Six days a week at 8 am, Renu Jaikishen (19) folds her dupatta into place and waves goodbye to her older sister as she heads off to work in a garment unit at the edge of Seelampur. “Go, go, have fun,” her sister calls out mischievously behind her one Saturday morning. “By next year you will be rolling rotis next to me.”
In a country with globally low levels of female workforce participation (women either working or looking for work), urban areas have lower still numbers and Delhi the lowest of them all, as the 2011-12 employment data from the National Sample Survey office (NSSO) showed. Now new research shows that one of the key factors associated with low participation for women in urban areas is what Renu’s sister was alluding to – marriage.
Economists Steven Kapsos, Andrea Silberman and Evangelia Bourmpoula of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) analysed nearly 20 years of NSSO data on employment to isolate the relationships between a range of individual, household and regional characteristics and the likelihood of a woman entering the workforce. They found that being married was strongly associated with not being in the workforce in urban areas.
This is a finding that has been confirmed in micro studies too. In a sample survey of Delhi households in 2006, economist Ratna Sudarshan, national fellow at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, and Shrayana Bhattacharya of the Institute for Social Studies Trust found that the decision to work outside the house was usually a household decision, and found that marriage significantly altered the likelihood of a woman working – both in terms of women joining and leaving the workforce. “While the birth of a child is usually associated with women dropping out of the workforce in the West, in India marriage is one of the most important factors,” Prof. Sudarshan told The Hindu.
Much the same is the situation in Renu’s community in north-east Delhi. She and her sister (who did not want her name published) both worked in a garment finishing unit near their home in Seelampur from 2010 onwards. In 2011, her sister got married and had to quit her job. By 2012, she had a child and was back in her parents’ home after marital disputes. “Until I get married I can work. After that it will depend on him,” she said of her hypothetical husband.
In rural areas in the ILO study, marriage was associated with a greater likelihood to work when the researchers added in those domestic economic activities not counted as paid work by the NSSO. “This may reflect a tendency for married women to take on a traditional domestic role that often includes economic activities that are not considered to be employment based on the [NSSO] definition. In contrast, in urban areas, the effect of marriage is negative for both [definitions]”, Mr. Kapsos explained in an email to The Hindu.
Urban women with a primary or secondary education were also less likely to be in the workforce than women at the two ends of the education spectrum - illiterate women and those with a tertiary education. Other research has found that women in urban areas with tertiary education participate in the labour market because they are able to find appealing employment and earnings opportunities while women with less education participate because of economic difficulties, Mr. Kapsos and his colleagues note. “Our results are similar. We find that only well-educated women have a higher probability to participate in the labour market than women with no education in urban areas in India. Thus, economic development in urban areas creates opportunities for highly educated women,” they say.
Women belonging to the middle or top income brackets were less likely to work than those in the poorest classes. Other characteristics which decreased the likelihood of workforce participation for urban women included the presence of a child in the household, the household being large in size and the household’s primary source of income being salaried work as opposed to self-employment.
Such social norms – like those associated with marriage, child care and domestic responsibilities – have relegated women into slow-growing areas of the economy like agriculture, teaching and crafts, the researchers found. “[F]emale employment in India could have grown by an additional 20.7 million between 1994 and 2010 in the absence of occupational segregation, far exceeding the actual female employment growth of 8.7 million,” they write. Between 1994 and 2010, just a third of the decline in female workforce participation was on account of growing household incomes, while two-thirds could be explained by the simple lack of job opportunities for them, they estimated.