Pinky Negi, an Indian teacher with two master’s degrees, loved her old job at a public school in the Himalayan foothills. But then she did what millions of Indian women do every year - gave up her career when she got married and had children.
“The idea of not earning pinches me the most when I have to ask for the smallest of things,” said Negi, who briefly tried home tutoring before the birth of her second child led her to give up work altogether.
“Even if I have to ask my husband, it is still asking someone else,” she told Context in New Delhi at an office of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a union group that helps women find work.
Negi’s experience is common in India, where women have been steadily dropping out of the workforce even at a time of strong growth in Asia’s third-biggest economy.
The country is set to become the world’s most populous as the United Nations forecasts its population to touch 1.43 billion on April 14, overtaking China on that day.
Economists say that means India, which is home to the highest number of working-age people, must not only create more jobs to keep its world-beating growth on track, but also foster employment conditions favourable to women.
Less than a third of Indian women are working or actively seeking work, data shows, despite progress such as better educational attainment, improved health, falling fertility rates and more women-friendly labour policies.
There are numerous reasons for the shortfall, researchers say, from marriage, child care and domestic work to skills and education gaps, higher household incomes, safety concerns and a lack of jobs.
The absence of women from the labour market reduces productivity and leads to income inequality.
Mayurakshi Dutta, researcher, Oxfam India
Policy changes that could rectify these problems - such as improved access to education, child care or flexible work setups - could boost the number of working women and add hundreds of billions of dollars to India’s gross domestic product (GDP) by 2025, a 2018 report by the McKinsey consulting firm found.
“The absence of women from the labour market reduces productivity and leads to income inequality,” said Mayurakshi Dutta, a researcher at Oxfam India, which attributed the low labour force participation of women to gender discrimination in terms of wages and opportunities in a 2022 report.
Women’s work under-reported?
According to the World Bank’s latest data, women represented 23 per cent of India’s formal and informal workforce in 2021, down from nearly 27 per cent in 2005. That compared with about 32 per cent in neighbouring Bangladesh and 34.5 per cent in Sri Lanka.
India’s labour and women’s ministries did not respond to requests for comment.