Female labor | India Inc: How India Inc can help change social norms that prevent women from working

Horror of horrors, Saudi women now have a much higher labor force participation rate than Indian women. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has implemented a series of reforms aimed at reducing gender discrimination, which has led to a large number of women, in all age groups, entering the labor force. Published data shows that the participation of Saudi women in the labor market has increased from 18% in 2016 to 33% in 2020.

Meanwhile, in India, women’s participation in the labor market is plummeting. According to government data, it has fallen from 31% in 2012 to 21% in 2021. Other data sources, such as the Center for Indian Economic Monitoring (CMIE), give a much lower statistic of 11 to 12%.

Alas, no one is losing sleep over the low and declining labor force participation rate of Indian women. India has not experienced reforms on this front similar to those of Saudi Arabia. Women’s employment is not included in the Indian government’s aatmanirbharta agenda, nor in transforming India into a $5 trillion economy, nor in earlier slogans such as India Shining.

It is tempting to conclude from these data that gender norms are deteriorating and that years of very strong economic growth have not opened up economic opportunities for Indian women. During recent field visits, I found that the reality was more complicated due to a large number of factors. These factors had less to do with the market than with cultural and societal norms that do not pride themselves on female employment and the interaction of these norms with caste divisions and increasing levels of seasonal migration.

Two months ago I visited villages in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana and asked several women’s groups why female participation in the labor market is low and declining in India rural. In a Dalit village in Badhoi district in eastern UP, a women’s group cited sexual harassment by upper-caste men as the main cause of women’s withdrawal from the labor force. “Sexual harassment was common and accepted by our ancestors. No more. We refuse to work for them, one woman said angrily. Clearly, for this group, withdrawal from the workforce has helped end the generational exploitation and harassment of upper-caste men.

Veiled Attack

Another woman – holding a smartphone and hiding her face in her ghoonghat – dismissed my concerns with the following response: “There is a lot of work at home”. We don’t have time to go to work. To which the women around her retorted: “Her husband sends her enough from town that she doesn’t need to work. The woman in the ghoonghat simply smiled.

An activist, who came from Puna, an important destination for UP migrant workers, explained things to me. When the whole family migrates, women, men and their children, they all work in the factories of the city. But if only the male member of the family migrates, the women left behind prefer to leave the labor market. Perhaps they feel more insecure and vulnerable without their husbands. Here too, the withdrawal of women suggests an escape from exploitation.

Another villager added that the biradari (community) does not respect households where women work outside. People are reluctant to marry off their sons or daughters to families where the women go to work. When asked if they would like their daughters to go to school or college, most people said yes. But what is the use of such an education, if they are not going to work? Education improves the possibility of marriage, is the answer. No one wants to marry off their sons to illiterate daughters.

In a village in the district of Mirzapur, I met a group of young girls, aged between 16 and 25, who had been in contact with an NGO and aspired to be independent. One girl in the group said, “You have no idea how much pressure we are under from our families. We have to fight with our families to attend meetings like this and discuss our future work prospects. Another added: “We are under constant pressure to get married. Once married, we are in a hurry to have children. If there are no children within a year of marriage, parents and in-laws begin to worry that something is wrong with the marriage.

A girl from the group said, “Time is running out for us. If we don’t get a job within a certain time, our parents will marry us off and that would be the end of our career. These young girls did not fear discrimination in the workplace. They faced a much bigger challenge – age-old cultural norms that don’t approve of working women.

Minions with reviews

My travels then took me to a village in Haryana, where I met a group of about 25 girls who worked as krishi sathis (village companions) in a pesticide company training farmers in new technologies. Their ages, like the Mirzapur girls, ranged from 18 to 25. Many worked while attending college part-time. Many were married and four of them earned more than their husbands. “It’s really nice when my father-in-law asks me for advice on important household decisions, such as major purchases and future investments,” one said. His mother and stepmother weren’t given as much respect.

The pesticide company hired only women for this job. Such gender sensitivity is rare. Companies can play a role in changing social norms. But it will take a long time.

About Marjorie C. Hudson

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