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Crimes against women keep them out of the job market

While violence against women and girls is one among several barriers that restrict their mobility and reduces the likelihood of their labour force participation, we need a comprehensive mechanism that involves the state, institutions, communities and households to address this challenge. Photo: Mint (Mint)Premium
While violence against women and girls is one among several barriers that restrict their mobility and reduces the likelihood of their labour force participation, we need a comprehensive mechanism that involves the state, institutions, communities and households to address this challenge. Photo: Mint (Mint)

A study shows the link between India’s low rate of female labour participation and the threats women face

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India’s female labour force participation rate (FLFPR) is a puzzling feature of our economy. Though output more than doubled and the number of working-age women grew by a quarter over the last two decades, the number of women in jobs declined by 10 million. Global indices and gender empowerment measures also paint a dismal picture. The 2021 Global Gender Gap Index revealed that India ranks 140th of 156 countries, compared to its 98th position in 2006. India’s FLFPR (24.5% in 2018-19) has been declining and is well below the global average (45%). So, what is keeping women away from the labour market and can we address these constraints?

The scenarios of women in education and employment over the past two decades are paradoxical. India neared gender equality at the primary level about a decade after the enactment of the Right to Education Act, 2009. Between 2011 and 2019, there has been an increase in the rate of women enrolling in higher education. As more women pursue higher education, we would expect them to enter the job market. But our labour market trends are alarming. On one hand, India’s FLFPR has suffered since the start of the 2000s. On the other, the unemployment rate of women in the country has rapidly been increasing. This contradiction—that as more women pursue higher education they are less likely to join the workforce—merits attention and greater analysis. Our declining FLFPR, which has fallen from 31.2% in 2011-12 to 24.5% in 2018-19, can be attributed to restrictive gender and social norms.

Evidence shows strong correlations between a declining FLFPR and barriers that impede women’s labour-market choices. These barriers include: 1) domestic responsibilities and the burden of unpaid care, 2) occupational segregation and limited opportunities to enter non-traditional sectors, 3) inadequate supportive infrastructure such as creches or piped water and cooking fuel, 4) lack of safety and mobility options, or 5) the interplay of social norms and identities. Yet, crimes against women and girls (CaW&G) arguably constitute the most prevalent barrier to women’s equal participation in and contribution to society.

In 2020, Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE) undertook research to understand why lack of safety affects the participation of women in the labour market. The research analysed data from Crime in India published by the National Crime Records Bureau in 2011 and 2017. The study looked at crimes that deter women from stepping out to work and raise perceptions of lack of safety; these are rape, kidnapping and abduction (K&A), and sexual harassment and molestation. We found that while the all-India FLFPR saw an 8 percentage-point decline, the rate of CaW&G more than tripled to 57.9%. The rates of K&A and sexual harassment increased by more than three times, and the rates of rape and molestation about doubled.

A state-level analysis shows that there is a low but negative correlation between the FLFPR and rate of CaW&G, as well as the FLFPR and K&A rate. Thus, an increased crime rate is associated with an FLFPR decrease. State-level data suggests that K&A can be considered a strong factor that can influence women’s willingness and ability to step out for work. It discourages women from participating in the workforce. This strengthens the hypothesis that CaW&G lead to regressive societal norms around why women should not step out of their homes.

The results for crimes of rape, molestation and sexual harassment show unexpected results, with a positive correlation suggesting that an increase in the crime rate is associated with an increase in the FLFPR. This can perhaps be attributed to underreporting of crimes due to either the victims’ lack of legal awareness or fear of shame. Also, these findings are a result of pure crime-FLFPR correlations, and several other factors could result in these observed trends.

Trends in Himachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Chhattisgarh and Sikkim show consistency: They maintain a high FLFPR and low rate of crime in comparison with other states and Union territories. Similarly, states which have had the lowest FLFPR, Bihar, Delhi, Assam and Tripura, strengthen the research’s argument that the crime rate is strongly correlated with women’s participation in the workforce. Bihar’s rate of CaW&G approximately tripled while it nearly halved in the observed time period. It had the lowest FLFPR in India. The rates for K&A and rape also increased. Tripura saw the biggest decline in FLFPR, as it fell by over 24% points. In 2017, its rate of CaW&G was as high as 51%. Delhi’s rate of CaW&G rose by more than four times from 31% to 133% as its FLFPR declined marginally. Rates of K&A and molestation surged by over 26% points, and the rate of rape sharply increased. In Assam, the rate of CaW&G quadrupled and its FLFPR declined. The rates of K&A and molestation were very high, and the rate of rape almost doubled during the observed period.

While violence against women and girls is one among several barriers that restrict their mobility and reduces the likelihood of their labour force participation, we need a comprehensive mechanism that involves the state, institutions, communities and households to address this challenge. Adopting a ‘SAFETY’ framework—focused on Services, Attitudes, Focus on community, Empowerment of women, Transport and other infrastructure, and Youth interventions—can be a critical element in framing policies and interventions to stop crimes against women and girls.

Neelanjana Gupta is a project manager at the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE), an initiative of LEAD at Krea University.

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