A Major Economic Challenge

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By Ketrin Agustine

A Major Economic Challenge

India has one of the world’s lowest rates of formal employment for women.

There is one change, so simple it can be described in just six words, that could lift millions of people out of poverty and expand the world’s fifth-largest economy: Get more Indian women paid jobs.

In many other countries, female labor-force participation has propelled economic growth. But India has one of the world’s lowest rates of formal employment for women. The percentage of women doing paid work has dropped sharply in recent years. Last year, 24 percent had a paid job, down from 29 percent in 2010. In China, by comparison, that rate is about 60 percent.

“Every month, I read a statistic somewhere about how our G.D.P. is losing out because we don’t have ‘productive workers’ in the work force, and by that they mean women,” said Shrayana Bhattacharya, an economist at the World Bank.

But changing that is easier said than done.

One problem is India’s “jobless growth”: Although the country has some big companies, especially in technology, they are clustered in a few large cities. Much of the country’s recent economic growth has been concentrated in small, family-owned firms that employ few outsiders.

That has had pronounced effects for women because it reinforces the patriarchal norms that keep them at home.

In societies like India’s that place a high premium on family “honor” — which depends on female members’ reputations for chastity — letting an unmarried daughter work outside the home can seem risky because unsupervised contact with men could jeopardize her reputation.

The result is what Alice Evans, a lecturer at King’s College London, calls the “patrilineal trap”: Even many families that would like their daughters to have jobs are afraid of the reputational cost of being the first to try.

In many countries, Evans said, the patrilineal trap breaks when the economy creates enough well-paying, reliable jobs to make paid work extremely attractive. As more young women move to cities for jobs, the norms shift, and letting a daughter work no longer seems as risky. That’s what has started to happen in Bangladesh, for instance.

But in India, the trap is still too powerful for most to escape. That can have catastrophic consequences. Without a way to earn a living, many women cannot escape violent marriages. Marital rape is not criminalized in India, and thousands of women are killed each year by their husbands or in-laws.

If you were going to bet on a young woman to make it out of the trap, you might think Arti Kumari, the academic superstar of her village in Bihar, a rural state on the border with Nepal, would be a good one to back. When she was growing up, her friends and relatives used superlatives to describe her: the smartest, the strongest, the most determined.

While other girls in her village married in their late teens, Arti finished high school and enrolled in college. But there were few jobs near her home. And traveling to another city for work seemed too precarious: She and her family worried that she might be left with nothing if she took the financial and reputational risks of moving but then couldn’t land a good job or was fired.

Only federal government jobs, which effectively offer lifetime tenure in India, seemed to offer enough security to counterbalance the risks. Arti set her sights on winning one, but many other young people had the same idea. Since 2014, there has been an average of only three government jobs for every thousand young Indians pursuing one.

Arti took exam after exam, but she didn’t make the cut.

Meanwhile, the pressures of the trap grew stronger. Her family insisted on an arranged marriage. Her future mother-in-law, she knew, would expect her to stay home and care for the household.

But Arti pushed back. She negotiated delays to the wedding so she could study for more exams. Then, after the string of disappointments continued, she secured her fiancé’s promise to let her keep trying for a job after marriage.

When her wedding day dawned, Arti remained unemployed but determined.

“I want to get the job as soon as possible, so that I can be independent and stand on my own feet,” she said. “I won’t have to be dependent on my husband.”

For more: You can read India’s Daughters, a continuing series on this subject. And to receive the series’s final chapter and find out how Arti’s story ends, sign up for the Interpreter newsletter.

Israel-Hamas War

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  • Israeli also released videos that it said showed two hostages being taken inside the hospital on Oct. 7, the day of Hamas’s major attack.

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Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter in 1976.Mikki Ansin/Getty Images
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  • “White House aides consider her the most influential First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt,” The Times wrote in 1978. She attended cabinet meetings and security briefings.

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  • At a hearing today, Trump’s lawyers will challenge a gag order placed on him in his federal election case.

  • President Biden turns 81 today. Another birthday may offer a reminder of his age to an already skeptical electorate, writes Peter Baker.


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  • Kyle Vogt, the chief executive of the driverless carmaker Cruise, resigned. The company pulled its autonomous cars off the road last month after a series of problems.

New York

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Javier Milei, Argentina’s president-elect.Cristina Sille/Reuters
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New housing: In New York City’s financial district, families are filling empty offices.

Metropolitan Diary: Good shoes, good deed.

Lives Lived: Karel Schwarzenberg was a Czech prince who twice served as his country’s foreign minister, and quietly subverted aristocratic expectations. He died at 85.

Sunday Night Football: The Denver Broncos extended their winning streak with a comeback to beat the Minnesota Vikings, 21-20.

Around the N.F.L.: The Detroit Lions beat the Chicago Bears and improved their record to 8-2. And the San Francisco 49ers’ Brock Purdy had a perfect quarterback rating in his victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Here are takeaways.

M.L.B.: The Phillies re-signed the pitcher Aaron Nola in a seven-year, $172 million contract, taking a top pitcher off the free-agent market early.

U.N.C.: The North Carolina field hockey team won its second straight national title, this one with a 23-year-old first-time head coach who played on the team last year.

Travis Kelce and Jason Kelce.Wave Sports + Entertainment

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