Why so few women work in India

New Delhi: With less than a quarter of women of working age in the labour force, India has far fewer women working or available for work compared to any other large economy in the world. Women’s participation in the labour force declined sharply in the country precisely when the country’s economic engine was growing the fastest: between 2004-05 and 2011-12.

Data from the two latest quinquennial employment surveys of the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) show that this was driven by a rise in the share of women who listed ‘attending to domestic duties’ as their principal activity in the year preceding the surveys.

While the rise in share of women attending to domestic duties was more pronounced among rural women, the share of women attending to domestic duties was higher in urban India in both surveys. The analysis includes all women in the age group 15-59 at the time of the survey.

Among major religious groups, Sikhs and Muslims reported the highest share of women attending to domestic duties in 2011-12. Among Hindus, the share was higher for upper castes than for other caste groups.

A big reason why women don’t work is because there is usually no one else to do the tasks that a patriarchal society assigns to them. In rural India, this often means attending to onerous tasks such as fetching water, or collecting firewood. In urban India, this may mean childcare in an environment where help is not as easy to come by as in rural India.

The force of patriarchy also manifests itself in socio-religious constraints, which restrict the mobility of women. Across major states, the share of women attending to domestic duties is broadly correlated with the share of women citing social and religious constraints as the main reason for attending to domestic duties.

In states such as Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana, women face such barriers to a greater extent compared to states such as Tamil Nadu, Karnataka or Kerala. The former states also have a higher share of women attending to domestic duties compared to the latter.

A majority of women attending to domestic duties are, however, willing to work part-time if such work were made available at their household, the survey data shows.

Tailoring work seems to be the most preferred option for such women, followed by dairy-related and poultry-related work. The share of women who cited tailoring as their most preferred option rose sharply between 2004-05 and 2011-12.

Most women who want to take up such work emphasized the need for finance and training, the data shows. Nearly half of them cited access to finance (or working capital) as one of the requirements to start part-time work, while a third cited training as a key requirement.

The data suggests that the Skill India initiative may have missed a trick by focusing largely on male candidates looking for full-time work. Given the rising demand for training among homemakers looking for part-time work, they could benefit greatly from a skilling initiative that helps them get into part-time work, or to start their own enterprises.livemint