Women, employment and empowerment in Indian Economy

Women, employment and empowerment in Indian Economy

India has experienced rapid growth and development in the past years in many spheres. Gender equity is not one of them. This is deplorable considering the important role played by women in the socio-economic growth of the country. 

India has experienced rapid growth and development in the past years in many spheres. Gender equity is not one of them. This is deplorable considering the important role played by women in the socio-economic growth of the country.

The Indian development model has yet to fully incorporate the important role played by women for propelling the socio-economic growth of the country. Current governments at state and central level must understand that no nation can progress unless its women are given equal access to opportunities and adequate safety and security.

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.


  • Across the globe, educating women and giving them the ability to stand on their own feet has been a priority. In India, social evils and a rising rape rate are confronting women in urban and rural areas, regardless of which political party is at the helm. Women are not being given a chance to become stronger in the political sector.
  • The Women’s Reservation Bill of 2013 is being vociferously opposed on the grounds that it will deny opportunities to persons of other groups. When it comes to legislations which aim to reduce gender inequity, India has a long way to go.
  • Ancient India was a centre of learning and noted women scholars during that time contributed to the advancement of society. Women icons in India’s rural areas are few and far in between. While most are aware of the high profile lady entrepreneurs and corporate heads in urban India, women in rural areas continue to face exploitation. If women are allowed to gain access to education, they can make a huge impact in enhancing the productivity of the economy.
  • Noted rural entrepreneurs such as Jashwantiben Popat who pioneered Lijjat papad are proof of the strong capabilities of Indian women to mould positive social change in India. From 7 women working in one building to over 43,000 lady workers, Lijjat papad is a corporate initiative that is fuelling the economy.
  • Empowered Indian women can also pioneer self help groups and initiatives for creating positive social change in rural or underdeveloped areas. There are notable examples of women self help groups in India which have generated employment and income for many families in villages and small towns.
  • Women can also contribute to the social welfare of the country. Noted lady activists have championed the cause of gender justice and equity. They are shining examples of what India can accomplish if lady leaders are at the helm. Women-friendly policies and laws will be framed as a result of this. This can change the way the world looks at India.
  • Stalwart women leaders such as Vijalakshmi Pandit and Sarojini Naidu played a key role in the Indian freedom movement.
  • Now, women such as Ela Bhatt who founded SEWA are empowering women to gain freedom from poverty and unemployment. Women entrepreneurs are also benefiting from some of the well-implemented governmental programs at central and state level.
  • They can contribute significantly to the growth the development of India in multifaceted ways.

Data at a glance

  • As per recent report by ILO, India and Pakistan have the lowest rates of women’s labour force participation in Asia. In India, the worrying cause is further declining of labour force participation.
  • According to National Sample Survey, in 1999-2000, 25.9% of all women worked and by 2011-12 this proportion had dropped to 21.9%.
  • This is in contrast with global trends as well as countries like Nepal, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in Asia that have the highest women labour force participation. Even countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia are placed behind them.
  • Of the 185 nations that are part of the ILO database, since the 1990s, 114 countries have recorded an increase in the proportion of women in the workforce. 41 countries have recorded the decline and India is leading the pack here.
  • Even the Economic Survey 2016-17 expressed concern that the demographic dividend is already receding, reducing the opportunity for the Indian economy to catch up with its East Asian counterparts.
  • The declining participation of women in labour force and subsequently in economy tells a sorry story about India’s growth. It needs to be seen what ails the falling down of women participation.


  • One explanation can be, with rising incomes, women have the opportunity to escape harsh labour in farms and on construction sites. They can now focus more on families.
  • But another view, possibly more realistic one is- with declining farm sizes, rising mechanisation, and consequently dwindling labour demands in agriculture, women are being forced out of workforce.
  • If the latter view is true, it has a serious implication on future policies pertaining to agriculture, economy and women empowerment.
  • Research shows that when women have access to more work opportunities, they take them instantly.
  • India Human Development Survey (IHDS) with other partners found that work provisions under MGNREGA have brought more rural women into wage labour.
  • This can be verified from the fact that 45% were not in wage labour before the scheme was initiated.
  • Moreover, increased availability of wage work also enhances women’s control over household decision-making.

Creating opportunities

  • However, it is imperative to explore other avenues for work for women as MGNREGA cannot be expected to provide consistent stable employment.
  • From policy perspective, two main challenges have to be addressed for augmenting women’s workforce participation rates:

Agricultural to non agricultural work

  • Because of shrinking farm work, there is need to create opportunities for women to move from agricultural to non-agricultural manual work.
  • A research by University of Maryland finds that where roads were constructed between the first (2004-05) and second (2011-12) survey of IHDS, both men and women were more likely to undertake non-agricultural work but this effect was greater for women.
  • The construction of roads has cascading effect such as improvement in transportation services such as buses, which in turn can facilitate movement of the rural workforce, especially women, into non-agricultural work in neighbouring villages and towns.

White collar job access

  • On the other end of the employment spectrum too, it is necessary to make possible for educated women to continue work even while raising families.
  • In India, the prevalence of a rigid work environment and dearth of family-friendly work institutions create impediments to women’s access to white-collar jobs in the formal sector.
  • Also, long distances between the home and the workplace increase both commuting time and work burdens, leaving workers with even less time for family duties.
  • Hence, there must be a work environment that allows more women, especially urban and educated women, to take up salaried jobs.

Single handed responsibility

  • It has been known worldwide that women continue to bear the major share of household work and childcare.
  • The women are expected to invest more in child’s education over professional achievement thereby surfacing the skewed work-family equation.
  • However, this highlights the contrasting situations- in west, there is decline in fertility rates because women prefer to opt out of marriages for better employment prospects whereas here, children’s future achievements take the front seat instead of career development. This has led to urban and educated Indian women dropping out of the labour pool.
  • Neither of these, however, seems an optimal outcome for society.
  • The only thing that can address this issue is by encouraging workplaces to become more responsive to family needs and to promote sharing of household responsibilities between both genders.

Sharing the burden

  • The global competition has made the companies make the employees work even on weekends as well as increasing the work hours.
  • A study has found that young workers in India worked 52 hours per week as against 42 hours by their counterparts in Canada.
  • Work-family balance requires increased participation by men in household chores and caring for children. However, workplace inflexibility makes for difficult choices, involving trade-offs between investing in careers of either of couple, often resulting in women taking a back seat and at times even dropping out of the workforce.

Expert’s views

  • Japan’s ‘Womenomics’ needs to play an important role in the Indian economy by investing and encouraging more female participation in workforce and in positions of leadership.
  • The beginning has been done in terms of passage of a landmark Maternity Benefits Bill which will benefit women returning to the workforce with availability of quality childcare centres at workplace.
  • Beyond education, skilling, pay parity and board positions, India’s agenda should also include providing women leadership positions in political life. The recent violent experience in Nagaland, wherein the local community refused to let women have 33% reservation in local governments, shows how far the distance has to be covered yet.

Expected Questions

  • Critically analyse the role of women in Indian economy.
  • Women as home makers or women as professionals? In your opinion, what should be the role of women in helping India’s growth?
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