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.
Risk vs. reward
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.
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