As India’s population soars above all, fewer women have jobs

April 10, 2023  -MUMBAI, India (AP) — Sheela Singh cried the day she handed in her resignation.

For 16 years, she had been a social worker in Mumbai, India’s frenetic financial capital, and she loved the work. But her family kept telling her she needed to stay at home to take care of her two children. She resisted the pressure for years, but when she found out her daughter was skipping school when she was at work, it felt like she didn’t have a choice.

“Everyone used to tell me my kids were neglected … it made me feel really bad,” Singh, 39, said.

When she resigned in 2020, Singh was earning more money than her husband, an auto-rickshaw driver whose earnings fluctuated day to day. But nobody suggested he quit.

“His friends used to taunt him that he was living off my salary,” Singh said. “I thought that clearly there was no value in me working so what’s the use?”

Sheela Singh, 39, inside her house in a shanty area in Mumbai, India. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)

India is on the cusp of surpassing China to become the world’s most populous country, and its economy is among the fastest-growing in the world. But the number of Indian women in the workforce, already among the 20 lowest in the world, has been shrinking for years.

It’s not only a problem for women like Singh, but a growing challenge for India’s own economic ambitions if its estimated 670 million women are left behind as its population expands. The hope is that India’s fast-growing working-age population will propel its growth for years to come. Yet experts worry this could just as easily become a demographic liability if India fails to ensure its rising population, especially its women, are employed.

Without Singh’s income, her family can no longer afford to live in Mumbai, one of Asia’s most expensive cities, and she’s now preparing to move back to her village to save money. “But there are no jobs there,” she sighed.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of an ongoing series exploring what it means for the 1.4 billion inhabitants of India to live in what will be the world’s most populated country. ___

The women’s employment rate peaked at 35% in 2004 and fell to around 25% in 2022, according to calculations based off official data, said Rosa Abraham, an economist at Azim Premji University. But official figures count as employed people who report as little as one hour of work outside the home in the previous week.

India is on the cusp of surpassing China to become the world’s most populous country, and its economy is among the fastest-growing in the world. (April 10)
A national jobs crisis is one reason for the gap, experts say, but entrenched cultural beliefs that see women as the primary caregivers and stigmatize them working outside the home, as in Singh’s case, is another.

The Center for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE), which uses a more restrictive definition of employment, found that only 10% of working age Indian women in 2022 were either employed or looking for jobs. This means there are only 39 million women employed in the workforce compared to 361 million men.

Just a few decades ago, things seemed to be on a different track.

When Singh became a social worker in 2004, India was still riding high from historic reforms in the 1990s. New industries and new opportunities were born seemingly overnight, sparking millions to leave their villages and move to cities like Mumbai in search of better jobs.

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