Women’s Role in India’s Economy


A member of the so-called “BRICS” countries, India is noted for its rapidly expanding economy. Though India has certainly grown more prosperous in the recent decades, some groups have benefited from this boom more than others. In particular, women have faced a range of structural and social barriers in fully participating in the Indian economy, which not only hinders their individual agency but also limits India’s ability to continue to modernize.

Gender discrimination begins at a young age. Girls face a range of structural barriers that contribute to unequal educational and economic performance: for example, only 53% of schools have sanitary facilities for girls. Further, the threat of gender-based violence discourages girls and women from leaving their homes and is used by some parents to justify marrying off daughters before the legal age of 18; however, marriage provides girls little protection from violence—over 50% of both male and female adolescents justify wife beating, and 6 in 10 men admit physically abusing their wives. There are numerous instances of rapes and sexual assaults on girls and young women across the country, most notably the gang rape and subsequent death of a physiotherapy student in Delhi in 2012 that spawned nationwide protests and the BBC documentary India’s Daughter.

These factors contribute to women’s limited economic participation in adulthood. Women produce merely 17% of India’s economic output in terms of GDP contribution; however, Indian women spend almost 10 times as many hours as men engaging in unpaid care labor, which, while work, is not factored into conventional economic metrics.

 In 2010, only 40% of women aged 25-54 were economically active (defined as either employed or actively seeking employment). Between 2005 and 2010, women’s workforce participation fell from 42% to 32%. In this period, India lost 3.7 million manufacturing jobs, 80% of which were filled by women. India’s decline in women’s workforce participation may also be explained by the country’s shrinking agricultural sector and may be felt most sharply among poor, uneducated women living in rural areas, who have few other economic opportunities. Indeed, 85% of rural women who work are in the agricultural sector. Since 2005, non-farm job opportunities have expanded only in urban areas.

Paradoxically, women’s labor force participation rates are lower in urban areas: merely 15% of women in Indian cities have jobs, approximately half of the rate of rural women.

India has undertaken a range of initiatives to promote women’s rights. In order to provide protection to women who work, the Indian government offers new mothers three months of paid maternity leave and guarantees job protection during this time, although a survey of married working women in Delhi revealed that fewer than a third of respondents continued working after giving birth. 

Additionally, over 12,000 Indian schools have implemented gender education programming in order to address misogynistic attitudes. Early reports on the program suggest individual level change, though it remains to be seen whether this curriculum will lead to broader social change. It is clear more work must be done to empower women and girls in India to fully realize their potential.

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