The Decline in the Labour Force Participation of Rural Women in India: Taking a Long-Run View


The significant fall in the labour force participation of rural women between 2004 and 2011 has been an issue that has generated considerable academic interest. In this paper, the authors look at thirty years of comparable NSS data from 1983 to 2011 of rural women’s participation in the labour force using a variety of definitions of female labour force participation that capture both market and non-market work. The authors find a long-term slow decline in the participation of rural women in wage work and self-employment, especially among dalit and adivasi women in poor agricultural labourer households. The more recent sharp decline in female labour force participation (FLP) in 2004–2011 has occurred both in market and non-market work, and across most categories of economically active women. Our analysis highlights the somewhat contradictory behaviour of rural FLP across different definitions and time periods, and across different correlates of female labour force participation, and suggests that more complex factors are at work than has usually been discussed in the literature.

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Fig. 1

Source: NSS EUS Survey data, 2011/2. Authors’ own calculations, including principal and subsidiary occupational status, as explained in the paper

Fig. 2

Source: 38th, 50th, 61st, and 68th rounds, employment and unemployment survey, National Sample Survey of India

Fig. 3

Source: Taken verbatim from the 38th Round questionnaire, Section 10, unemployment and employment survey, National Sample Survey of India


  1. 1.

    Abraham (2013) also looks at long-term declines in female labour force participation rates in India. However, he does not examine the implications of different definitions of womens’ work as well as the role of demographic factors such the number of children in the household in explaining the rate of decline in female labour force participation in rural India.

  2. 2.

    Hirway and Jose (2011) show that time-use surveys can provide more accurate assessments of women’s informal employment, as they can capture the scattered and sporadic nature of women’s work.

  3. 3.

    The labour force participation rate is calculated by expressing the number of persons in the labour force as a percentage of the working-age population. The numerator is the sum of the number of persons employed and the number of unemployed, and the number will vary in our calculations depending on the definition used. The denominator in our calculations is all adult rural females, aged between 15 to 64 years.

  4. 4.

    The extra-domestic tasks are typically ignored in labour studies (Srinivasan, 2010), but there are advantages to exposing them (Hirway 2015). Our narrow definition is, strictly speaking, a work participation rate since the unemployed are left out of it (Hirway and Jose 2011: 73). Hirway and Jose show that including the extra-domestic tasks was approved by the United Nations by 2008 (UN, 2008; Hirway, 2015) yet the Indian system of NSS employment reporting does not fully conform to this standard. Instead, unpaid family helpers in India are split between those who report this work as a usual or subsidiary occupation, and thus have it included in estimates of the labour force; and those who report it only after putting Housewife as the usual labour status. Thus, the extra-domestic worker headcount is typically omitted from Indian estimates that use NSS.

  5. 5.

    Feminist economists have forcefully argued the gendered nature of unpaid work, especially extradomestic work. As Hirway (2015) notes, “the predominance of women in this work is not out of their free choice or their relative efficiency or inefficiency; the division of the work between men and women is largely a social construct, determined by Patria rchal traditions and values. In fact, this highly unequal distribution is at the root of power relations between men and women, and all pervasive gender inequalities” (p. 5).


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Correspondence to Amaresh Dubey.

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Dubey, A., Olsen, W. & Sen, K. The Decline in the Labour Force Participation of Rural Women in India: Taking a Long-Run View. Ind. J. Labour Econ. 60, 589–612 (2017).

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  • Female labour force participation
  • Market work
  • Non-market work
  • Gender
  • Dalit
  • Adivasi
  • Agricultural labourers