Kerala's impressive economic growth figures and its top ranking in Human Development Index and Gender Empowerment Index appear to have done little to take the women in the State higher in the work participation ladder. Despite its lofty achievements on all these fronts, Kerala has one of the lowest work participation rates in the country, says the Economic Review 2009 prepared by the State Planning Board.

According to the Economic Review, the work participation rate among women in Kerala is 22.9 (NSS 1999-2000), which is one of the lowest in India.

The State also has the highest incidence of unemployment both for males and females and in rural as well as urban areas. The overall unemployment rate in Kerala is 12 per cent showing a wide gender gap with 24.3 per cent for women and 6.5 per cent for men.

The most significant aspect of female employment in Kerala is their low proportion in the primary sector.

In 1999-2000, primary sector accounted for 46.3 per cent of female employment in rural areas in Kerala as against 84.5 per cent at the all-India level. However, the proportion of women employed in the secondary sector in Kerala is much higher than the corresponding all-India figures. During the period, the tertiary sector accounted for almost 25 per cent of total women employment in the rural sector and 56 per cent in the urban sector.

During 1993-94, the work participation rate of rural women in the primary sector was 51.4 per cent and that of urban women 21.6 per cent. By 1999-2000, this rate fell to 46.3 per cent for rural women and to 7.9 per cent for urban women.

In the secondary sector, the work participation rate of rural women rose from 27.5 per cent to 28.9 per cent and that of urban women from 33.5 per cent to 36 per cent during the period. In the tertiary sector, the female work participation rate during the period rose from 21.1 per cent to 24.9 per cent in the rural sector and from 44.9 per cent to 56.1 per cent in the urban sector.

Although these figures indicate a transformational change in women's economic activity, a deeper probe of the non-agricultural activities reveals a large concentration of women in traditional industries such as coir, cashew, beedi, handloom, khadi and mat and basket weaving in which earnings are low and conditions of work poor, thus dampening the extent of the transformational change. The vulnerabilities of the largely women worker population in these industries have only aggravated on account of global economic crisis, the Economic Review says.