INDIANS TAKE PRIDE IN COMPARING THEIR economy to the fastest and largest in the world. Last month twitter was full of congratulatory messages as India became the world’s fifth largest economy, pushing the UK, its once colonial overlord, to sixth place.
Yet, when it comes to women’s participation in the labour force (WLFP), India trails the largest economies by at least a century. In 2021, Indian WLFP rate was 19 percent. A hundred years earlier, in 1920, work participation rate of women in the US was 23 percent and in the UK 34 percent. These countries saw a sharp increase in women’s work participation through most of the 20th century. India, alas, has experienced the opposite trend.
According to World Bank data, India’s WLFP rate of 32 percent in 2005 has fallen by more than a third. Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) surveys report an even more dismal picture: in 2016, WLFP was 16 percent and it fell to 8.4 percent in 2022. Whereas WLFP reduction is greater among girls aged 15-19, other age groups have also experienced a decline. The former could be because young girls are pursuing high-school or college education instead of working, which is a positive development. The latter implies that women are withdrawing from work places, a puzzling and worrisome trend.
The plain truth is that when it comes to women’s participation in paid employment, Indian gender norms are closer to the Middle East than the West or East Asia. Within the Middle East, there are two groups: countries with low but rising WLFP and countries with low and declining WLFP. Alas, India falls within the latter category.
Why is Indian women’s labour force participation falling? Many blame the Indian government (or Indian economy) for not creating sufficient number of jobs suitable for women. This is a faulty argument. Countries with high WLFP have not created employment opportunities specially for women.
It is tempting to conclude that gender discrimination in India is worsening, but there is no evidence of this. On recent field visits, I found that the reality is more complicated. Several factors, including urbanisation, mechanisation of agriculture, migration, rigid cultural norms mingled with rising economic prosperity have contributed to fall in women’s participation in formal employment.
While visiting villages in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, I asked several groups of women why women’s workforce participation has been declining in rural India. In a Dalit village in the Badhoi district of eastern UP, one group highlighted sexual harassment by men of higher castes as the primary cause. “Sexual harassment was common and accepted by our ancestors. Not anymore. We refuse to work for them,” said one woman angrily. Clearly, for this group withdrawal from the workforce helped to end generational exploitation and harassment by higher caste men. Another woman, sporting a smart phone, dismissed my anguish with the following response, “There is a lot of work at home. We don’t get the time to go out to work.” To which women around her retorted, “Her husband sends her enough money from the city, so she doesn’t need to work.”
An activist visiting from Puna, an important destination for migrant workers in UP, presented a more plausible explanation: When an entire family migrates — women, men and their children — they all work in the city. But if only the male member of a family migrates, women back home prefer to exit the workforce. Perhaps, they feel insecure and vulnerable without their husbands. Here too, women’s withdrawal suggests escape from sexual harassment and exploitation.
India’s gender norms dictate women of ‘good’ families not to venture out of their households alone to work. In poor families, they work because there is no option. As family incomes rise, they often withdraw from the workforce. Usually, women of higher caste families don’t work. As incomes of lower caste families rise, they follow the norms of the higher caste. One villager mentioned that the biradari (community) doesn’t respect households in which women work outside the home. People are reluctant to marry their sons or daughters into families where women go out to work.
Most women I met on these trips were in favour of their daughters attending school/college. But what is the use of such education, if they are not going to utilize it for work? I asked. The response: Education improves marriageability. No one wants to marry their sons to illiterate girls, was the standard reply.
Against this socio-economic backdrop will education raise women’s desire for economic independence? The good news is that Indian women’s enrollment in higher education has surpassed that of males. Studies indicate that wage market discrimination against women is declining. Yet, cultural norms have a stifling grip on societies. In Iran, women are out in the streets protesting against the mandatory veil dictated by the clergy.
The battle for gender equality is hard. It can be won only when men and women, young and old, believe in it and fight for it. The silver lining is that the incremental number of women entering higher education institutions will break the shackles of India’s rigid cultural norms and encourage women to enter the labour market in large numbers.
(Dr. Neeraj Kaushal is associate professor of social work at Columbia University, USA)