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Brave women’s rights activists and giggly teenagers will celebrate March 8 as the International Women’s Day in India. The average woman in the house (can she dare to be out in the street?) will find little to celebrate, amidst reports of sexual assault, judges who pontificate on marriage as penance for rape and Covid-induced job losses and paycuts more severe on women than on men. Labour force participation rate, the ratio of those of working age, above 15 and less than 65, who are either working or searching for work, to the total population has been falling in India for both men and women.
Between 1990 and 2019, says the World Bank, male LFPR fell from 84% to 76%, that for women fell from 30% to 21%, after rising to almost 32% in 2004-05. India’s female LFPR is the worst in South Asia, even Pakistan and Afghanistan faring better, participation rising in these countries over the years. India’s median age has been falling, and more young people, both men and women, stay on longer in education and training. That is one reason for LFPR to fall. It is also plausible that growing informalization of work makes lots of work invisible to the official eye, particularly in the case of women. That, too, would depress LFPR for women. But there is little doubt that cultural mores are more to blame than any other factor: the woman’s normative place is the home and deviation from that is deemed a sign of either strained economics or a stained character. This oppressive culture has to change. India shortchanges itself on its vaunted demographic dividend when it keeps half the potential workforce repressed in domesticity.
If women, too, enter the workforce, will they compete with men for the same set of jobs and push wages down, or will they create new work and add to the total output? The experience of other countries suggests that the net effect of more women working is to raise the overall level of output and income, benefitting everyone. In India, too, the culture must change, so that women can realise their potential, and the nation, its.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Economic Times.