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The Impact Initiative has closed. This website has now been archived and will no longer be updated.

Choice constraint and the gender dynamics of labour markets in West Bengal

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Principal Investigator: Naila Kabeer. Lead Organistion: London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)

Co-investigator: Ashwini Deshpande (University of Delhi)

This research project addresses the first overarching research question in the call specification: the factors which shape pathways into and out of poverty, how people experience these factors and the role of policy in creating sustained routes out of poverty. It is premised on the recognition that well-functioning labour markets are a key institutional channel through which the sustainable reduction of poverty can be achieved. They are also significant from a gender perspective. There is a substantial body of evidence to suggest that gender equality in labour market opportunities has a positive impact on survival, wellbeing and human capital of family members. And where these opportunities relate to regular and reasonably well paid work, they enhance women's agency and bargaining power within family and community. 

This research project is motivated by the following puzzle: The Indian economy has experienced extremely strong rates of economic growth in recent years. This has been accompanied by declining rates of fertility and rising levels of education, including female education. These are changes that have been associated with an increase in women's labour force participation rates in much of the world. Yet women's labour force participation has not only remained low in the Indian context, but has declined in recent years. Moreover, women continued to be concentrated in a more limited range of labour market activities than men. 

The objective of our research is gain a better understanding of the barriers to women's labour force participation in the Indian context through a detailed case study of the gender dynamics of labour markets in the state of West Bengal. We propose to use an interdisciplinary framework which draws on economic and sociological explanations of labour market behaviour and the careful combination of quantitative and qualitative methods to identify these barriers and what can be done to overcome them. A number of policy case studies will be documented to provide more specific examples of measures that can help to overcome barriers that particularly affect poorer women. 

The selection of West Bengal as our case study reflects a number of considerations. First of all, it typifies the trends that make up the puzzle at the national level. West Bengal has one of the highest rates of growth in India, significant declines in fertility and rising levels of female education but continues to report extremely low rates of female labour force participation which have declined further in recent years. It therefore provides a very appropriate context in which to explore the barriers to women's labour force participation and what might help to overcome them. 

Secondly, we propose to take advantage of a similar study on the gender dynamics of labour markets on-going in neighbouring Bangladesh to design the West Bengal study as part of a larger comparative project. The two Bengals are not only geographically contiguous, they were once part of the same political entity, they have a shared ethno-linguistic identity and similar cultural norms, including norms regarding women's labour force participation. And while their policy regimes have diverged considerably since their partition in 1947, both have experienced strong growth rates in recent year and declining rates of poverty. Yet while female labour force participation rates in West Bengal have been low and declining, those in Bangladesh have risen steadily since the 1970s to levels now higher than those in West Bengal. While the West Bengal study will constitute a stand-along research project into the barriers to women's labour force participation, we believe that the opportunity to carry out a comparison with Bangladesh will allow us to better understand the interaction between cultural norms and economic motivations in shaping women's labour market behaviour in contexts with similar norms of gender propriety but diverging policy regimes.

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Who will benefit? The aim of the research is to understand the barriers to women's participation in the labour market, particularly those facing women from poorer and socially marginalized groups. These women are our primary beneficiaries. Our secondary beneficiaries are the various stakeholders who are interested in the fairer and more effective functioning of labour markets. They include government officials at local and national levels, development NGOs, women's groups, labour organizations as well as sections of the corporate sector and the wider public. At the international level, they include organizations that work specifically on gender and labour market issues, such as ILO and WIEGO, along with various other organizations , such as the World Bank, UN Women, bilateral donors and private foundations who have put women's economic empowerment high on their agenda. 

How will they benefit? We believe that the improved understanding of how labour markets work from the perspective of poorer people, particularly women from socially marginalized groups, together with the practical implications which flow from this understanding, will contribute a) to the better design of current and future policy efforts to address the relevant constraints b) to more informed advocacy on the part of organizations seeking to promote gender equality in labour market opportunities and c) to greater awareness on the part of the public of the realities of poorer women's working lives and the contributions they make. While these impacts are likely to be strongest at the national level, the growing interest in women's economic empowerment on the part of international agencies suggests that they are also likely to benefit from lessons from the South Asia context. 

Strategy for impact: Our strategy will be to work those who have an interest in seeing change happen, to involve them as early as possible in the research process and to use our collective resources to influence those who have the power to make change happen. The National Reference Group that will be set up for this project are part of this strategy. They have been selected for their knowledge of the research context and their experience in the policy world. We will work with the Group throughout the project to engage the wider constituency of national stakeholder outlined above and to help us organize two consultation workshops, one held in the inception phase of the project with a view to sharing our research objectives and seeking advice on key research questions and a second towards the end of the project to share our findings and explore its practical implications for different groups of stakeholders. We will seek to maximize our impact with different stakeholders by disseminating our findings and recommendations through a variety of means: policy briefs, blogs, seminars, workshops, informal meetings and so on. 

We will also seek to expand and strengthen the public constituency for women's economic empowerment in India by using the 'women in media' network in India (we have been in contact with its West Bengal members) to engage the wider public to discuss cultural preconceptions about women's work in India specifically, and South Asia more generally, and whether our findings support the widespread belief that their absence from the labour market is largely a matter of choice.

Internationally, we would seek to engage with organisations that are interested in, or would benefit from, the policy implications of our findings through seminars, policy briefs and our participation in various conferences and networks. An International Reference Group, drawn from the World Bank, ILO and WIEGO, has already been constituted for the Bangladesh component of the study. We will draw on this group to provide advice and assist us in our efforts to disseminate relevant findings and recommendations from the West Bengal study as well.


Primary theme: 
Grant Reference: 
Project Status: 
Grant Category: 
Research Grant
Lead Organisation Department: 
Gender Institute
Fund Start Date: 
August 1st, 2016
Fund End Date: 
July 31st, 2019
Fund Currency Code: 
Fund Value: 
development studies