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Women's participation in Indian workforce is shrinking

Adil Bhat in New Delhi
May 10, 2023

India will surpass China as the most populous country in the world this year and is set to become the third largest economy by 2030. But it remains a patriarchal society.

Crowds of people at a market in New Delhi, India
India will soon have the world's largest populationImage: Kabir Jhangiani/ZUMA Press/picture alliance

Five years ago, Amanjeet Kaur, a former consultant for ONQUE Media in New Delhi, was swiftly climbing the ladder of corporate success. She loved her marketing job, producing content and designing websites for different companies in India. Immersed in work, she barely had time to think about the future.

However, her marriage changed her life entirely. Forced by her family, she decided to give up her career. Although this was not easy, she believed the moral duty of raising a child superseded her professional aspirations.

Now that her son is older, she thinks it's time for her to go back to work, but she is struggling with the challenges of doing so. "Leaving my career was the biggest setback, mentally and physically," she told DW. "It is difficult to resume now after years of break. I feel that I lack the confidence to go out and do business."

Before she got married, Rupi Singh, who has a master's degree in political science, taught at a public school in a village in the state of Punjab for five years. But her in-laws pressured her to leave the job because the school was far away from their house. She told DW that she spent a week crying after being forced to resign. She now spends her days doing domestic chores.

"I don't have any money now and I have to ask my husband for money for everything, from my personal expenses to household expenditures. This hurts a lot," she said.

Millions of women give up jobs

Every year, millions of Indian women like Amanjeet and Rupi give up their careers when they get married and have children.

New Delhi's drive for more women bus drivers

India, which is forecast to surpass China as the world's most populous country this year and has one of the fastest-growing economies, remains a conservative and patriarchal society with traditional gender roles that expect women to be the primary homemakers and caregivers.

In recent decades, the percentage of women in the Indian workforce has fallen steadily. According to the World Bank, women made up only "23% of the formal and informal workforce in 2021, down from 27% in 2005."

In 2018, India's female labor force participation rates ranked 120th out of 131 countries included in the survey.

Experts say there are several reasons for the falling numbers of women in the Indian workforce: childcare responsibilities and domestic work after marriage, lack of skills, educational gaps and also the national job crisis. Entrenched cultural beliefs that women should not work outside the home have also led to more violence against women, which in turn acts as a deterrent to seeking out work opportunities. A 2018 survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundationconcluded that India is the most dangerous country in the world for women, primarily because of the high risk of sexual violence.

Government should foster better employment conditions

Economists have suggested that India, which is home to the highest number of working-age people, should adopt a two-pronged strategy to create more jobs for women and foster employment conditions favorable to them.

In 2018, a World Bank report concluded that the country's growth could reach 9% if half of the female population joined the workforce. The government is currently assessing proposals.

For Avinash Kumar, an economist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, the decline in female participation in the workforce is cause for concern and connected to the economic crisis. "The first to be thrown out are women," he told DW, describing this trend as a "forced push."

He explained that women workers were often replaced by males who had been forced out of the labor market, at a cheaper rate. "Since women face the double burden of gender inequality and patriarchy, it is the government's responsibility to introduce proactive public investments for job creation," he said, adding that more should be done to ensure women are safe when going to work.

India struggles to produce enough formal jobs for its youth

'Woman-centric ecosystem'

Sheroes, a private company in New Delhi, helps women to find work online. Sairee Chahal set up the company nine years ago to develop a "women-centric ecosystem."

The company connects women with companies, which it helps design work-from-home opportunities specifically for women. It also identifies flexible options for women wanting to rejoin the workforce.

"The internet can play an important role in the growth of the economy, and it was this idea that led us to create a safe and trusted online workspace for women," Chahal told DW, saying that even though the patriarchy discouraged married women from working, there could still be change.  

Edited by: Anne Thomas 

DW Adil Bhat
Adil Bhat TV reporter and correspondent with a special focus on politics, conflict and human-interest stories.