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5 lessons about women and work in India

While marginally more women work in India than in Pakistan (27 percent and 25 percent, respectively), Pakistan’s female labour-force participation rate is growing and India’s is declining. The percentage of women working in Bangladesh is three times higher than in India, which ranks last among BRICS countries in terms of women’s labour-force participation — among G-20 countries, it is second to last, behind only Saudi Arabia.

Why might this be? In the South Asian context, on International Women’s Day, our analysis of the state of women and work in India does not offer clear explanation. Countries often experience a dip in women’s labour-force participation as incomes rises and women drop out of low-paying menial work, usually in agriculture. But typically as the economy develops further and education levels rise, more and more women enter the labour force.

The evidence on why so few women in India work – and why even more women are dropping out of workforce – is limited. At Evidence for Policy Design, research has taught us five key lessons about women and work in India:

Women want to work. National Sample Survey (NSS) data show that 31 percent of women who spend the majority of their time performing domestic duties would like some kind of job. The proportion of educated rural women who want to work is even higher: Upwards of 50 percent would like a job apart from their domestic work. If all women who expressed a desire to work did so, Female Labour Force Participation Rate (FLFPR) in India would rise 21 percentage points (78 percent).

Jobs near home attract women. We conducted a pilot survey of rural, below-poverty-line youth in areas around Bhopal. In our study, 93 percent of unemployed female youth said they would take a job if they could work from home or in the village. In contrast to the national labour market, the MGNREGS has seen increased participation from women over the last five years, and now employs slightly more women (52 percent) than men (48 percent).

Social norms are mutable, and broader economic trends and government policies matter. The Operation Blackboard initiative was launched in the 1980s, alongside a 50 percent quota for women teachers. Since then, the education sector has grown to employ the most women outside of agriculture.

Current initiatives such as Skill India, Make in India, and new gender-based quotas – from corporate boards to the police force – can spur positive change. But we need to invest in skill training and job support. More than half of women who would like a job, particularly those in rural areas, say they do not have the skills required for the work they want to do-for example, leatherwork or textile manufacturing.

Further, the opportunities that exist need to be equitable. From 2010 to 2012, women’s share in the manufacturing labour-force rose from 15-25 percent, but the gender wage gap across sectors in manufacturing was high-much higher than in services. To increase women’s labour-force participation and wellbeing, current policies must take women into consideration.

Migration for employment remains an under-explored, less supported means to employ women. In one EPoD survey, 62 percent of unemployed female youth-similar to 68 percent of unemployed young men-said they would consider migrating for a job. Migration is difficult, however, and women have particular concerns that must be addressed. Despite reporting they would be willing to consider migrating for work, 69 percent of female youth report it is unsafe to live away from home (this time, in the context of skills training), compared to only 32 percent of male youth. And female respondents were more likely to report they would migrate within their district than males.

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