Patriarchal Shackles That Refuse to Go Away: The Peculiar Case of Decreasing Labour Force Participation Rate for Women in India


A Peculiar Pattern 

A very peculiar pattern of women’s engagement in the public sphere is emerging in India. Women’s labour force participation and engagement in secured jobs are steadily reducing. This is even though over last few decades; women have managed to secure a certain social capital for themselves defying patriarchal bondage at every level. While social capital usually makes a positive contribution to one’s economic and social status, the reverse seems to be happening in India in the case of women. It is a matter of special concern for all those who intend to build an egalitarian society that does not restrict women from exploring various arenas of life. 

The recently released Oxfam report deals with discrimination in the labour market, impact of the pandemic on different social groups, caste discrimination in the agricultural credit market, and differentials in patient care. The study looks at different forms of discrimination with data from various sources, including the NSS and Periodic Labour Force Survey issued by the Government of India, broadly from 2004-05 to 2019-20. Among the multiple aspects of discrimination covered by the study, the present article will look at discrimination based on caste, religion, and gender in the labour market. We will specifically focus on employment and wages in rural and urban areas.  

Let us first have a look at the question of engagement in regular jobs in urban areas. The study mentions that during 2019-20, 37.5% of the Scheduled Caste (SC) /Scheduled Tribe (ST) working age population were engaged in regular or salaried employment, as compared to 41.3% of the non-SC/ST population. This means there is a difference of 3.8% among SC/ST and non-SC/ST population in employment in regular/salaried job, if one looks at percentage of working age population being engaged in regular jobs. The data for the same period shows that there is a 7.8% difference between Muslim and non-Muslim populations – the non-Muslim populations having the higher percentage of people who are engaged in regular jobs. 

The most glaring is the difference between men and women for the same period. There is a difference of 41% between men and women in terms of percentage of population engaged in salaried employment during 2019-20. 

Recent Findings in the India Discrimination Report, 2022

In the Oxfam study, the reason behind the difference in employment as well as wage difference has been understood from the perspective of difference in endowment and discrimination. While difference in endowment majorly explains the reason for the difference in employment when caste and religious categories are concerned, the huge gender gap in employment is majorly explained by discrimination. 

If endowment, as understood in the study, is a proxy for social capital, the study reveals that achievement of social capital by women have little impact on their engagement in salaried jobs. The Oxfam study also reveals that the gender gap in engagement in salaried employment does not vary much across caste and religious categories. 

In rural areas, the deprivation in the level of engagement in regular jobs for SCs/STs as well as women is more than in urban areas. In rural areas as well, the social capital that a woman acquires seems to have little bearing in her engagement in regular jobs. Moreover, in rural areas, with the head of the household usually having a higher level of education than the women, the possibility of women of that family being engaged in regular job is lesser. This shows the extent of patriarchal norms and prejudice regarding women’s engagement in regular jobs, even in today’s India. 

Through an overall analysis of regular jobs and self-employment, it is emphasized again in the report that social capital achieved by women has little impact on her income when compared to men, while the impact of social capital achieved by SC/ST and Muslim population has larger significance for their earning/income. 

Reduced Labour Force Participation for Women: Unique and Paradoxical

Getting educated and seeking suitable employment are the most important ways of gaining social mobility in pursuit of a dignified life. When viewed through the lens of gender, the trends in India since early 2000s raises peculiar questions about education, employment, and social mobility. 

Labour Force Participation Rate (Henceforth LFPR) is a very important indicator as it reflects the number of people seeking jobs among the working age population. The willingness among women to participate in the workforce is a very important marker of social change, given that women have historically been confined inside the four walls of their homes.

In India, unfortunately, since early 2000s, the LFPR for women has been decreasing. An ILO study of 2014 shows that women’s LFPR was 34.1% in 1999-2000. This had reduced to 27.2% in 2011-12. This unfortunate trend, however, is not visible in India’s neighboring countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan, where the rate has been increasing. 

Studies have shown that despite considerable achievement by women in reducing the gender gap in levels of education attained from 2004-05 to 2017-18, gender gap in LFPR has increased during the same period.

Forbidden to Cross the Four Walls of Home, To Earn and be Independent

The above-mentioned trends indicate something very important; something that deserves special attention. Generations of women have fought battles, collective and individual, to access the education that has been denied to them due to patriarchal social norms. After years of struggle, when they have finally pushed back the gender gap in attaining certain social capital, including education, they remain shackled. 

Gender gap in the labour force participation rate is nearly uniform across caste and religious categories, and it refuses to disappear despite a significant accumulation of social capital by women. So strong are the patriarchal norms of gendered division of work, so rigid are the social rituals that seek to keep women bounded to their homes, that even those women who have achieved some material gains struggle to break out of these barriers. 

While the struggle to ensure more participation of women in all levels and streams of education must continue, forces of social change must reckon with the fact that the struggle must be extended to the workplaces. Democratic forces must make sure that women are not stopped from going out of their homes for work despite possessing all the necessary capabilities to get dignified jobs. 

It is time that we pressurize the government to recognize this fact and to incentivize women to get out of the four walls of the house and enter the work force. An India of tomorrow can only be built when we have done away with age old norms that are meant for imprisoning women in domestic sphere alone.