Home > Uncategorized > India is failing her young women even in terms of work

India is failing her young women even in terms of work

from C. P. Chandrasekhar and Jayati Ghosh

Anyone who has been following the upsurge of protests across the country in the wake of the CAA-NRC moves of the government would have been impressed and inspired by the role played by young women. They have been forthright and fearless in articulating their concerns and demands, even in the face of overt repression by the state, and there is no doubt that they provide much hope for the future of the country.

These young women have already displayed much courage and resilience—but unfortunately these qualities are likely to become even more necessary, because in addition to Indian politics and society failing them, the economy also deals them a terrible hand. Many of the multidimensional problems Indian women have to deal with (like violence, lack of autonomy, lack of assets, restricted mobility) are interlinked, but the very poor employment generation and the associated lack of productive income opportunities has become an underlying context that particularly affects young women.

The latest official labour force survey of 2017-18 showed a dramatic drop in women’s work participation rates, to only 16.5 per cent from already low levels. In a growing economy, this is bizarre and almost unbelievable. It may well be true that there is significant under-reporting of women’s employment, especially with respect to work on family farms and enterprises, as well as lack of recognition of the productive contributions made by unpaid work within households. But such under-reporting is itself a sign of low status of women in a society, while the fact of extremely low rates of gainful employment cannot really be doubted.

Like everything else in this enormous country, there is substantial regional variation. Figure 1 shows that almost all states in the country showed a decline in women’s work participation rates (with the exceptions of Madhya Pradesh and Goa and some UTs like Chandigarh, Daman and Diu). There were some states that showed major declines from already low rates, including Gujarat and Odisha, and others in the eastern region like Assam and West Bengal that also declined moderately from low rates. But it is clear from the map that the worst affected states lie broadly along the Indo-Gangetic plain, with some in this mostly Hindi belt showing aggregate rates of women’s employment of less than 10 per cent.

Figure 1: Some states now show unbelievably low rates of women’s work force participation 

It is also these states in which young women are especially disadvantaged. Despite girls’ educational enrolment increasing over the past two decades, to the point where near gender parity has been achieved up to secondary education, this still does not seem to have led to more employment for such more educated young women—if anything, employment rates have actually fallen.

In what follows, we consider the worst performing of these states, for young women especially: Punjab, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.  (It is worth noting that these are also regions where young women have come out in large numbers in the anti-CAA/NRC protests.) The labour force participation rates of young women have collapsed in these states—to the unbelievable rate of 1.7 per cent of the 15-29 age group in Bihar, for example (Figure 2). This measures all those who are willing to work, but excludes those who are discouraged workers who have stopped looking for work, or those who are unable to seek employment because of other constraints.

Figure 2: Northern states show the lowest rates of labour force participation
by young women, much lower than India average 


Figure 3: Less than 10 per cent of young women are gainfully employed in these five states 

Figure 3 shows the rates of recognised work participation of young women, for which the numbers drop to around 8 per cent or less in each of these states, with only 1.4 per cent for Bihar. This is a terrible waste of human potential, quite apart from being a sign of extreme discrimination against young women.

It is often argued that these rates are low because of enrolment in education, but this cannot explain the large numbers of young people who are not in education, employment or training of any sort. These are as high as 21 million (both young men and women) in Uttar Pradesh, 11 million in Bihar, 2.4 million in Haryana, 2 million in Punjab and 0.7 million in Uttarakhand. It is clearly the case that the absence of job opportunities is what is leading to this appalling outcome, most of all in these states.

This is also evident from the fact that, even with such low rates of labour force participation, rates of open unemployment remain high for young women in these states. Bear in mind that this number relates only to those who are actively seeking but unable to find work as a share of all those willing to be in the labour force. Figure 4 shows that in Punjab, Haryana and Uttarakhand, open unemployment of young women is around or higher than one-third.

Figure 4: Yet open unemployment rates for young women also remain high 

The extreme tendencies displayed in these states are part of the wider trend across India. But they also point to particularly adverse labour market conditions for women in these regions. These are states in which aggregate employment rates have been low and falling, but also where public employment has been grossly inadequate and have not employed more women in good quality jobs. The contrast with some of the southern states with slightly better performance indicates that, in addition to broader economic policies, state government policies also play a role in shaping the prospects for young women.

(This article was originally published in the Business Line on December 31, 2019)

  1. January 6, 2020 at 3:44 pm

    What’s the makeup of the economy in those states, for example the proportion of capitalist firms with employment relations vs. family businesses and farms?

