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According to data compiled by the World Bank, between 2010 and 2020, the number of working women in India has declined from 26% to 19%. As infections rose, a bad situation got worse: Mumbai economists estimate that female employment will decline by 2022.
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Closing the employment gap between men and women, which stands at 58 percentage points, could expand India’s GDP by almost a third by 2050. This equates to nearly $6 trillion in constant US dollars, according to a recent analysis by Bloomberg Economics.
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For years, Sanctuary Bunia struggled to meet the demands of her parents. I wanted to travel and earn money, not be a housewife.
So, in 2019, Bunia left her isolated village in eastern India. He took a train hundreds of kilometers south of Bangalore and found work in a garment factory earning $120 a month. He opened the work. «I’ve run away,» he said. «It’s the only way I can go.»
A life of financial freedom came to an abrupt end with the arrival of Covid-19. In 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown to prevent infections, closing almost all businesses. Within weeks, more than 100 million Indians lost their jobs, including Bunya, who was forced to return to his village and never found another steady job.
As the world emerges from the pandemic, economists warn of a troubling data point: Failure to restore jobs for women, who are less likely than men to return to the workforce, could to billions of dollars to prevent global economic growth. The prognosis is particularly bleak in developing countries like India, where female labor force participation has fallen so low that it is now in the same league as war-torn Yemen.
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This week’s episode of the Paycheck podcast explores how the coronavirus has accelerated an already worrying trend in the world’s second most populous country. According to data compiled by the World Bank, between 2010 and 2020, the number of working women in India has declined from 26% to 19%. As infections rose, a bad situation got worse: Mumbai economists estimate that female employment will decline by 2022.
«In India, female labor force participation has declined to the point where it is now in the same league as war-torn Yemen.»
This is devastating news for India’s economy, which was off to a slow start before the outbreak. Modi has prioritized job creation, pushing the country to strive for a golden age of growth. But his administration has made little progress in improving opportunities for working women. This is especially true in rural areas, where two-thirds of India’s 1.3 billion people live, conservatives rule and jobs have been evaporating for years. Despite the country’s rapid economic development, women have struggled to move to work in urban centers.
Closing the employment gap between men and women, which stands at 58 percentage points, could expand India’s GDP by almost a third by 2050. This equates to nearly $6 trillion in constant US dollars, according to a recent analysis by Bloomberg Economics. Doing nothing threatens to sideline the country in its quest to become a competitive producer for global markets. Although women in India make up 48% of the population, they contribute only about 17% of GDP compared to 40% in China.
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India is a great example of a global phenomenon. Across the world, women were more likely than men to lose their jobs during the pandemic and their recovery was slower. According to Bloomberg Economics, policy changes that address the gender gap and increase the number of women in the workforce (better access to education, childcare or flexible work arrangements, for example) will help add about 20 trillions of dollars in world GDP.
For workers like 23-year-old Bonia, the epidemic has had dire consequences. After losing her job, she struggled to make ends meet in Bangalore and eventually returned to her remote village of Pathrapalli in the state of Odisha. Bunya doesn’t think he’ll get another chance to leave. He no longer earns a steady income, but his family is worried about his safety living in a faraway city.
«If I run away again, my mother will curse me,» Bunia said. Bunya said. «Now, there is nothing left. My account is empty and there is little work in the village.»
The story is heard all over India. During the pandemic, Rosa Ibrahim, an economics professor at Azam Premji University in Bangalore, followed more than 20,000 people as they navigated the job market. It found that after the first lockdown, women were several times more likely than men to lose their jobs and were much less likely to regain employment after the restrictions were lifted.
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Increased household responsibilities, lack of after-school childcare options and increased marriages, which often limit women’s independence in India, help explain the disparity in outcomes .
«When men are faced with such a large economic shock, they have the option to bounce back,» Abraham said. «They can go into different types of work. But for women, there’s no going back. They can’t negotiate the labor market as effectively as men.
Dreams of freedom or well-paid office jobs were replaced by what she called «crisis leadership jobs,» essentially unpaid work on the family farm or cleaning. Before the pandemic, Indian women were already doing about 10 times more care work than men, about three times the global average.
«It is unfortunate that the decision to work is often not in the hands of the woman herself,» Ibrahim said.
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The decline in labor force participation is partly related to culture. As Indians became wealthy, families who could afford to keep women in the home did so, thinking it gave them social status. On the other hand, those in the lower rungs of society are still seen as potential earners. But they do casual or unpaid work outside the formal economy. In official statistics, their work is not counted.
In many villages, patriarchal values remain entrenched and stigma against girls persists. Although illegal, sex-selective abortions are still common. Akina Hansraj, senior program director at the Akshara Center, a Mumbai-based organization that advocates for gender equality, said Indian men often think that «if their wives contribute to the family income, that’s not very manly.»
«They want to create this monopoly,» Hansraj said. «People believe that if women are educated, they will work and be financially independent and then they will not obey or respect the family.»
Weddings are an important event in India, where most marriages are still arranged. After the first lockdown in 2020, the country’s leading women’s websites reported an increase in new registrations. In some states, marriages between children and adults, many of which are illegal under Indian law, have increased by 80 percent, according to government data.
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Madhu Sharma, a Hindi teacher with the Purda Pardi Educational Society at a girls’ school in the northern city of Anupshahr, said she can intervene in three child marriages a year. During the pandemic, when the campus was closed, the number increased three to four times.
«Before Covid, the kids were always in contact with their teachers and me,» he said. «Post-Covid, when children have to stay at home, staying in touch with them has become a big challenge.»
Economic considerations often tip the scales in favor of marriage. Social distancing and warnings against large gatherings mean parents can hold smaller, less expensive ceremonies at home, rather than the multi-day celebrations that are common even in the poorest pockets of society. During the worst times of the epidemic, some families married off daughters because they could not afford to feed another mouth.
For Sharma’s students, getting married before finishing school can change the course of their lives. In India, when a woman marries, she usually moves in with her husband and in-laws. This can make it difficult to leave remote villages where control of options is common and job opportunities are few.
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“We try to educate our students,” Sharma said. «We tell them that if they learn, they will be in a better place. If they don’t, we tell them what their position will be. ‘The rest is up to you,’ we tell them.» You live the life. you want to do.»
In 2015, Modi launched a campaign called «Betti Bachau, Betti Educa», which roughly translates to «Save our daughters, educate our daughters». It is an initiative aimed at keeping girls in school and reducing sex-selective abortion. The government has also made efforts to eradicate child marriage. Last year, the Modi administration approved a proposal to raise the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21, which is what it is for men.
But in many towns, national laws are much more open. Local customs are still established and enforced by local panchayats, essentially a body of elders, almost all men. And while Modi’s campaign to educate India
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