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Updated: February 19, 2013 15:34 IST

Workforce on the ebb

Aarti Dhar
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High dropout rate: Of both rural and urban working women. Photo: N. Rajesh
The Hindu High dropout rate: Of both rural and urban working women. Photo: N. Rajesh

Women’s participation in labour force has decreased in India over the last 10 years

Approximately 360 million women joined the labour force from 1991 to 2011 around the world as a result of increasing educational attainment, falling fertility rates and other shifting socio-economic drivers of participation. At the same time, women have also taken up work in response to rising living costs and shocks that have hit the household incomes.

In a paper entitled ‘Women’s Labour Force Participation in India and South Asia: Have Women Benefitted from an era of Growth and Globalisation’, Sher Verick, senior employment specialist at International Labour Organisation, says the trends in the female labour force participation rate in South Asia reveal a number of puzzles. Most notable is the falling engagement of women in the Indian labour force which occurred despite strong economic growth.

In India, the participation rate of rural women decreased from 33 per cent in 2004-05 to 26.5 per cent in 2009-10, while the rate for urban women dropped from 17.8 per cent to 14.6 per cent over the same period. Consequently, there were 21.3 million fewer women working in India in 2009-10 than five years earlier. 

In comparison to India, women have increased their participation in Bangladesh, which is due to the growth of the readymade garment sector and an increase in rural female employment. The rate has also increased in Pakistan, albeit from a very low starting point, while participation has remained relatively stable in Sri Lanka, though the latter has witnessed robust economic growth in recent years, the paper says.

The decision of and ability for women to participate in the labour force is the outcome of various economic and social factors that interact in a complex fashion at both the household and macro level. Based on global evidence, some of the most important drivers include educational attainment, fertility rates and the age of marriage, economic growth and urbanisation. In addition to these issues, social norms determining the role of women in the public domain continue to affect outcomes in the region.  

In India’s case, much of the discussion on the falling trends has focussed on rising educational enrolment of young women, lack of employment opportunities, effects of household income on participation and measurement.  

Over the last decade, India has made considerable progress in increasing access to education for girls. Nonetheless, the nature of economic growth in the country has meant that jobs were not created in large numbers in sectors that could really absorb women, especially those in the rural areas. Despite inadequate job creation, household incomes did rise, which potentially reduced women’s participation, especially in subsidiary activities. Finally, women’s work tends to be under-reported and thus, mis-measurement may not only affect the level but also the trend in the participation rate, the paper suggest.  

The participation of women in the labour force varies considerably across developing countries and emerging economies, far more than in the case of men. In the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, less than one-third of women of working age participate, while the proportion reaches around two-thirds in East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. 

In another discussion paper by K.P. Kannan and G. Raveendran on ‘Counting and Profiling the Missing Labour Force’, the authors suggest that in 2009-10, labour force in India declined by 51.65 million, 45 per cent of which was due to additional enrolment for education. “For men, it is all due to education. For women, only 27 per cent could be accounted for due to additional enrolment for education. Of the remaining women, 83 per cent belong to rural areas.” 

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