Women's Economic Empowerment in India

India is the world’s largest democracy and fastest growing economy, home to 1.2 billion people from diverse socio-economic backgrounds and cultures. The country has made good advancements on poverty reduction, education and HIV, but progress still needs to be made in reducing inequality and hunger, improving maternal mortality rates and enabling greater access to water and sanitation for the large majority of its people.

Deepta Chopra

Women’s participation in the labour force is quite low, and has been falling over the last few years. The female to male ratio is only 0.36. This is exacerbated by lack of choices that women have to engage in paid work related to work type and location, patriarchal gender norms, and the undue burdens of unpaid care work that women bear.

Across India there are massive social cleavages and gender inequality is prevalent in sectors including health, education, literacy. There are several national and international NGOs and civil society actors working towards enhancing women’s rights, but the proportion of those specifically targeting women is low. The policy space available to organisations working for women’s empowerment is quite restricted, however, research and advocacy on women’s rights and work is on the rise, in addition to several government programmes to enhance empowerment of women.

Political context

India has a federal political system whereby power is shared between the central government and 28 states. However, the intense and historical communal and caste ties often ignite tensions in politics and disturbance to the secular ethos. India has performed fairly well compared to neighboring south Asian countries due to its hybrid political culture of modernity and tradition. Democratic decentralization has further sought to bring the state closer to the citizens with the notion of self-governance and Gram Swaraj in villages, devolving power to the most local level.

The 73rd and 74th amendment to India's Constitution sought to increase representation of minority groups and women and there has also been an increase in women’s voter participation. Women are now entitled to one third of the seats in local governing bodies with enhanced room for representation and empowerment. Women’s issues have received increased references in the government’s five year plan. However, women’s representation in the Lok Sabha (the lower house of India’s parliament) still remains almost negligible, constituting only a 5.9 per cent share.

Policy and legal framework

The Constitution in India prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. The equal renumeration act, 1976, ensures equal wages and equal work for women However, there are still enormous barriers between policy and practice and the conversion of policies into reality. There are various councils and bodies established for the wellbeing of women such as the National Commission for Women, Department of Women and Child Development and the Parliamentary Committee on Empowerment of Women which has reviewed various laws and recommended amendments. The National Policy for Empowerment of Women (2001) commits to address all forms of violence against women including physical, mental and that arising from customs and traditions. Various programmes and policies have been initiated by the state to enhance empowerment of women, such the Support to Training and Empowerment Programme (STEP), The Rashtirya Mahila Kosh (RMK), Swarnajayanti Gram Swarozgar Yojana (SGSY), Mahila Samakhya and the MGNREGA.

Research in India

Our analysis of women’s economic empowerment programmes in India will contribute to recommendations about how a ‘double boon’ can be created, i.e. decent paid work that provides support for unpaid care work responsibilities, along with removal of barriers to entry and retention in the labour market.

The research in India will be undertaken by the Institute of Social Studies Trust with support from the Alliance for Right to Early Childhood Development for advocacy activities.

Case studies

Our research will seek to learn from the experiences of women benefiting from a state-led women’s empowerment programme in Rajasthan and a non-state programme in Madhya Pradesh.

Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in Rajasthan

MGNREGA entitles 100 days employment to rural households who volunteer to do unskilled manual work. It promotes gender inclusivity, equal wages for men and women, and provides on-site childcare.

Self-Employed Women's Association of India (SEWA), Madhya Pradesh (MP)

SEWA is a trade union of poor, women workers in the informal economy. It aims to organise workers to achieve their goals of work that provides economic, food and social security, and to support them towards being autonomous and self-reliant.

Social and economic context

Despite its growing economy (with a GDP of 7.3 per cent in 2014-15), issues such as persistent poverty, corruption, clientelism and inequality continue to disrupt the social and economic ethos in India. Its Human Development Index ranking has declined significantly since 2008 from 126 to 135 out of 187 countries.

Women continue to be excluded in social, economic and political domains, which shows the inadequate attention towards inclusive growth and unequal gender relations. India ranks 127 out of 187 countries in the gender inequality index with a score of 0.536. The World Economic Forum ranked India 101 out of 136 countries in the Gender Gap Index with a score of 0.655. Gender biases due to patriarchal culture and tradition continue to exist within the household, impacting women’s lives in the public and private sphere. Caste barriers further enunciate discrimination against women, especially those belonging to the lower caste such as Scheduled caste and Dalit women. Recognising the historical disadvantage and vulnerability of Dalit women, the government has adopted various legislations such as the Protection of Civil Rights Act (PCRA) and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act which paces Dalits to be at par with other caste groups. Recently there has been also been a considerable increase in the budgetary allocation for the Department of Women and Child Development.

The Ministry of Statistics has conducted several time use surveys in India. The most recent being in 2013, focusing on key aspects of the economy such as agriculture, non-market production, unregistered manufacturing workers, low share of informal workers.

There have also been time use surveys specifically directed at women. A 1999 study focused on collecting data for properly quantifying the economic contribution of the women in the national economy and to study the gender discrimination in the household activities. In 2007, the Ministry of Child and Development started an initiative including time use surveys in all gender mainstreaming programmes, especially getting improved measures of labour market statistics.

Latest updates

12.09.16Participatory methods in mixed methods research – a methodological treasure

Since the inception of the GrOW project, on unpaid care work and women´s economic empowerment, the team mixed three strands of research methods – qualitative, quantitative and participatory.What added value do participatory methods bring to mixed methods research? Kas Sempere writes about the particular professional challenges of methods in the project taking place in India, Nepal, Rwanda and Tanzania.

The first two rounds of data collection for the GrOW project have begun in Rajasthan, India. The ISST India team visited remote tribal villages of two districts in Udaipur and Dungarpur. Surveys of 50 women in each of the districts and participatory activities with groups of women, men and children of these villages revealed hard living and working conditions, combined with discriminatory gender roles that had resulted in acute time poverty and drudgery for women. 

25.08.15Labour migration: The dark side of the coin

A new study by the International Labour Organization (ILO) explores the pitfalls of labour migration for women domestic workers, both within India and abroad, and looks at the nature of forced labour and trafficking in the region. The study entitled, 'Indispensable yet unprotected: Working conditions of Indian domestic workers at home and abroad', was done in collaboration with the Self Employed Women's Association in India (SEWA).