The thrust of the predominant explanations is that women are dropping out of paid work or the labour force either because of fear of sexual violence outside the home; or fear of being stigmatised by the community that might see their work as a marker of low status, i.e. the inability of the husband, the main breadwinner, to provide for the family; or a rise in conservative attitudes that believe a woman’s place is inside the home and kitchen, and that if the woman steps outside the socially approved threshold, it would invite a backlash.
All these explanations prima facie sound persuasive and plausible. But consider this. Recorded labour force participation rate (LFPR) of Indian women, never very high, logged a dramatic decline between 2004-05 and 2011-12. It has continued to decline thereafter, albeit at a lower rate. The bulk of the decline has been in the LFPR of rural women, with the sharpest decline seen in the case of Scheduled Tribe or Adivasi women.
Research on the impact of sexual violence on female LFPRs focuses on urban areas; but urban female LFPRs, always lower than rural, have not registered a decline. My ongoing work with my PhD student Jitendra Singh shows virtually no correlation between crime statistics and female LFPRs, not for India, not internationally. Female employment outside the home in rural areas was flat between 2004 and 2017 (the period when the total rural female LFPR registered a decline), and in urban areas, there was a slight upward trend. This picture does not lend credence to the rising stigma story. National Crime Records Bureau data show a rise in assault cases (between 2011 and 2013) and rise in cruelty cases between 2004 and 2013. Rape cases increased from 2011 onwards, with slight fluctuations.
Bringing Women in Leadership Role
Subdued gender participation emanates from social-economic issues, which can be treated by bringing behavioural change. This can be changed if more women are given leadership positions.
Recognizing Invisible Work
There is a need to invest significantly in the care economy and social protection, and redefine Gross Domestic Product to make work in the home visible and counted.
Imbibing Gender Equality
There is a need to remove barriers to women’s full inclusion in the economy, including through access to the labor market, property rights and targeted credit and investments.
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