Around 19.6 million women in India dropped out of the workforce between 2005 and 2012, with the fall being higher in rural areas, shows a World Bank analysis of data from the National Sample Survey Organisation and Census of India.
Only 27% women were in the labour force in 2013, with Indian women’s workforce participation being closer to 24.6% in Pakistan and 23.3% in the Arab World, compared to 79.9% in neighbouring Nepal and 63.9% in China.
With increasing stability in family income and a fall in low-paying unskilled jobs, more women are choosing to focus on care within the family instead of joining the workforce, says the World Bank policy research paper.
“When developed economies transited from agriculture to manufacturing, there was a fall in women’s participation in the labour force, but participation increased as wages went up in the next transition from manufacturing to services took place. Though the transition to services has happened in India, there was no corresponding increase in workforce participation from women,” says Vinoj Abraham, associate professor, Centre for Development Studies, who is one of the authors of the paper.
When family income gets regular from permanent jobs, families start investing more in children’s education and health, which results in the women’s role changing from a provider to carer. “Women then start focusing on their family’s status production, which is maintaining and enhancing family’s social standing. Their role as carers becomes more valued and if they don’t play out, their status in the household goes down, which disincentivizes them from joining the workforce,” says Abraham.
The World Bank paper, titled Precarious drop: Reassessing patterns of female labour force participation in India, recommends focusing on policies that promote the acceptability of female employment and investing in economic sectors more attractive to women.
“Though fertility has fallen and education has gone up, there has been no corresponding increase in women employment, with labour participation almost stagnating in urban centres and dropping in rural areas,” says Nalini Gulati, country economist, International Growth Centre. “Women with better education need productive employment and better wages from manufacturing and services sectors in rural India, which is not happening.”
Adding to the complexity is the India’s young demographic, where there are enough young men competing for jobs, unlike in countries like Nepal, where the migrant economy often leads to women becoming the de-facto head of households.
“Apart from providing better education, skill development and legal provisions, India needs to create jobs for women that provide higher wages along with social support in the form of playschools and crèches for children,” says Gulati.