This article explores how women’s economic empowerment can be a crucial step in addressing India’s long-standing son preference, as highlighted by the latest Economic Survey. It discusses key trends in female education and employment, which are fundamental to empowerment; what the research says; and areas where further work is required.
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The pink-coloured Economic Survey 2017-18 contends that the societal preference for sons in India is historical and long-standing, and appears inoculated against development. While the preference has its roots in culture, the factors driving it are entwined with economic and practical considerations. In the largely patriarchal Indian society, parents perceive daughters as liabilities who are to be married off on payment of dowry. Given limited household resources, there is little incentive to invest in daughters’ education and (employable) skills, or even health. This, in turn, causes women to be at a disadvantage as potential entrants to the productive workforce, and in achieving financial independence. Indeed, they end up having no choice but to rely mainly on their husband’s income, with limited agency regarding their own life and family, let alone to contribute towards their parents’ well-being. The opposite is true for sons who are viewed as assets that support their families and are therefore, worthy of investment. As long as these are the beliefs and practices of the majority in the community, it is ‘rational’ for individual families to follow suit, and we are stuck in a ‘bad equilibrium’. This is a vicious cycle that perpetuates son preference.
Even in the case of parents that do not subscribe to this school of thought and are equally invested – financially and otherwise – in the education of both daughters and sons, there may be other constraints to women’s economic participation. Examples include time poverty due to primary responsibility of the care economy, and restricted mobility on account of safety concerns.
The policy push in the form of the Right to Education (RTE) Act, 2009 and programmes such as Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao has led to significant improvement in gender parity in school enrolment. The gender parity index ─ the ratio of the number of females to the number of males that are enrolled at a particular level of education ─ stood at 1.03 and 1.01 respectively for primary and secondary schooling in 2014-15, although disparity persists in higher education (gender parity index of 0.92) (Ministry of Human Resource Development (MoHRD), 2016). However, more female education does not seem to be translating into more female employment. The Survey reports that female labour force participation rate (FLFPR) has, in fact, declined from 36% in 2005-06 to 24% in 2015-16. Besides, culture may be an explanatory factor for the low levels of FLFPR but not for its decline over time as cultural norms are unlikely to have become more stringent. Other elements seem to be at play.
Understanding and addressing constraints on women’s economic participation
A body of research has emerged in recent years that seeks to understand the alarming trend of stagnant or falling FLFPR in recent decades. (See I4I e-symposium on ‘Women and work’.) For instance, in an International Growth Centre (IGC) study, Afridi et al. (2016) analyse National Sample Survey (NSS) data to show that the fall in FLFPR is concentrated among rural, married women. They argue that this is because of a lack of job opportunities that are commensurate with women’s enhanced education levels, and their time is better spent at home on child care and domestic work; increased income of husbands enables them to make this choice. Chatterjee, Murgai and Rama (2016) emphasise the need to generate suitable jobs opportunities outside of farming and close to place of residence.
Other recommendations by stakeholders include flexible working conditions, adequate maternity leave (Ahmed 2017), and reliable childcare facilities to enable women to manage their dual responsibilities of work and home; strengthening public services and infrastructure to ease the burden of unpaid domestic tasks; addressing gender discrimination in the job market (Deshpande, Goyal and Khanna 2016); ensuring women’s safety in public spaces to facilitate their mobility (Pande 2014); and encouraging female entrepreneurship via access to finance (Field and Pande 2017, KC and Tiwari 2014), networks, information, and markets (Ghani, Kerr and O’Connell 2012).
Further work is needed on disentangling the various constraints on female economic participation and assigning relative weights to them, so as to get policy priorities right and allocate resources efficiently. Importantly, this would require closing the gender data gap ─ a problem that exists in India and beyond. So although mind-set changes can only take place slowly over a long time horizon, concrete measures can be designed and implemented in the short- to medium-term to change the economic dynamics and address practical constraints at the least.
Promoting women’s education: Beyond enrolment
Education is fundamental to women’s empowerment. In an environment where women are able to engage effectively in productive economic activities, parents are more likely to not just send their daughters to school, but to actually focus on their education and skilling in order to prepare them for the workforce.1 In their research in Bangladesh, Heath and Mobarak (2012) found that the explosive growth of the garment industry had a significant positive influence on girls’ educational attainment, and delayed marriage and childbirth. They also showed that job growth had a much stronger effect on the demand for education vis-à-vis a large-scale government conditional cash transfer programme to encourage female schooling.
Despite the improved gender parity in school enrolment in India, there is a gender gap of 19.6% (2011) in the adult literacy rate2 (MoHRD, 2016). The Annual Survey of Education Report (2017) tested rural youth (14-18 year olds) on applying basic foundational skills of reading and arithmetic to real-world situations, and found that females almost always perform worse than males. Why is it that despite the increased presence of girls in educational institutions, they still significantly lag behind boys in terms of learning outcomes?
One possibility is that this is a time-use issue. According to ASER (2017), 89.4% of females versus 76.8% of males do household work daily. The differential outcomes may also be a manifestation of boys receiving a lot more support for their education at home as compared to girls. Does such discrimination pervade the classrooms as well? These are important questions for further research.
- Maitra, Pal and Sharma (2016) find a systematic female disadvantage in enrolment in private schools, which are considered as more efficient than government schools by parents.
- The Adult Literacy rate is the percentage of the 15-24 year old population that can both read and write, and understand a short simple statement on everyday life.