An exclusive focus on educating women or financial inclusiveness is unlikely to be effective in making women economically more empowered

The discourse on economic development has become increasingly gendered, in recognition of both the ethical construct of equality between men and women and the realization that women’s empowerment generates positive externalities.

Despite the pronounced gendered approach to policy initiatives recently in India, the country slipped 21 places between 2016 and 2017 in The Global Gender Gap Report released by the World Economic Forum. Within the sub-indices, India’s low rank on gender parity in labour force participation (LFP) fell further, by four points, to 139 (among 144 countries).

The National Sample Survey shows that among working-age women who are currently not enrolled in educational institutes, LFP stood at 37% in 2011, registering a 10% fall over 20 years. The explanations for this decline have circled around rising incomes, the changing education structure and the decline in number of agricultural jobs.What is missing from this discourse is the focus on one specific demographic group—married women.

The observed decline in female LFP has been the largest and most significant for rural married women. In urban areas, while there has been no decline in participation by married women over time, the figure has been stagnating. On the other hand, there has been no fall in the employment rate for men in the same demographic group.

A few facts underline this phenomenon. In 2011, around 50% of unmarried women in the 15-60 age bracket were in the labour force, while the proportion for married women was 20%. There has been a rise in labour force participation rates among urban unmarried women between 1999-2011, from 37% to 50%, but, for married women, it has been stagnant for 30 years. For married and unmarried men, the participation rates are high (around 95%) and constant over time.

With marriage almost being universal in India, the different trajectories that single and married women have followed clearly hint at marriage and consequent childcare being one of the important barriers in access to employment for women. Juxtaposed against a rapid increase in the number of years women get an education, an increase in age for marriage and a reduction in fertility levels, these trends seem contradictory to the trend of labour force participation seen in India.

The latest figures from the National Family Health Survey show that the average age at first marriage in India is 18 for rural and 19.4 for urban women. Age at first birth is 20 for rural, and 21 for urban, women. While the average years of education acquired by a girl who is 15-19 years is low (8.5 and 10 in rural and urban India, respectively), even for a girl with graduate or higher education, the mean age at first marriage is 23 years and mean age at first birth is 24 years.

These numbers lay bare two realities that young girls face in the country. First, there is a small window of opportunity to be economically active after completion of education and before marriage. Second, with universal marriage and expected child-bearing, there is little space between marriage and first child. While the number of children born to a woman has come down (two in urban areas and 2.5 in rural areas in 2015), this may not necessarily increase women’s labour force attachment if households place greater importance on the quality of their progeny.

Are women more likely to (re)enter the labour force once the children have grown up? A look at participation numbers at the cohort level shows that there is an increase in participation proportion from 17% in the early 20s to 22% in the early 30s. Even for women with graduate and higher level of education, it increases from approximately 13% in the early 20s to 28% in the early 30s. Childcare is clearly a constraint for married women and continues to remain a roadblock from the employment perspective.

Hence, an exclusive focus on educating and skilling women or financial inclusiveness is unlikely to be effective in making women economically more empowered unless policy measures address the constraints of childcare faced by married women. With patriarchal norms underlying the traditional role of men and women in Indian households and non-marketization of childcare, coupled with a shift towards nuclear families, the burden of domestic work lies on women. At the same time, the absence of flexible work hours and easier physical access to work have been compounded by the persistent gender gap in wages.

Adoption of technologies that potentially reduce the burden of housework—for instance, the Ujjwala programme’s subsidization of cooking gas, which can induce a shift towards cleaner fuel that also reduces cooking time–is one small but important step in the right direction. Under the Maternity Benefit Amendment Act (2016), provision of a crèche facility has become mandatory for establishments employing at least 50 individuals. But the Rajiv Gandhi National Crèche Scheme for the Children of Working Mothers, started by the government for low-income families, has been marred by poor infrastructure and limited benefits due to its flawed design.

There is no silver bullet that works best in empowering women economically in our country. But the heart of the matter is that to get more women to work, we have to get them out of their homes.

Farzana Afridi and Kanika Mahajan are, respectively, teachers at the Indian Statistical Institute and Ashoka University.