent lower among the Yadavs, Kurmis, Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs) and other jatis, who are also classified as backward castes.
Note that women from the highest ranked castes, Brahmins and Rajputs, are 33 and 22 per cent less likely to be employed compared to SCs. The lower labour force participation rates of women in the higher-ranked jatis are consistent with our hypothesis, as well as with the literature on the subordination of women in these specific groups.
We see similar patterns for women’s input into livelihood decisions, as well as for patterns of mobility. Women from the Musahar jati appear to have the highest level of input in family decisions related to livelihoods and they have the greatest freedom of mobility for going to a store. They appear to have lower input into children’s tuition funds, though this could be driven by the lower levels of schooling in this group.
We also see that Brahmin and Rajput women have significantly lower levels of empowerment on all our indicators (employment, decision-making autonomy and mobility), but Brahmin women have even lower levels of labour force participation than Rajputs. We also note that Muslim women’s employment is 19 per cent lower than the SCs in Bihar. Similar mixed patterns are evident in Odisha.
In Odisha, ST/SC women from the Barui caste are 21 per cent more likely to be employed than the higher-ranked castes. We see that women from the highest ranked Brahmin, Karan and Khandayat castes have 9–17 per cent lower labour force participation rates compared to SC/ST groups. Chasa, Goala and Tanti women of the OBC group are 5–12 per cent less likely to work than SC/ST women.
Higher-caste women from the Chasa, Goala and Khandayat jatis are also less likely to make decisions on buying household durables. We do not, however, see much evidence of jati-level variation for mobility indicators in this state. This suggests that perhaps in the case of Odisha, location and issues specific to the tribal culture in the poorest regions of the state could be playing a key role in determining women’s autonomy.
Finally, in Tamil Nadu, we find that the Adi Dravidars exhibit higher employment among the SCs relative to higher castes. The other SC castes — Chakkalians, Pallars and others — do not appear to be statistically distinguishable from their upper-caste counterparts, possibly because these castes have mobilised themselves very successfully in the state.
There are differences within the Backward Castes (BC) and Most Backward Castes (MBC) groups. Naidu, Gounder and Reddiyar women of the BC caste are less likely to work than SC/ST women by 14.7, 7, and 15.5 per cent respectively. These results stand in contrast to our findings when we used broad indicators of caste.
What this means
Overall, we find evidence in support of an inverse relationship between caste status and female employment rates, but we find that there is considerable variation at the jati level. The relationship between caste and female employment is more pronounced in Bihar and Odisha than in Tamil Nadu, and the effect is concentrated within a few jatis.
This matters for public policy because women from specific jatis — rather than from broad caste groups — and more likely to benefit from state-run anti-poverty programs.
This is an edited extract from the policy research working paper of The World Bank titled “Are Caste Categories Misleading? Relationship between Gender and Jati in Three Indian States” published in July 2018. You can read the full report here.