  2. Ken Zimmerman
    January 8, 2020 at 11:47 am

    This is from an interview published in the March 12, 2018 Washington Post.

    Deepa Narayan, a sociologist based in Delhi, kept turning one question over and over in her head: How did Indian society come to accept this treatment [rape] of women? “What is it about our culture that leads to such violence against women and this pervasive sexism?” she said in an interview.

    The question led Narayan and her researchers to conduct 600 interviews — about 3,000 hours over three years, documented in more than 8,000 pages of notes, now published in a new book called “Chup,” the Hindi word for the imperative “Quiet.” That word was chosen, Narayan said, because it has become so ubiquitous in silencing women that it was recently added to the Oxford English Dictionary.

    Conducted across colleges, in coffee shops and in shopping malls in the major Indian cities of New Delhi, Bangalore, Ahmedabad and Mumbai, Narayan’s interviews sought to delve into the “inner lives” of urban women. It revealed that India’s young, educated, modern women still encounter widespread gender inequality, and often internalize conservative attitudes toward women’s social roles.

    Women, even those who said they were feminists, often used words such as “mother,” “sacrifice” or “giving” to describe themselves, Narayan found, while men often described themselves as a “leader” or “powerful.”

    “Overwhelmingly, what emerges is the burden of duty; women feel burdened by the ‘shoulds,’ the expectations of duty imposed on them” Narayan writes in the book. “In fact most words chosen by women describe the emotional qualities and strengths needed to cope with the duties of being a daughter, wife and mother, in other words, meeting everyone else’s needs selflessly.”

    India, despite making strides in development in the past three decades, lags behind on gender equality. It ranks 131 of 188 countries on the U.N. Development Program’s Gender Inequality Index. Dowry, female infanticide and women’s education are persistent issues despite decades of successive governments’ efforts to address them. Narayan said the problems in India are not limited to villages and uneducated people — the behavior of outspoken critics of sexism shows how deeply entrenched these attitudes are.

    One woman, who leads the gender studies and diversity program at a university in New Delhi, for example, recently called Narayan to compliment one of her recent speeches. “She said, ‘Oh you’re so beautiful.’ That was her first line. I had to start laughing,” she said.

    Narayan didn’t expect that so many of her interviewees — a sample of India’s young, modern women — would be parroting female stereotypes, despite labeling themselves as feminists. “What I heard women saying was disturbing. Over and over I would shake my head in disbelief that yet another smart and smartly dressed woman, an artist, a business manager, a financial analyst, a professor, a dentist, an engineer, a lawyer, a researcher, a scientist, a teacher, an educated stay-at-home mom was so unsure of herself.

    “Society is stagnating under the veneer of modernity,” Narayan said. “Women have internalized these behaviors that make it so men continue to be in power.”

    Many women described being groped — almost all of Nayaran’s women interviewees, she said, had experienced being inappropriately touched. “This has become normalized. This is no longer traumatic,” she said.

    Such behaviors occur because of how young girls in India are raised, Narayan writes. “I call the way girls are raised ‘fear training,’ literally, training girls to become fearful. It is training based on no and don’t. No, you can’t do this. No, you can’t do that.”

    Women’s lives in India, Narayan said, are beset by doubt. One woman interviewee in the book, 27-year-old Eshani, describes her father’s dissatisfaction with every achievement — 89 percent in an exams? Why didn’t you get 90? he would ask. “She feels crushed; no achievement of hers is ever good enough. Fault finding, with everyday ordinary things like how a girl combs her hair or how a girl stands or talks, is a strategy intended to dampen confidence,” Narayan writes.

    The portraits Narayan depicts are ones that many Indian women will recognize — one woman describes her husband forcing her to sign a resignation letter the day after her marriage, another describes her mother’s anger on learning she was a lesbian, despite being a gender-training expert.

    Male interviewees, too, Narayan said, suggested how women’s roles in society are perceived differently from men’s. One man for instance described his father as an intellectual with whom he could have long debates, and his mother as simply “superstitious.” “He called his mother the ‘shock absorber,’ ” Narayan said. “She absorbs all the tension and keeps the peace.”

    For Narayan, the constant undermining of women’s positions is about limiting their identities and their existence. “We have to change the framing of how we see gender inequality,” she said. “We are still being taught not to exist. Or exist as little as possible, that’s what underlies the phenomenon of gender inequality.” [end quotes]

    Supports my position that economists should make a greater effort to coordinate their work with social scientists (like Dr. Narayan) and with historians and anthropologists.

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