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Insights into Editorial: Is Access to Transport Slowing Participation of Women in India’s Workforce? + MINDMAPS on Current Issues

Insights into Editorial: Is Access to Transport Slowing Participation of Women in India’s Workforce? + MINDMAPS on Current Issues

21 November 2015


Labour force participation of women remains woefully low in India, and this could be a major drag, not just on the empowerment of women but on the Indian growth story as well. It is now widely acknowledged that gender gap in employment is preventing India from realizing its full economic potential.

  • According to data from National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), female labour force participation (FLFP) fell from a high point above 40% in the early-to-mid 1990s to 29.4% in 2004-05, 23.3% in 2009-10 and 22.5% in 2011-12.
  • India ranks the second lowest in the Group of 20 (G20) economies when it comes to women’s participation in the workforce. All the BRICS nations rank much higher than India.

Factors responsible for this:

  • Increased income of men is one of the main factors responsible for this. As men in the family start earning more income, women tend to cut back their work in the formal economy to concentrate more on household activities.
  • In some communities, notably some upper castes, there may be a stigma attached to women working outside the home – especially if it involves work considered ‘menial’ – which increases family and societal pressures to drop out if the men in the household are earning enough to foot the bills.
  • Women are more vulnerable to exploitation and harassment at work in developing countries like India. They are also unable to effectively fight against harassment.
  • The safety of women is also a concern in Indian cities.
  • Unskilled women find it difficult to get a job in Northern India. Unlike the women-dominated garment industry in southern states, there are very few women-dominated industries in the north.

Census data also indicate that lack of access to transportation is slowing the participation of women. Census data on distance travelled and the mode of transport used to commute to the workplace can give an idea of the problem which women workers face on account of travelling to work.

  • The 2011 census has collected this data for other workers for the first time. Broadly speaking, all workers except cultivators, agricultural labourers and household workers are treated as other workers.
  • There are 15.7 crore male and 4.4 crore female workers in the other workers category. Out of these, 30% do not undertake any travel to work and 39% travel less than 5 km. About one in every 10 worker has to travel more than 20 km. One in four workers travel on foot and a similar number use two-wheelers. Only about 15% use bus or trains.
  • The share of women is relatively higher among those who don’t have to travel and declines as the distance to the place of work increases.
  • Also, the gender gap is higher in rural areas and there are significant state-wise differences. Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are among those with the highest gender gap in employment on account of distance.

Does distance really matter?

Yes, according to some studies. The distance to the place of work adversely affects women’s chances of getting employment.

  • Even if she can arrange for paying transport costs, the extra time involved may become a deterrent since women have to take care of most of the household work.
  • More women workers travel on foot than men workers in both rural and urban India. This consumes much of their time.
  • In rural India, the relative share of women is much lower in terms of using popular modes of transport such as bicycles and two-wheelers, cars and small public transport like auto-rickshaw and taxi, and buses and trains.

While there has been a spurt in the number of women-operated cab services in major cities in the country, much needs to be done to evolve a gender sensitive transport policy in India.

All of this is costing India dearly. The country’s GDP can increase by more than a quarter if it can match male and female employment rates. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that India’s economic output in 2025 can be higher by as much as 60% if women’s participation in the economy were on par with that of men. Hence, it is time for the government to come up with more policies which help bridge this gap.



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