Sheila Singh cried on the day she tendered her resignation.
She had been a social worker in Mumbai, India’s frenetic financial capital, for 16 years and she loved the job. But her family tells her that she should stay at home to take care of her two children. She has withstood the pressure for years, but when she found out that her son was out of school while she was at work, she felt she had no choice.
“Everybody was telling me that my children were being neglected… it made me feel really bad,” said Singh, 39.
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In the year When she quit her job in 2020, Singh earned more than her husband as an auto-rickshaw driver whose income fluctuated daily. But no one suggested stopping.
“His friends used to taunt him that he was paying from his salary,” Singh said. “I thought it was worthless to work with me, so what’s the point?”
India is on the verge of becoming the world’s most populous country, surpassing China, and its economy is one of the fastest growing in the world. But the number of Indian women in the workforce, already among the lowest 20 in the world, has been declining for years.
It’s not just a problem for women like Singh, it’s a growing challenge to India’s own economic interests if the estimated 670 million women are left behind as its population expands. The hope is that India’s rapidly growing working-age population will drive growth for years to come. However, experts worry that if India is unable to keep its growing population, especially its women, employed, this could simply be a demographic to blame.
If there is no income of Singh Her family As she cannot afford to live in Mumbai, one of the most expensive cities in Asia, she is now preparing to return to her village to save money. “But there are no jobs there,” she said.
Editor’s note: This story is part of a series exploring what it means for India’s 1.4 billion inhabitants to live in the world’s largest nation. ___
According to calculations based on official data, the female employment rate peaked at 35% in 2004 and will drop to 25% in 2022, said Rosa Abraham, an economist at Azim Premji University. But official figures count those employed people who report an hour of work outside the home in the past week.
A national job crisis is one reason for the gap, experts say, but cultural beliefs that see women as primary caregivers and discourage them from working outside the home, as in Singh’s case, are another.
The Center for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE), which uses a more restrictive measure of employment, found that only 10 percent of the working age population. Indian women In the year They were employed or looking for work in 2022. This means that only 39 million women are employed in the labor force, compared to only 361 million men.
A few decades ago, things seemed to be on a different path.
When Singh became a social worker in 2004, India was still riding high from the historic changes of the 1990s. New industries and new opportunities spawned overnight millions of people leaving their villages and migrating to the cities of Mumbai in search of better jobs.
It felt life-changing. “I didn’t have a college degree, so I never thought it was possible for someone like me to get a job in an office,” she said.
Even then, leaving home to work was an uphill battle for many women. In the year Neighbors taunted her that her parents had invested in her education and that nothing would matter after marriage.
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Suttar bucked the trend. In the year In 2013, she became the first person in her village of about 2,000 people to earn an engineering degree.
“I knew that if I got educated, only then would I become something — otherwise I would be like the others, get married and stay in the village,” Suttar said.
Today, she lives and works in Mumbai as an auditor in India’s Defense Department, a government job coveted by many Indians for its security, prestige and benefits.
In a way, she was part of a trend: Indian women have had better access to education from a young age, and are now equal to men. But for most women, education did not lead to employment. Even as more women begin to graduate from school, unemployment rises.
Mahesh Vyas, director of CMIE, said: “While the working-age population has increased, employment has not, which means that the number of employed people is decreasing.” decade. “This also keeps women out of the workforce as they or their families see more value in taking care of the home. or childrenInstead of being treated to a low-wage job.
And even when there is work, social pressures can push women away.
In her hometown in Uttar Pradesh state, Chauhan never saw women working outside the home. But in the year They hurried to work. It was inspiring to see what was possible, she said.
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“When I left home when I started working, my family used to say I should work as a prostitute,” said social worker Lalmani Chauhan.
One of the reasons she was able to keep her job was because her husband was bedridden and unable to work because the risk was a lifeline, Chauhan said.
Abraham said women’s withdrawal from the workforce is a big problem for policymakers, but direct fixes like more childcare facilities or transportation safety haven’t been found.
As more women participate in the labor market, they contribute to the economy and their family income, but are empowered to make decisions, she said. Children who grow up in families where both parents work are more likely to be employed later, especially girls.
The number of unemployed Indian women of working age is staggering – almost twice the number of the entire population of the United States. Experts say this gap could be a huge opportunity if India finds a way to plug it. In the year A 2018 McKinsey report estimated that India could add $552 billion to its GDP by increasing the female labor force participation rate by 10 percent.
As she prepares to leave her one-bedroom apartment in a narrow lane in a Mumbai village, Singh is determined to return to the city in the near future. She hopes she’ll find a way to work again, saying she’ll take any job she can find.
“I never had to ask anyone for a single rupee (before),” Singh said, adding that she felt embarrassed every time she was forced to ask her husband.
“Before, I felt a sense of autonomy. Look, when I quit my job, I lost a part of myself,” she says. “I want to return this feeling.”