Though it is too early to judge whether the prime minister’s beti padhao campaign is having an impact, he might want to include kaam karao to this slogan—after all, it is only when a woman is allowed to work that she can be truly independent. Under normal circumstances, you would expect more women to work as they get more educated, and significantly so in urban areas since there are more opportunities there and less taboos, but the reality is somewhat different. At an overall level, as a World Bank analysis shows, women’s participation in the labour force has declined quite precipitously over the past decade—between 2004-05 and 2011-12, close to 20 million women have exited the workforce based on participation rates. As compared to 36.9% in 2004-05, this fell to 27% in 2011-12, and the fall in rural areas was even sharper from 49.4% to 35.8%. There was relative stability in the case of urban areas, but the participation levels were much lower, at 20.5% in 2011-12.
Part of the explanation, of course, is that more women are studying—the fall in labour force participation rates for the 15-24 year group can be fully explained by the increase in the number going to school/college. It is after this that the fall is worrying though it is true that working levels rise with higher levels of education—a higher proportion of women who have passed out of college have a job as compared to those who have only completed secondary school. But, between 2004-05 and 2011-12, female participation rates fell by 12.3 percentage points (ppt) for the illiterate group in rural areas, 9.4 ppt for those who have completed secondary schooling and 13 ppt for those who had college degrees. The fall is lower in urban areas, but here too, there is a 6.5 ppt lower participation rate in women completing college. In overall terms, while 42% of rural women completing college were working in 2011-12, this was a much lower 36% in urban areas.
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All of which means that, as household incomes rise or become more regular, there is an across-the-board reduction in the proportion of working women, even though it remains true that higher education raises the propensity to work. Given the widespread increase in aspiration levels across families and rising indebtedness in order to meet these needs, it is quite worrying that women are not being allowed to work. While educating women is an essential part of liberating them, this cannot happen till they are allowed to work and be truly independent.