Where are the Women in India's Labor Force?

Female workforce participation in the country has been declining since the 1990s, and fell to a record low of 15.5% last year. So, as the Indian economy has grown, why has it shut out its women?

Sarita Santoshini

September 29, 2021

Where are the Women in India's Labor Force?
Female health workers in India prepare to begin immunization efforts to protect citizens from imported cases of polio (AJ Williams/CDC/Wikimedia Commons)

It’s 9:30 p.m. and 27-year-old Pinki Kumari has just put her two young children to sleep and found a moment for herself for the first time in the day. Kumari wakes up at 4:30 a.m. every day to cook, clean, fill water, and prepare her children before heading to work as the sole beautician at the village’s neighborhood salon in the outskirts of Ranchi, Jharkhand in eastern India. When she returns in the evening, more household responsibilities await.

“My husband has constantly asked me not to, but I’ve always wanted to work,” she said. “Work feels good.” Married young and unable to complete her graduation, Kumari used to work in the informal sector, providing basic tailoring and beauty services from a rented shop near her home for many years for nominal wages. But, with the salon opportunity, this is the first time Kumari has worked as a full-time employee, with a dependable salary. During the pandemic, her husband lost work, but her income of ₹7,000 ($94) per month helped keep them afloat. Now, the salon is shutting down and Kumari has to commute to the city if she wants to keep working — but neither will her husband allow the commute nor is she willing to do it. “My trouble will only increase if I go there. And I am not scared of trouble, but I have to think of my children as well,” Kumari said. If she’s gone for long, “who’ll look after them?”

Kumari’s experience offers a glimpse into the precarious work lives of women in India, which, according to World Bank data, had a female labor force participation rate of 21% in 2019, the ninth lowest in the world. The rate fell to a record low of 15.5% in the April-June 2020 quarter, exacerbated by job losses and increased care burden during the coronavirus pandemic. But data shows that Indian women have been drastically exiting the workforce for a while now — a declining trend since the early 1990s, despite steady economic growth, increased female literacy rates, and a sharp decline in fertility rates within the same period. So, as India has kept progressing, why has it shut out its women?