As India’s population soars above all, fewer women have jobs

Sheila Singh cried the day she handed in her resignation.

For 16 years, she has been a social worker in Mumbai, India’s frenetic financial capital, and she loves what she does. But her family kept telling her she needed to stay home and take care of her two children. She had resisted the pressure for years, but when she found out her daughter was skipping school at work, she felt she had no choice.

“Everyone used to tell me my kids were being neglected…it made me feel bad,” said Singh, 39.

When she quit in 2020, Singh was earning more than her husband, a rickshaw driver whose earnings fluctuated from day to day. But no one suggested he resign.

“His friends used to laugh at him, saying he was living off my salary,” Singh said. “I think my work is obviously worthless, so what’s the use?”

India is on the verge of surpassing China as the most populous country in the world, and its economy is among the fastest growing in the world. But the number of women in India’s workforce has been declining for years and ranks among the 20 lowest in the world.

This is not just a problem for women like Singh, but India’s own economic ambitions will also face growing challenges if an estimated 670 million women are left behind as the population grows. It is hoped that India’s fast-growing working-age population will drive its growth in the coming years. Experts fear, however, that this could easily become a demographic burden if India fails to ensure employment for its growing population, especially women.

Without Singh’s income, her family can no longer afford to live in Mumbai, one of Asia’s most expensive cities, and she is now preparing to move back to her village to save money. “But there’s no work there,” she sighed.


Editor’s note: This story is part of an ongoing series exploring what this means for the 1.4 billion Indian residents living in the world’s most populous country. ———

According to Rosa Abraham, an economist at Azim Premji University, female employment peaked at 35 percent in 2004 and fell to around 25 percent by 2022, based on official calculations. But the official figures count those employed who spent as little as an hour away from work in the last week.

Experts say a national employment crisis is one reason for the disparity, but deep-rooted cultural beliefs that view women as primary caregivers and stigmatize them for going out to work, as in Singh’s case, are another reason.

Using a stricter definition of employment, the Center for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE) found that by 2022, only 10% of working-age Indian women are employed or looking for work. This means that only 39 million women are employed, compared to 361 million men.

Just a few decades ago, things seemed to be going on a different track.

When Singh became a social worker in 2004, India was still at the height of its historic reforms of the 1990s. New industries and new opportunities were born seemingly overnight, prompting millions to leave their villages and move to cities like Mumbai in search of better jobs.

Feeling life changing. “I didn’t have a college degree, so I never thought it was possible for someone like me to get a job in an office,” she said.

Even then, leaving home to work was an uphill struggle for many women. Sunita Sutar, who was a school student in 2004, said that in her village of Shirsawadi in Maharashtra state, women usually marry at the age of 18 and start a family life around their husbands. Neighbors mocked her parents for investing in her education, saying it didn’t matter after marriage.

Sutar bucked the trend. In 2013, she became the first of nearly 2,000 people in her village to earn an engineering degree.

“I knew that if I studied, only then would I be able to make a difference — otherwise, I would marry and stay in the village like everyone else,” Sutar said.

Today, she lives and works in Mumbai as an auditor for India’s Ministry of Defence, a government job coveted by many Indians for its security, prestige and benefits.

In a way, she is part of a trend: Indian women have had better access to education since they were young and are now almost on par with men. But for most women, education did not lead to jobs. Unemployment is on the rise even as more women are starting to graduate from school.

“The working-age population continues to grow, but employment has not kept pace, which means that the proportion of the population with jobs will only decline,” said Mahesh Vyas, director of CMIE’s Decade. “It also keeps women out of the labor force, as they or their families may benefit more from caring for the home or children rather than working in low-paying jobs.”

Even with a job, social pressure can keep women away.

In his hometown in Uttar Pradesh, Chauhan sees few women working outside the home. But when she came to Mumbai in 2006, she saw women pouring into public spaces, Chauhan said, serving food at cafes, getting their hair cut or nails painted at salons, selling tickets for local trains, or boarding trains themselves, crammed into crowded streets. In the carriage they rushed to work. She said it was inspiring to see what was possible.

“When I started working and left the house, my family used to say I must be working as a prostitute,” said social worker Lalmani Chauhan.

Chauhan said one reason she was able to keep her job was that it became her lifeline when her husband was bedridden by the accident and unable to work.

Policymakers are increasingly recognizing women’s withdrawal from the workforce as a huge problem, but it hasn’t been addressed through immediate solutions like more childcare facilities or traffic safety, Abraham said.

She added that when more women enter the workforce, they contribute to the economy and household income, but they also have the power to make decisions. Children, especially girls, who grow up in households where both parents work, are more likely to be employed later in life.

There are a staggering number of working-age Indian women who are not working—nearly double the number in the United States overall. Experts say the gap could be a huge opportunity if India can find a way to fill it. A 2018 McKinsey report estimated that India could add $552 billion to its GDP by increasing female labor force participation by 10%.

As she prepares to leave her one-bedroom home tucked away deep in a narrow alley in a Mumbai slum, Singh is determined to return to the city in the near future. She hopes to find a way to get back to work and says she will take any job she can find.

“(Before) I never asked anyone for a rupee,” Singh said, adding that she felt ashamed every time she was forced to ask her husband.

“I used to feel so independent. See, when I quit my job, I lost a part of myself,” she said. “I want that feeling.”

by Kruti Kapati

Associated Press

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