Even in urban metropolises, where literacy rates are far higher and jobs are more abundant, the pressure on women is overwhelming. (Ruhani Kaur/Bloomberg)
For years, Sanchuri Bhuniya fought her parents’ pleas to settle down. She wanted to travel and earn money — not become a housewife.
So in 2019, Bhuniya snuck out of her isolated village in eastern India. She took a train hundreds of miles south to the city of Bengaluru and found work in a garment factory earning $120 a month. The job liberated her. "I ran away," she said. "That’s the only way I was able to go."
That life of financial freedom ended abruptly with the arrival of Covid-19. In 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a nationwide lockdown to curb infections, shutting almost all businesses. Within a few weeks, more than 100 million Indians lost their jobs, including Bhuniya, who was forced to return to her village and never found another stable employer.
As the world climbs out of the pandemic, economists warn of a troubling data point: Failing to restore jobs for women — who have been less likely than men to return to the workforce — could shave trillions of dollars off global economic growth. The forecast is particularly bleak in developing countries like India, where female labor force participation fell so steeply that it’s now in the same league as war-torn Yemen.
This week’s episode of The Pay Check podcast explores how the coronavirus accelerated an already worrying trend in the world’s second-most populous country. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of working women in India dropped from 26% to 19%, according to data compiled by the World Bank. As infections surged, a bad situation turned dire: Economists in Mumbai estimate that female employment plummeted to 9% by 2022.
This is disastrous news for India’s economy, which had started slowing before the pandemic. Modi has prioritized job creation, pressing the country to strive for amrit kaal, a golden era of growth. But his administration has made little progress in improving prospects for working women. That’s especially true in rural areas, where more than two-thirds of India’s 1.3 billion people live, conservative mores reign and jobs have been evaporating for years. Despite the nation’s rapid economic expansion, women have struggled to make the transition to working in urban centers.
Closing the employment gap between men and women — a whopping 58 percentage points — could expand India’s GDP by close to a third by 2050. That equates to nearly $6 trillion in constant US dollar terms, according to a recent analysis from Bloomberg Economics. Doing nothing threatens to derail the country on its quest to become a competitive producer for global markets. Though women in India represent 48% of the population, they contribute only around 17% of GDP compared to 40% in China.
India is an extreme illustration of a global phenomenon. Across the world, women were more likely than men to lose jobs during the pandemic, and their recovery has been slower. Policy changes that address gender disparities and boost the number of working women — improved access to education, child care, or flexible work arrangements, for example — would help add about $20 trillion to global GDP by 2050, according to Bloomberg Economics.
For workers like Bhuniya, 23, the pandemic had heavy consequences. After losing her job, she struggled to afford food in Bengaluru and eventually returned to her remote village, Patrapali, in the state of Odisha. Bhuniya doesn’t think she’ll have another opportunity to leave. She no longer earns a steady income, but her family worries about her safety as a single woman living in a distant city.
"If I run away again, my mother will curse me," said Bhuniya. "Now, there’s nothing left. My account is empty and there’s little work in the village."
The story echoes across India. During the pandemic, Rosa Abraham, an economics professor at Azim Premji University in Bengaluru, tracked more than 20,000 people as they navigated the labor market. She found that after the first lockdown, women were several times more likely to lose their jobs than men and far less likely to recover work after restrictions lifted.
Increased domestic duties, lack of childcare options after school shutdowns, and a surge in marriages — which often confine women’s autonomy in India — help explain the difference in outcome.
"When men are faced with this kind of a huge economic shock, then they have a fallback option," Abraham said. "They can navigate to different kinds of work. But for women, there is no such fallback option. They can’t negotiate the labor market as effectively as men do."
Dreams of freedom or a well-paid office job were replaced with what she called "distress-led employment," essentially unpaid work on a family farm or taking care of the home. Prior to the pandemic, Indian women already performed about 10 times more care work than men, around three times the global average.
"It is the unfortunate situation that the decision to work is often not in the hands of the woman herself," Abraham said.
The decline in workforce participation is partly about culture. As Indians became wealthier, families that could afford to keep women at home did so, thinking it conferred social status. On the other extreme, those at the lowest rungs of society are still seen as potential earners. But they tend to work menial or unpaid jobs far from the formal economy. In the official statistics, their labor is not counted.
In many villages, patriarchal values remain ironclad, and a stigma against girls persists. Though illegal, sex-selective abortions are still common. Akhina Hansraj, senior program manager at Akshara Centre, a Mumbai-based organization that advocates for gender equity, said Indian men often think "it’s not very manly if their wife contributes to the family income."
"They want to create this dependency," Hansraj said. "People believe if women get educated, they might work and become financially independent and then they may not obey and respect the family."
Marriage is a sticking point in India, where most weddings are still arranged. After the first lockdown, in 2020, the country’s leading matrimony websites reported a spike in new registrations. In some states, marriages among children and young adults — many of them illegal under Indian law — jumped by 80%, according to government data.
Madhu Sharma, a Hindi teacher at the Pardada Pardadi Educational Society, a girls’ school in the northern town of Anupshahr, said she might intervene in three child marriages a year. During the pandemic, when the campus closed, the number increased three to four times.
"Before Covid, children were always in touch with their teachers and also with me," she said. "After Covid, when the children had to stay at home, keeping in contact with them became a big challenge."
Financial considerations often tipped the scales in favor of marriage. Social distancing and warnings against large gatherings meant parents could hold small, less-expensive ceremonies at home, rather than the multi-day celebrations that are common even in the poorest pockets of society. During the direst stretches of the pandemic, some families married off daughters because they couldn’t afford to feed another mouth.
For Sharma’s students, getting married before finishing school can change the trajectory of their lives. In India, when a woman marries, she typically moves in with her husband and in-laws. That can make it difficult to leave secluded villages where policing of choices is common and employment opportunities are scarce.
"We try to educate our students," Sharma said. "We explain to them that if they study, they will be in a good spot. If they don’t, we describe what their position will be like. ‘The rest is up to you,’ we tell them. You live life the way you want to create it."
In 2015, Modi started a campaign called "Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao," which roughly means "Save Our Daughters, Teach Our Daughters." It’s an initiative aimed at keeping girls in school and reducing sex-selective abortion. The government has also tried to eradicate child marriage. Last year, Modi’s administration passed a proposal to raise the legal marriage age for women from 18 to 21, which is what it is for men.
But in many villages, national laws are distant abstractions. Local customs are still set and enforced by local panchayats, essentially a group of elders, almost all men. And while Modi’s campaign to educate India’s daughters received lots of publicity, recent government audits found that much of the initiative’s funds remained unspent.
Even in urban metropolises, where literacy rates are far higher and jobs are more abundant, the pressure on women is overwhelming.
Anjali Gupta, who lives in Mumbai, said she was barely hanging on. First, the coronavirus lockdowns devastated her family’s small grocery store, forcing them to exhaust their savings to survive. Then her parents started pushing Gupta and her three sisters to get married, fearing that they would be left destitute without husbands.
Gupta tried to reason with them. She had already spent about $1,300 studying for a master’s degree in pharmaceuticals and nutrition. She was training with a homeopathic doctor. She wanted a career. "I explained that my situation is different, my generation is different," Gupta said.
But after an uncle died from the coronavirus, Gupta’s father pleaded with her to drop out of school, a prospect that induced migraines and endless arguments. Her parents started bringing prospective grooms home. Gupta worries the inertia will eventually overpower her.
"It shouldn’t be this way," she said. "I want to do and learn more. I’m only 22."