Social Identity

Urbanisation, gender, and social change: Women’s mobility in north India

  • Blog Post Date 08 December, 2021
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Vidisha Mehta

Harvard Kennedy School of Government

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Harish Sai

University of Chicago

Although India has experienced structural and social changes that promote gender equality in many respects, women’s physical mobility remains very low. Analysing primary data from three urban clusters in north India, this article shows that kinship structures, household location, and destination, explain the variation in women’s mobility. Further, women who are not mobile, are less likely to work.

This is the third in a five-part series on ‘Urbanisation, gender, and social change’.

Over the past two decades, India has experienced structural and social changes that promote gender equality in many respects. In addition to high economic growth rates and declining fertility rates, primary school enrolment for girls has reached parity with that of boys (World Bank 202020192021). Yet, women’s physical mobility remains extremely low. According to National Family Health Survey 4 (NFHS-4) data (2015-2016), only 41% of Indian women reported that they were allowed to go alone to the market, the health facility, and places outside their village or community. Six percent of women were not permitted to visit any of these three destinations (IIPS (International Institute of Population Sciences) and ICF International, 2017).

Women’s inability to move freely not only precludes them from participating in social, political, and economic institutions on an equal basis, but it also impedes their capacity to make their own decisions on issues ranging from social activities to employment. Hence, women’s mobility is a vital metric when assessing their autonomy, empowerment, and economic agency.

The study

In a recent study (Mehta and Sai 2021), we analyse primary data collected from 3,500 households in each of three urban clusters across the Hindi belt – Dhanbad (Jharkhand), Patna (Bihar), and Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh). We examine these data primarily in relation to the women in the household, and gauge differences in mobility based on four dimensions: kinship structures, destinations, location of the household, and surrounding infrastructure. Subsequently, we analyse the impact limited mobility has on women’s propensity to join the labour force.

Household structure stands out as an especially salient factor in the Indian context because of the large number of joint families. Women in these families are often required to take permission from older (and sometimes even younger) members of the household. Given the primarily patriarchal nature of Indian households, those who are in the position to grant them permission are usually men. For this reason, women’s relation to the different members becomes an important characteristic in determining their degree of mobility.

Understanding variation in women’s physical mobility

Our analysis finds that across all three cities, daughters-in-law of the household head have the lowest mobility (Table 1). Spouses of the household head, on the other hand, have the highest mobility. In fact, spouses are almost twice as likely to visit the local market, 20% more likely to go outside the neighbourhood, and 11% more likely to visit relatives without permission, as compared to daughters-in-law. The mobility of daughters of the household head is situated between that of daughters-in-law and spouses. These results are consistent across different religious and caste identities, as well as income levels.

Table 1. Degree of mobility, aggregated by city


Outside neighbourhood


Spouse of household head




Daughter-in-law of household head




Daughter of household head












Pucca approach road




Kuccha approach road




Another factor of paramount importance is a woman’s destination. We find that women are most mobile when visiting the market, and least mobile when visiting relatives. Markets are usually located near households, often, within the very same neighbourhood. Visiting a market is also a necessity. This is perhaps the reason why we see higher freedom of movement to markets, as compared to any other location. Moving outside the neighbourhood typically entails travelling longer distances and taking public transport. Thus, it is quite possible that fears over safety restrict women’s mobility outside the neighbourhood. This lends credence to the idea that the further the destination, the more restricted women’s mobility becomes.

However, we do observe important city-level variation. For instance, women in Dhanbad enjoy the highest degree of mobility, while women in Varanasi experience the lowest degree of mobility. Women in all three cities, however, have the highest mobility when visiting a market and the lowest when visiting relatives. It indicates that women are allowed to visit arenas that perpetuates conventional gender roles, such as taking care of the house, but are barred from frequenting destinations for leisure or economic advancement.

This thesis is further bolstered by the positive correlation between employment and mobility. Our analysis suggests that women who do not require permission to travel outside the household and are, consequently, more mobile have a higher probability of employment. Mobile women are 18% more likely to be employed in Patna, and 10% more likely to be employed in Varanasi and Dhanbad, than those who require permission. This relationship, however, raises three related questions. First, is work linked with mobility to a particular location? Second, how does mobility affect employment, given the presence of complex kinship structures? Finally, are mobile women likely to take up certain kinds of employment more than others?

The ability to visit the market, travel beyond the neighbourhood, or visit a relative’s home without permission, increases the likelihood of working by approximately 10%. Regardless of the relation to the household head, women with greater degree of freedom of movement are more likely to work. The likelihood of employment increases by 11%, 7%, and 3% for spouses, daughters-in-law, and daughters of the head of the household, respectively, when they are mobile as opposed to when they are not. It is worth noting here that of the women who are not mobile – across all three kinship categories – only 20% are likely to work.

Finally, we find that the likelihood of employment in non-agricultural work or salaried work increases in line with the level of physical mobility a woman enjoys. Women who are less mobile have a greater likelihood of working in the agricultural sector and in household businesses. This result is intuitive since women working within these sectors are often not required to move outside the household space.

Concluding thoughts

Mobility and work are fundamentally linked. Increasing women’s mobility is an important tool to increase their labour force participation, especially in salaried employment. Kinship structures and location (urban-rural status) of a household and destination are quite effective in explaining the variation in women’s mobility.

Through a careful examination of household relations and location, we have only begun to scratch the surface of the potential determinants of women’s mobility in the Indian setting. Further research is required to understand the contributing role street safety, public transport, education, and household size play. However, lifting restrictions on women’s movement increases their chances of entering the labour force, which will have significant implications for their autonomy – not to mention the Indian economy at large.

The next part in this series will discuss intramarital hierarchies and perceptions about women’s employment.

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