India’s Expanding Economy Fails to Pull Women Into the Workplace

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NEW DELHI — After working for 12 years, Isha Khanna quit her job at a bank when she had twins about four years ago. She loved her work but balancing her role as a mother with her demanding career would have been a challenge.

“In the bank we had to reach by nine and attend to customers till six. After that it took almost two hours to finish all the other work,” said Khanna. And reaching home at eight o’clock with the kids would have been very difficult for me.”

Her case is common in India where no matter what their economic class or age group, millions of women either drop out of the workforce or do not work at all. For some like Khanna, rising household incomes make it possible to give up their jobs.

However, many women from lower-income groups struggle to join the workforce due to lack of suitable childcare.

After getting married, Leela Devi came to Delhi with her husband, determined to work and save enough money to have a house in their home village. But she had two children within five years, putting an end to her hopes.

“My kids were small and there was no one to look after them. In the village we have family support, here I had no one to help me so I could not work.”

Such cases highlight a growing concern that although India’s economy is among the fastest growing in the world, women’s participation in the workforce remains much lower compared to other major economies. After plummeting to just 19% in 2018, participation has climbed back to about 30%, but the number of those who hold formal jobs is far lower.

Entrenched cultural beliefs are part of the reason why women are missing from India’s factories, companies and businesses.

“Whether you are illiterate or you are very literate, social norms in India actually almost dictate that a woman’s role is to be a homemaker, run the home, take care of the children, the elderly, or anyone who needs support in the family,” according to Poonam Muttreja, Executive Director, Population Foundation of India. “So, a lot of women go in and out of the workforce.”

That poses a major challenge for India, which has surpassed China to become the world’s most populous country. While policymakers hope that its huge working-age population of over 700 million will propel the country’s growth, experts say women need to be included in larger numbers at the workplace if they and India are to reap the benefits of development.

But besides social pressures, women face multiple challenges. A key problem is persisting unemployment in the country where economic growth is not creating enough jobs for an expanding population.

That situation is highlighted outside a garment manufacturing factory on the outskirts of New Delhi, where many women from lower-income groups wait patiently on the roadside, hoping to pick up casual work.

Many like Sangeeta Kumari are migrants who have come from villages, hoping that the city will provide opportunities that rural areas do not have. She left her two children behind so that she could work, but in the last two years has only had employment for about four months. In recent months, she has been trudging daily to the industrial hub where factories are located, hoping her luck will turn.

“I have been coming for two months daily but have not been able to get work,” said Kumari, who worries that she may have to return to her village. “Without an income it is very hard to provide for our families and our children.”

Other women, women like 18-year-old Muskan Khan, are not educated. She has not gotten a break so far, but lives on hope. “If I get a job, my life will be good. My entire future hinges on finding work,” said Khan.

A new study by the Aziz Premji University said that the recent rise in women’s participation in India’s labor force was led by self-employment and is likely driven by distress more than economic growth.

“Women have lost jobs due to a downturn in small and medium industries. That is the sector which provided more jobs to women,” according to Amarjeet Kaur, general secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress, one of India’s largest trade unions. “If you look at industrial areas, or even some other sectors, no new recruitments are happening. That is the ground reality.”

The low numbers of women in the workplace extends to political representation – female lawmakers make up just 13% of parliament. A landmark law was passed last month to reserve one third of seats in parliament and state legislatures for women, but it will not come into effect for several years.

Source : VOA News