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The curious case of women leaving the labour market in India


Anasuya Sengupta

Recently, in the midst of participating in a launch event for an ODI/HelpAge International study on older women’s work, I thought back on the lives of the women in my family, from India. In the early 1940s – really, not that long ago – my grandmother was married off at 17 years of age and had to immediately start caring for my grandfather’s 7 younger siblings. She had two children of her own soon enough, but that did not diminish her other care responsibilities. Fast forward to 2010: my work meant I was based overseas and I found that I could no longer cope with caring for members of my immediate and extended family. As a result, I eventually had to quit my job at a time of an important promotion, reducing my workload to be able to prioritise my domestic responsibilities.

Nothing that happened to me was out of the ordinary. Women across all socio-economic backgrounds continue to devote a significant part of their lives – and their income – to caring for their close relations. While my family lauded my socially-ascribed role as a carer, professionally it was considered a loss of valuable time that should have been spent ‘working’ to gain an income – a defined set of activities that are considered to add value to the economy, yet do not include care. It made me wonder: has the world really changed since my grandmother got married?

In April 2018, UN Women estimated that, globally, only about half of women are participating in the labour force compared to three quarters of men, which further drops to just 25 per cent of women in most developing countries. On the other hand, compared to men, women spend 2.5 times more time and effort on domestic responsibilities. It means that, while women account for two thirds of the global working hours, they take home only one-tenth of global income. In fact, experts predict that, “given the continued widening of the economic gender gap, it will now not be closed for another 217 years”.

This is a frightening reality, which shatters our belief that enough is being done to empower women. Even today, women’s economic empowerment is grossly misconstrued in development practice and policy owing to widespread, simplistic myths, such as women’s participation in the labour market being automatically empowering and helping redress gender imbalances within their families. The global focus is on pushing women to get ahead and occupy the spaces previously dominated by men, as opposed to a fundamental transformation of the world of work. Such efforts become shortsighted since, contrary to western feminism, there is no mass initiative yet for women in developing countries to discard their traditional roles. This is where the story diverges from the trends we witnessed in high-income countries since the 1970s.

Perpetuating gender inequity in India’s market economy

In India, the impacts of modernisation and marketisation on women and girls have often been  contrary to the desired outcomes (undernutrition, for example, among girl children has persisted even with economic growth). In much the same vein, numerous studies have found – including one by the World Bank and another by IndiaSpend – a sharp decline in women’s participation in the labour force, falling to just 27 per cent in 2015-2016 (translating to about 25 million women exiting in the last 10 years). This puts India far below poorer countries such as Nepal and Bangladesh, and just above the conservative state of Saudi Arabia. This has been the case despite better health outcomes and higher educational attainment among women and increasing economic stability of households. In contrast, according to the ILO excellent progress has been made in bigger metropolitan cities, where the gender participation gap has disappeared: there are now 42.9 per cent of urban working age women in regular employment compared to 43.4 per cent of urban working age men. However, women in the formal labour market constitute less than 10 per cent of the country’s total share of working women.

At the heart of India’s discomforting economic development trajectory lies our entrenched patriarchal social system, which has demonstrated tremendous resilience and an ability to adapt and survive across the passage of time. The market economy, in principle, is well-suited to providing a conducive environment for the perpetuation of deep-rooted inequalities and hierarchies, be they based on income status (previously caste), educational/skills status, ethnicity or gender. Unequal cultural norms have interacted with the hierarchy of work in the market economy – in other words, formal paid work (historically men’s work) over unpaid domestic work (historically women’s work) – to perpetuate gender inequality and, therefore, women’s place in this rigid hierarchy. In a context of deep-rooted inequality, the superimposition of market paradigms has inadvertently created a double-edged sword for women (Figure 1).

The above-mentioned studies further attempt to explain the worrying decline in women’s employment, beyond the obvious reasons of care responsibilities and the lack of investment in rural areas. They highlight peculiar cultural norms and trends that have restricted women to the domestic sphere, as well as the trends and norms of the labour market that have disincentivised them from pursuing the same.

On one hand the regressive cultural norms include restrictions on physical mobility – such as not being allowed to work far from home – and restrictions before or after marriage (after marriage in urban areas and the reverse in rural areas). There is the concept, for example, of women engaging in ‘status production’ in urban areas after marriage. Status production refers to unpaid domestic work, in addition to care, that relates to maintaining a household to ensure the status and well-being of the working men (upkeep of suitable work clothes, provision of food at their workplace, entertainment of their colleagues at home) as well as feeding multiple hired informal carers and co-workers within the woman’s family. These activities, by virtue of being unpaid work, do not enhance the status of the woman herself within that household unit.

Anasuya Sengupta
Anasuya has a strong focus on gender equity and social exclusion, women’s economic empowerment, labour market systems and the Graduation Approach. She has over 10 years’ experience of qualitative research and advisory experience in Asia and Africa. Despite her fun job, she dreams about writing children’s books.

On the other hand, there are disincentives for women to enter or remain in the labour market due to a lack of public planning and investment in women’s employment, be it in skills training, employment schemes, or adequate formal jobs with regular wages. This leaves the majority of women to work in informal jobs without any protection at very low wages – and typically lower than men. In other words, their vulnerability as subordinate members of a household is mirrored by their vulnerability in the labour market. They remain vulnerable to poor health and extreme poverty with no financial resources to protect themselves, balance their unpaid and paid work, or leave and re-enter the market due to domestic responsibilities. With the state and private sector ignoring the intricate relationship between unpaid work and the labour market, women’s workload as unpaid domestic workers has been underestimated while simultaneously undermining their well-being in the labour market.

The consequence of these challenges is that, as household incomes improve, a majority of women limit their aspirations in favour of what is known in India as ‘family obligation’. However, losing financial autonomy puts women at serious risk, leading to a loss of decision-making power, reduced access to economic resources and increased vulnerability to violence. It is, therefore, critical to focus equally on empowering women in the domestic spaces that they inhabit while creating an enabling environment for positive participation in the labour market and larger market systems.

There are rays of hope, with Sustainable Goal 5 bringing care into the centre of discussion on gender equity. India and greater South Asia have much to learn from countries in Europe and in the Latin America and Caribbean region that have made significant progress in recognising the role of women in care, with policies aimed at protecting them within their unpaid roles. Yet, there has been less enthusiasm for systematically improving men’s participation in the unpaid work force. While one can intuitively argue the debate is premature in many parts of the world, a recent ILO report on the care economy would suggest that no country has come close to fundamentally challenging the discourse on work. But, this takes us back to the question of value, and as long as ‘women’s work’ is not valued, market economies will perpetuate gender inequity.


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