As India’s Economy Changes, Where do Women Fit In?

The Global Gender Gap Index rates India 108 out of 149 countries for 2018. Some reports on India’s economic landscape for women are optimistic but several others point out the challenges that remain. While Indians look to newly reelected Narendra Modi to help the country regain its economic footing, the private sector must also work toward increased women’s economic empowerment.

For January – March 2018-2019, India experienced a five-year low in economic growth, reporting a GDP of 5.8%.  The country also experienced a 6.1% unemployment rate for 2018-2019, the highest India has experienced in the past 45 years. Modi’s landslide reelection to prime minister suggests the Indian population believes Modi can revert this recent trend, despite the leader’s mixed economic record over the past five years. Many articles covering India’s economic condition highlight the country’s loss of its “world’s fastest growing major economy” title to China, which reported 6.4% growth in the same first quarter. As the media focuses on comparisons to China and predictions of Modi’s economic policy, less reporting focuses specifically on the economic conditions of Indian women. Women and girls are most hurt by India’s slowing economy and inequality and so deserve increased attention. If India wishes to revert these recent economic trends, it may do well to focus on economically empowering Indian women.

Across Asia, female labor participation rates vary widely, with India’s rate trailing China’s rate. In both countries, however, female employment appears to be worsening. From 2005 to 2018, China’s high female labor participation rate dropped from 67% to 61%, while India’s already low rate dropped from 35% to 26%.

To address these worsening female employment rates, global organizations have found that women’s economic empowerment can increase a country’s growth and prosperity. Economically empowering women not only supports women but also children and entire communities. Women are shown to invest their earning in their children’s education, nutrition, and healthcare, which can affect the economic outlook of an entire nation. Additionally, when women are not encouraged to participate in a country’s economy, said country loses out on half of its profit potential. The World Bank reports that India’s 1994 to 2012 reduction in poverty, which aided 133 million Indians, could have been even more impressive if women could have participated in the work force.

Some reports show that an increasing number of Indian women are becoming successful entrepreneurs, participating in paid labor, leveraging social media as an economic tool, and experiencing financial independence. These reports indicate that more Indian girls are staying in school longer, which would aid in future job prospects.

However, other reports show that signs of women’s economic improvement disproportionally aid India’s upper strata. Girls in upper strata Indian families typically receive at least primary education, while girls in rural India and in the lower strata will typically receive no education. Even girls who do make it into school may later get pulled out due to lack of money or insufficient menstrual hygiene resources within schools. Indian women also face a range of other societal barriers such as their role as primary provider of unpaid domestic care, a lack of transportation for work or school, difficulty obtaining loans, and a lack of sexual harassment protection in the workplace.

Empowering more Indian women to participate in the economy cannot be accomplished by government efforts alone. In order to foster a society that affords equal opportunities to women as to men, sustainable and systematic solutions must be enacted. In a study put out by the University of Oxford, Linda Scott posits that private businesses must be allies in this effort, as businesses bring inimitable strengths to women’s empowerment. Businesses can be more effective than governments in countries with distinct religious or geo-political division. Scott argues that only the private sector can accomplish certain goals related to “hiring, investment, supply chain management, and other basic economic function.”

Businesses are not only uniquely primed to tackle certain women’s economic empowerment in India, but they can also directly profit from these efforts. While the case is often made that businesses and countries will benefit from an increased female workforce from a macro-economic perspective, individual companies can experience increased profits directly. For example, improving women’s education on agricultural technologies can improve the quality and quantity in a supply chain. Studies have also shown that increasing women in managerial roles can decrease risk and increase innovation, leading to higher profitability.

While India may look to Modi to bring about economic improvements, in the case of women’s economic empowerment, government cannot be solely relied upon. A variety of institutional obstacles may make it more difficult for Indian children to obtain an education and Indian women to obtain paid work. Accomplishing economic improvements for women in India will require sustainable, long-term solutions by a variety of sectors. The private sector can and should focus on this goal as businesses operate in India. In a country with a population of approximately 1.37 billion people, India’s women cannot be ignored by businesses. Rather, international businesses operating in India should focus on the country’s women to increase profits and enact social good.

Emily Nuttli