Rising Gender Inequality Leaves a Dark Mark on India's Growth Story

There has been a consistent drop in the female-male labour participation rate, highlighting the need for policy interventions.

India’s goal of economic progress and development for all remains marred by a consistent rise in the level of gender inequality. This is evidenced by India’s poor performance across various socio-economic indicators, reflecting a low female-male labour force participation rate, high maternal-mortality rate, low women’s literacy levels and a low representation of women in parliament (at a comparative level to other countries in South Asia and the world). The government’s low social and economic investment in promoting the freedom of women in both individual and social capacity, and ensuring equitable development, remain the key factors responsible for a rising gender imbalance.

Low female-male labour participation

Rising gender inequality, studied within the domestic employment situation, negatively impacts aggregate labour productivity levels. In India, there has been a persistent fall in the female-male labour participation rate, from around 45% in 2004 to less than 34% in 2015.

On disaggregating the National Sample Survey Office employment data for rural and urban areas, we notice how the female labour force participation rate declined from 42.5% in 1987-1988 to 18% in 2011-2012 for rural women and from 25.4% in 1987-88 to 13.4% in 2011-2012 for urban women. This resulted largely from a decline in women’s participation in self-employment and casual wage work. In a recent article, I emphasised that a transition to capital-intensive technology within the manufacturing sector exacerbated the joblessness picture for both women and men (particularly the low-skilled base.).

In a rural-urban female labour force comparison, we see a worsening trend in the rural female labour force participation rate. This is evident from a fall in female self-employed levels, casual wage work in rural areas with an almost negligible presence of women in rural regular wage work. In urban areas, the overall female labour force participation rate is only slightly better than in rural areas. However, in areas of urban casual wage work, regular wage work and self-employment levels, we see a worsening situation in the overall female participation rate.

A further sector-wise breakdown on gender-wise labour force participation rates (within the organised sector) reflects a huge gender gap, particularly in sectors such as transport, manufacturing, construction and trade.

Ironically, the sectors with a relatively low gender divide in their employment levels (healthcare and education) see the lowest volume of public investment in their development at a national level. Also, this sector-wise employment data excludes the enormous informal labour force base that constitutes around 70% of the overall labour force in India.

However, as is evident from the data, in large developing countries like India, healthcare and education are labour-intensive sectors that warrant greater state (and non-state) investment, which can help improve the gender divide as well. Thus, it would be pertinent for the state to invest more in healthcare and education to initiate a targeted intervention, to increase the female labour force participation rate as well as expand the development of these sectors.

Case for social policy intervention

Tackling a deep, socially-embedded problem like gender inequality requires coordinated social policy and long-term measures. Some of the following areas remain causally associated with higher gender inequality in India at a social level and require urgent state intervention and public awareness:

Intra-household gender inequality

The arrangements for sharing economic resources and facilitating the role of women in household decision making are shaped to a great extent by established conventions or existing value systems within given communities. In the evolution of such ‘traditional’ value systems and conventions within socio-economic arrangements in India, investigating intra-household allocation and distribution of resources (like food, health care, property rights or other social provisions) often reflects the widespread presence of an anti-female perception bias within the family.

According to evidence from various studies, there remains a strong need to put the freedom of women at the forefront of any social policy within or across states in India. It is difficult to change traditionally-established social perceptions and norms in a modern social landscape that often triggers a conflict between the “preservation of tradition” and “advantages of modernity”.

However, there is a need for policy approaches to incorporate a process of participatory resolution on gender-based development needs, encouraged by resolving the rising trends in gender inequality through greater public awareness and reasoning that emphasises social opportunities for women and their freedoms, instead of choking off participatory freedom (for women) on grounds of traditional values (often reflected by religious fundamentalism, so-called Asian family values or political customs).

Investing in women’s education and facilitating higher female labour force participation

Results from studies on gender inequality reported in districts across India highlight how even the ‘survival disadvantage of women’ (a state of being discriminated against within and outside the household) compared with men seems to go down sharply, as progress is seen in the expansion of female literacy rate and higher female-male employment rate.

The impact seen in the inter-dependence of variables such as independent income opportunities for women; greater economic role outside the family; equal access to property rights and higher education qualifications positively contribute to stronger women voice in their free agency. Cross-empirical studies done in Bangladesh, Thailand and China on aspects of women empowerment and the interrelationship between these variables present strong evidence in this regard.

A substantial increase in targeted social investments on women’s education and employment training (with increased state and private sector intervention) can help not only in reducing the gender divide but also promoting the growth of labour-intensive sectors, facilitating a better developmental process.

Ensuring women’s safety

A closer look at the National Crime Records Bureau data from 2015 reflects a 2.5% increase of in sexual offences against women (covered under crimes against women) over 2014. In the category of ‘assault on women with intent to outrage her modesty’ (including offences such as sexual harassment, assault or use of criminal force against women), the year 2015 alone saw 84,222 cases being reported as against 82,235 cases registered in 2014. Cases of kidnapping and abduction of women also increased to 59,277 in 2015 from 57,311 in 2014.

Most of these statistical projections often reflect gross-underreporting of crimes against women (including other areas of crime against women like workplace harassment and domestic abuse). The problem of gross under-reporting and underestimation of gender-based crime is further compounded by failure of the local justice system in securing convictions.

Promoting public awareness on women’s freedom and ensuring their safety with an effective justice machinery is fundamental in India’s path to development. There remains a strong need for the visible hand of the state to prioritise gender inequality as a critical function of development and attach urgent importance to some of the measures warranting social investments in the free agency of women (by safeguarding their freedom in the family and beyond) apart from ensuring their overall well being (like basic freedoms, education and work opportunities).

Deepanshu Mohan is assistant professor of economics at Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Global Jindal University.