The first quarter of FY 17 has seen India’s GDP figures to topple and the whole nation saw its “fastest growing economy” in deep trouble. India, which was growing at over 7% in the previous quarters, slipped to 6.1% and the whole blame was given to the “demonetization”. Despite that, the report by World Bank has a unique take on India’s future. It said that India can achieve over 9% growth in the GDP of women participation is increased to the level half of Nepal.

Surprising, isn’t it? Let’s see what more it has to say.

India has among the lowest female labor force participation rates (LFPRs) in the world – well below what would be expected for its level of income and what is observed in neighbors such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. Not only that, it further decreased by 10% from 2011-12 from 2004-05 and will continue to fall if something is not done. This has a great [negative] impact on the country’s growth.

A country which boasts of being one of the fastest growing economies has failed to deliver when it comes to female participation. The only countries which are behind India (27%) are Afghanistan (25%) and Pakistan (16%), which must be demoralizing considering other two as war-torn and autocratic.

Working, and the control of assets it fosters can be revolutionary for the life of an Indian woman. A Harvard research says that working can increase female empowerment through the exposure to life outside their homes, formation of new networks at the workplace, change in the worker’s outside option and opportunity to earn an independent income. This, in turn, can change bargaining power and translate into changes in the real outcomes we observe such as marriage and fertility. Additionally, women who work longer may have contributed more to their households0 overall wealth which may result in delaying marriage and lower fertility for girls.

Causes of low female LFPR

There are three main reasons which have emerged; longer stays in schools, urbanization, and traditional thinking towards women.

Longer stays in schools

About 30% decline in LFPR is due to women staying longer in schools and colleges (about 42% in urban India and 30% in rural India). At first, it looks like a good thing because better education opens many doors for the women, but that’s not the case.

Higher education levels may improve employment prospects, but they also tend to improve marriage prospects. As these two options are often considered as mutually exclusive for Indian girls, the number of educated women entering the workplace isn’t rising. Considering that 42 percent of India’s science and technology graduates are women, this is a significant ‘brain drain’ for modern services sectors.

“Sixty-five percent of Indian women with college degrees are not working, whereas in Bangladesh 41 percent and in Indonesia and Brazil only 25 percent of women graduates are not working”, said senior World Bank economist Frederico Gil Sander.


This, in my view, has been a major factor in the declining of LFPR figures. The women who have become more urbanized are less likely to work. This leads to two related phenomena: first, as more Indians moved to cities, female LFPR converged to the (lower) urban levels; second, as areas that are classified as rural became more urbanized, female LFPR similarly declined, but this appeared as a decline in urban female LFPR.

One of the benefits of urbanization is the rise of the household income and this has led women to drop out of the labor market. The higher household income gives an incentive to stay at home for women, which is often a preferred household choice.

But the whole scenario cannot just be explained from the supply-side because the low LFPR is not closely related with the higher household incomes. The low LFPR is also attributed to the fact that women, who are moving from agricultural jobs, cannot find employment in non-agricultural jobs because jobs are emerging a slower pace than urbanization. Till now, most of the urban jobs are suited best for men.

Gender Norms

This part is self-explanatory because we all know the kind of view our elders still have about men being the “earning person” and women being the “household person”.

This attitude towards the role of women ensures that if they do enter the labor force, they often end up in lower paid and less responsible positions than their abilities reflect, dissuading more and more girls from choosing to work.

Why is this a tough task?

Apart from the gender norms, many other factors also lead to the problem. To study the effect, a team from World Bank conducted interviews with more than 400 women in two Indian cities, from different socioeconomic backgrounds and education levels.

In line with their strong social norms, the women all wanted jobs that were well-paying, close to their homes, and with flexible hours. In addition, childcare was noted as a significant constraint. The dichotomy for mothers is that the regular, salaried jobs, which could provide stability and a sufficient income to afford some level of household help and childcare, are generally dominated by men and inaccessible to women due to unjust labor laws.

Other major factors

It’s not that the Indian government hasn’t done anything to promote the female participation, the reasons are different. And while that country’s female labor-force participation is rising, India is falling.

Limited mobility

Women who work outside of agriculture are typically engaged in informal, home-based work activities. The Indian Human Development Survey (IHDS) points out the various reasons for the same. It says that 79.9% of women reported not being allowed to visit the health center without permission from their husbands or other family members. Moreover, 51.7% of women think it is usual for a husband to beat his wife if she leaves the home without telling him and even when a woman does have the freedom to leave the home, distance is still a constraint.

In a sample of “Skill India” participants, 62% of unemployed women told that they were willing to migrate for work, but 70% said they would feel unsafe working away from home.

What is being done?

The government’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) is an excellent example of women’s participation (51% in 2014) in a country where only 27% rural women work outside of their homes. Interesting, isn’t it? Some key features which make this scheme attractive for women are 30% quota for women, equal pay for men and women, projects very near to their homes, and low skilled work which are accessible to women even without experience.

Many women say that they lack the skill for doing a better job and the government has started the “Skill India” and “Make in India”. Since both of them include quotas for women, this [should] motivate women to go out and do something extra ordinary in their lives.

While no definitive answer has been identified, labor laws are relatively restrictive overall but especially towards women. Moreover, female entrepreneurs tend to hire more women, but there are relatively few women entrepreneurs, in part because of lack of access to capital and business networks.

India’s women: Unlocking the potential

The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, has only launched the “Skill India”, “Make in India” and other programs and the common man doesn’t know if something is being done or not. Women entrepreneurs are doing great nowadays with raising more start-up funding than ever, it’s high time for the government to go the extra mile to tap this “beautiful” and “marvelous” resource if the double-digit growth is to be achieved.

“If the overall lack of jobs, especially regular salaried jobs, plays a large role in India’s female LFPR, only a combination of gender-targeted and broader policies towards formal job creation can sustainably raise female LFPR and accelerate India’s GDP growth and broader social development. Policies that promote job creation in ‘women-friendly’ sectors such as apparel, or that help fast-growing modern service sectors absorb more educated women workers would be particularly helpful”, says the India Development Update 2017 by World Bank.

In my view, the awareness is the best way to achieve the high LFPR rates. Similar to “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” (Save girl, educate girl), some other awareness programs should be launched so that the parents start to realize that their daughters are not just for household chores or “paraya-dhan”, they are an excellent economic resource which will help not just them, but a nation as a whole.

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