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In a nation devoted to powerful goddesses, the average Indian woman still struggles to realize her potential. From normative social restrictions and concerns about physical safety to the disproportionate burden of domestic responsibilities, day after day, generation after generation, in big ways and small, our women confront multiple barriers.

When it comes to women’s economic participation, it is well recognized that the share of women who are employed or looking for work has been declining consistently over the past decade-and-a-half. Fewer than one in five women aged 15-plus are in the labour market. This drop in female labour-force participation can be attributed to several factors: for instance, girls staying in education longer and delaying their entry to the labour market; or the middle-income effect, where household earnings are high enough so women no longer need to work. But these desirable factors explain little of the decline. Unfortunately, undesirable factors are bigger drivers.

Sectors like construction, which has seen high growth in these years, are structurally biased against women. Lack of demand for workers in female-friendly industries such as apparel and footwear, and continuing social disapproval of women working outside the home, are contributing factors. Other causes include migration and the nuclearization of families, where there are fewer women at home to contribute to domestic work. Job location also matters for women’s work: how far they have to commute and how safe it is. These factors have a bearing on women’s ability to balance domestic responsibilities with income generation.

As the world tries to recover from the pandemic, we must acknowledge that the road ahead for women is longer and more arduous. Women, especially youth, were among the worst affected by the pandemic and their recovery has also been among the slowest. Decent work deficits are more pronounced among women. Even in non-crisis times, women tend to receive lower remuneration for the same work and frequently endure poor working conditions. Women are also more susceptible to layoffs, and face more barriers to re-entering the labour market than their male counterparts. Analysis by UN Women and UNDP suggests that about 435 million women and girls were living on less than $1.90 per day; 47 million fell back into poverty as a result of covid-related shocks.

Women comprised a large share of the workforce in some sectors that were worst affected by the pandemic. For instance, a large share of women rely on employment directly and indirectly linked to supply chains, so disruptions had a major adverse impact on women’s employment. Women comprise just under 90% of the essential workers in health and care institutions that were at the frontline. Nearly 1 million Asha workers, for example, were an essential part of the last-mile response, though their average compensation of about 3,000 per month hardly corresponds to their valuable contributions. Most teachers are women, and as schools closed, the livelihoods of many took a hit. Moreover, as lockdowns kept families at home and children out of school, household care burdens grew, with women bearing more than men.

Rather than address the root causes of the decline in women’s labour-force participation and foster equal opportunity for women in work and parity in outcomes, policymakers and society at large often hinge their hopes on emerging forms of digital work (especially home-based) in enabling women to engage in income generation.

However, not only are such opportunities too few, they perversely feed into patriarchal norms of keeping women at home. This approach favours the convenient over the urgent need of legislating, implementing and enforcing regulations that enable women’s work, especially outside the home. For example, ensuring workplaces have separate bathrooms, childcare, safety, and enforcement of equal wages are all important for promoting women’s labour force participation. Women also need initiatives that enable access to education, skilling, upskilling and reskilling, as well as career guidance and opportunities for progression. And this needs to be accompanied by consistent campaigns to root out patriarchy. Else, we are only addressing the symptoms, not the cause.

Inaction on these fronts not only holds women back, it also restrains economic and societal progress on almost every dimension of well-being. Gender equity and increasing economic participation of women are associated with more growth, lower income inequality and better development outcomes. Some estimates have suggested that, by 2025, India could raise its gross domestic product (GDP) by $0.7 trillion if it improves its low and falling female labour force participation. And this does not account for the many contributions that women make that are unaccounted for in data. These are well-known facts, and yet women continue to confront barriers in the face of inadequate comprehensive, long-term actions needed to improve their economic empowerment and outcomes.

The narrow scope of interventions when it comes to women’s work and economic participation limits building systems that truly enable women’s parity in labour markets, economies and societies. What we need is to consider every action—legislative, policy, administrative, judicial, corporate, civil society and more—through the lens of what is gender progressive. This will shed light on what could truly help address women’s economic empowerment and participation—to the benefit of all.

Sabina Dewan is president and executive director, JustJobs Network and senior visiting fellow at the Centre for Policy Research

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