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Highest-ever allocation of more than  ₹1 lakh crore has been made to MGNREGA to boost employment opportunities in villages and bring relief to migrant labourers (PTI)
Highest-ever allocation of more than 1 lakh crore has been made to MGNREGA to boost employment opportunities in villages and bring relief to migrant labourers (PTI)

The worsening gender skew of our workforce

A long downtrend observed in the proportion of job-holders among Indian women should worry us. But simply raising the minimum age of female marriage won’t solve the problem

When India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a $5-trillion economy by 2024 as a national goal soon after his re-election last year, he could not have foreseen the covid-19 pandemic. That the viral outbreak has exacted a heavy toll and thwarted our chance of achieving that ambitious target is undeniable. But what is less talked about is the opportunity cost we bear from having too low a proportion of women at work. It was never high to begin with, but our female labour force participation rate—or the proportion of women aged 15 and above who are either seeking or working at paid jobs—appears to have declined sharply over the past decade-and-a-half. According to World Bank data, that rate hovered above 30% after India’s economy opened up in 1991, and then peaked at 31.8% in 2005, before slipping to 20.3% this year—among the lowest in the world. While why this has happened remains a matter of debate, its implied loss was quantified by a McKinsey Global Institute report in 2018, which said that India would gain $770 billion in output by 2025 if women had the same opportunities to work as men.

The poor participation of women in the country’s workforce defies economic logic, and much of it could perhaps be explained by socio-cultural attitudes that prevail among families that are not given to modern ways of thought. India is still largely a poor country where women go out to work out of financial necessity, and rising family incomes often result in their dropping out. In this narrative, Indian households being better off would explain the decline. Though there has been the odd report of a trend reversal in recent years and months, attributable to a broad crunch in job availability since 2017 and worsened by our covid crisis, there is no getting away from the need to intervene in favour of raising female participation in the economy. Tax incentives do exist for women employed in formal salaried roles, but what we need is an attitudinal shift among our multitudes—especially men. It is the hold of patriarchy on society that keeps women homebound and denies them space to exercise their agency on the issue of securing pay cheques of their own. Given the country’s high levels of gender violence, safety concerns also tilt decisions against venturing out.

As our government weighs a proposal to raise the age after which women can legally marry from 18 to 21, it is tempting to view such a move as a spur for greater female work participation through extended education and an associated delay in child-bearing. Yet, even the current age law is weakly followed. At least one study suggests that every fourth Indian woman was wedded by 18. According to Unicef, with over 100 million females who got married before turning 15, India has more children in wedlock than any other nation. So, while longer educational exposure afforded by an upward age revision could help the cause, we also need an effective social campaign that directly addresses hold-backs. Without a shift in India’s observable preference for male offspring, for example, raising women’s minimum age of marriage might perversely also raise the perceived “burden" of a girl child among some families, pushing them to either opt for pre-natal sex selection or flout India’s marital age bar. Social reforms and better law enforcement have far bigger roles to play.

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