Rachel Brown is a research associate for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This is the second part of a series on migration trends in India and China.
In 1966, Indira Gandhi assumed the position of India’s prime minister and served until 1977, followed by a second term from 1980 to 1984. Yet fifty years later, women’s opportunities for economic advancement remain limited compared to other emerging economies. Currently just 27 percent of working-age Indian women participate in the workforce (compared to 58 percent in Bangladesh and 64 percent in China) and the participation rate has fallen over the past decade. This large gender gap in employment incurs significant financial consequences. In 2015, the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that “achieving gender equality in India would have a larger economic impact there than in any other region in the world” and could contribute as much as $700 billion to the nation’s GDP over the next decade. Yet attaining those gains will require changes in attitudes toward and opportunities for female employment. Recently – and perhaps in response to the gender gap’s costs – both the Indian government and private firms have undertaken efforts to boost female employment; as they do so, the role of internal migration in promoting women’s economic mobility will be an important consideration.
On the face of it, the migration situation appears promising, with women making up approximately 70 percent of India’s internal migrants. However, nearly all of these women migrate for marriage, and the share between the ages of 15 and 64 who moved for jobs declined from just 1.3 percent to 0.8 percent between 1983 and 2008 despite dramatic GDP growth. (Although statistics on those who move for both marital and employment reasons are difficult to tease out since many datasets only cite one reason for a respondent’s move.) A reluctance in some communities to allow women to move for work has hindered greater economic opportunity. Assumption College Professor Smriti Rao argues that this reluctance stems from both “the continuing resilience of the patriarchal family” and the limited number of good or suitable jobs available for women in cities. Familial concerns often include the risks of exposure to crime, physical assault, improper relationships, and other threats. Additionally, while migration offers financial benefits, it can also inflict significant personal and social costs, particularly for children left behind if both parents move.
Elsewhere, in countries such as China and Bangladesh, the large number of urban jobs for women in manufacturing, clothing production, and other areas created new economic opportunities, which led to an increase in women’s role in the workforce and in migration from rural areas to cities. Since employers often favor young women for these jobs, high demand pulled females into cities. For example, in the Chinese city of Shenzhen females made up 70 percent of migrant workers by 2003 and helped fuel the region’s rapid development. But India’s manufacturing and garment export industries remain less robust, and less than 20 percent of women currently employed work in the manufacturing, wholesale, and retail sectors. Additionally, a critical mass of migrants can facilitate greater movement and awareness of job opportunities. For example, in China, many rural women have used networks of guanxi (social connections) to find employment in cities by exchanging information with others from their home region; but since fewer Indian women migrate for work, fewer urban social networks emerge through which to spread news of employment opportunities.
Sources of optimism are emerging from programs now underway to promote the economic role of women, which could help stimulate urban networks and open new employment prospects. These include trainings for female migrant workers in Bangalore’s textile factories and mentorship programs operated by Indian outlets of Yum! Brands restaurants. Additional initiatives to improve gender equality in the workforce will require not only further education and skills training, but also efforts to protect female migrant workers against sexual exploitation, trafficking, and other abuse to which they are particularly vulnerable. After all, it would be something of a Pyrrhic victory if India succeeds in reaping the benefits of women’s increased labor market participation, but fails to ensure greater protection of their rights in the workplace and in cities.