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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Abraham, V.J. (2009), “Employment Growth in Rural India: Distress-Driven?”,Economic & Political Weekly, pp. 97–104.
Abraham, V.J. (2013), “Missing Women or Consistent Defeminisation?”, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. 48, No. 31, pp. 99–108.
Banerjee, N. (1995),“Sexual Division of Labour. Myths and Reality in the Indian Context”, Bagchi, J. (ed.),Indian Women. Myth and Reality, Sangam Book, Hyderabad.
Chowdhury, S. (2011), “Employment in India: What Does the Latest Data Show?”, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. 46, No. 32, 6th August.
Das, M.B. (2006), “Do Traditional Axes of Exclusion Affect Labour Market Outcomes in India”, Paper No.97, Social Development Papers South Asia Series.
Desai, S., P. Vashishtha and O. Joshi (2015), Mahatma National Rural Employment Guarantee Act: A Catalyst for Rural Transformation, National Council for Applied Economic Research, Delhi.
Drèze, J. and P.V. Srinivasan (1997), “Widowhood and Poverty in Rural India”, Journal of Development Economics, Vol. 54. pp. 217–234.
Ellis, F. (1993), “Peasant Economics”, 2nd ed., Wye Studies in Agricultural and Rural Development, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Gang, I.N., K. Sen and M-S Yun (2008),“Poverty In Rural India: Caste And Tribe”, Review of Income and Wealth, Vol. 54, No. 1, pp. 50–70.
Goldin, C. (1994), “The U-Shaped Female Labor Force Function in Economic Development and Economic History”, NBER Working Paper No. 4707, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, Mass.
Goldin, C. (2014), “A Grand Gender Convergence: Its Last Chapter, American Economic Review, Vol. 104, No. 4, pp. 1091–1119.
Harriss-White, B. (2004), India Working: Essays on Society and Economy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Heyer, J. (2015), “Dalit women becoming ‘housewives’: lessons from the Tiruppur region, 1981/82 to 2008/09”, C. Still (ed.), Mobility or Marginalisation? Dalits in Neoliberal India. Routledge, London.
Himanshu (2011), “Employment Trends in India: A Re-examination”, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. 46, No. 37, 10th September.
Hirway, I. (2015), “Unpaid work and the economy: linkages and their implications”, The Indian Journal of Labour Economics, Vol. 58, No. 1, pp. 1–21.
Hirway, I. (2012), “Missing Labour Force: An Explanation” in Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. 47, No. 37, pp. 67–72. (Though mentioned in the text it is not included in the list of references).
Hirway, I. and S. Jose (2011), “Understanding Women’s Work Using Time-Use Statistics: The Case of India”, in Feminist Economics, Vol. 17, No. 4, pp. 67–92.
Jeffrey, C., R. Jeffery and P. Jeffery (2004), “Degrees without Freedom: The Impact of Formal Education on Dalit Young Men in North India”, Development and Freedom,Vol. 35, No. 5, pp. 963–986.
Kannan, K.P. and G. Raveendran (2012), Counting and Profiling the Missing Labour Force, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 47, No. 6, 11th February.
Kapsos, S., A. Silberman and E. Bourmpoula(2014),“Why is female labour force participation declining so sharply in India?”,ILO Research Paper No. 10, International Labour Organization, Geneva, Also available at http://www.ilo.org/global/research/papers/WCMS_250977/lang–en/index.htm. Accessed 13 Dec 2017.
Klasen, S. and J. Pieters (2012), “Push or Pull? Drivers of Female Labour Force Participation during India’s Economic Boom”, Working Paper No. 6395, IZA.
Kingdon, G and J. Unni (2001) ,“Education and Women’s Labour Market Outcomes in India”, Education Economics, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. 173–194.
Mazumdar, I. and N. Neetha (2011), “Gender Dimensions: Employment Trends in India, 1993-94 to 2009-10”, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. 46, No. 43, 22nd October.
Mehtotra, S., J. Parida, S. Sinha and A. Gandhi (2014), “Explaining Employment Trends in the Indian Economy, 1993–94 to 2011–12”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 44, No. 32, pp. 49–57.
National Sample Survey (1984);38th Round Questionnaire, Section 10, Unemployment & Employment Survey, National Sample Survey of India; Also available at www.mospi.in or http://mospi.nic.in/Mospi_New/site/inner.aspx?status=3&menu_id=36. Accessed on December 2014.
Neetha, N. (2014), “Crisis in Female Employment: Analysis across Social Groups”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 49, No. 47, pp. 50–59.
Neff, D., V. Kling and K. Sen (2012), “The Puzzling Decline in Rural Women’s Labour Force Participation in India: A Re-examination”, Indian Journal of Labour Economics, Vol. 55, No. 3, pp. 407–429.
NSS (2012), NSS Report 559; Also available at http://mospi.nic.in/Mospi_New/upload/nss_report_559_10oct14.pdf. Accessed on 2014.
Olsen, Wendy and S. Mehta (2006), “The Right to Work and Differentiation in Indian Employment”, Indian Journal of Labour Economics, Vol. 49, No. 3, pp. 389–406.
Olsen, W.K. and S. Mehta (2007), “A Pluralist Account of Labour Participation in India”, Gupta D. and Singh SK (ed.),Workers’ Participation in Management: An Introduction, Icfai University Press, Delhi.
Rangarajan, C., P. I. Kaul & Seema (2011), “Where Is the Missing Labour Force?” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. 46, No. 39, 24th September.
Rodgers, J. (2012).“Labour Force Participation in Rural Bihar: A Thirty-Year Perspective Based on Village Surveys”, Working Paper No. 04/2012, Institute for Human Development, Delhi.
Srinivasan, T.N. (2010), “Employment and India’s Development and Reforms”, Journal of Comparative Economics, Vol. 38, pp. 82–106.
Sanghi, S., Srija, A. and V. Shirke Shrinivas (2015), “Decline in Rural Female Labour Force Participation in India: A Relook into the Causes”, VIKALPA, Vol.40, No. 3, pp. 255–256.
Srivastava, N. and R. Srivastava (2010), “Women, Work, and Employment Outcomes in Rural India”, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. 45, No. 28, 10th July.
Still, C. (2010), “Spoiled Brides and the Fear of Education: Upward Mobility and Dalit Women in rural South India”, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 45, No. 5. pp. 1119–1146.
Thomas, J.J. (2012), “India’s Labour Market during the 2000 s: Surveying the Changes”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 47, No. 51, pp. 39–51.
United Nations (2008), System of National Accounts, Inter-Secretariat Working Group on National Accounts, Washington D.C.
World Bank (2010), India’s Employment Challenge: Creating Jobs, Helping Workers, Oxford University Press, The World Bank, New Delhi.
World Bank (2012), Gender Equality and Development, Washington D.C.
About this article
Cite this article
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). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41027-017-0085-0
- Female labour force participation
- Market work
- Non-market work
- Agricultural labourers