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.

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.

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.

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.

The research

Our analysis of women’s economic empowerment programmes in India contributes 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 has been undertaken by the Institute of Social Studies Trust with support from the Alliance for Right to Early Childhood Development for national and regional advocacy activities.

Case studies

Our research seeks 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. You can browse the case studies for women in India here.

WEE programmes

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.

Read the recommendations for these programmes

  • Empowerment Programming and Unpaid Care Work: Learning from 30 years of the Self Employed Women’s Association in Madhya Pradesh (SEWA MP)
    India, August 2017
  • Making Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) More Care-Responsive
    India, August 2017

National report

'My Work Never Ends': Women Balancing Paid Work and Unpaid Care Work in India

Zaidi, Mubashira; Chigateri, Shraddha,  October 2017

Research showed that women’s paid work experiences were shaped by a number of factors, including: care responsibilities, social norms on women’s work; the lack of decent work options; the poor working conditions of paid work available; as well as the support structures that were available to them at the levels of family, community, employer and the state. Women performed the majority of care work tasks, with responsibility determined by an interplay of sticky gender norms and poverty conditions. There was a strong correlation between the availability of and access to public resources and services and the intensity and drudgery of care tasks as well as their experiences of paid work.

There are many positive gender- and care-responsive features of both WEE programmes. However, it clear that the existing WEE programmes have more to accomplish in order to create a ‘double boon’ for women workers. The research makes recommendations at state and non-state levels in order to make women’s economic empowerment optimal, shared across families and sustained across generations