In India, small interventions bring big changes for gender equality


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Young girls iin a  school in India
Young girls in a school in India. Credit: World Bank

I was in India a few weeks ago and had the chance to visit some rural schools in Uttar Pradesh. When I was there, I met a group of adolescent girls who could potentially help close the country’s gender gap.
These girls board at school, where they get nutritious meals and are able to focus on their studies. The program purposefully targets 11 to 13-year-old girls from poor households who cannot afford to send their daughters to school. Some girls are also at risk of being married off early.
By keeping the girls in school at this critical juncture, they have a chance at a better life.
Parents told me that many of the girls at this boarding school were underweight and malnourished when they arrived. As they studied and ate and slept well, they slowly gained weight and got taller. As their knowledge grew, so did they.
But how many of these girls will go on to fulfil their true potential and add to their family’s income by joining the job market?

Female participation in the labor force remains low
Surprisingly women’s employment in India is among the lowest in the world – 33 percent.  This is well below the global average of 50 percent and even lower than in most countries at the same income level.
In most countries, overall prosperity, the freeing of women from the burden of childbearing and greater education have gone hand in hand with larger numbers of women joining the workforce. But not in India.
More disturbing, the participation of women in India’s labor force has been on a declining trend, in contrast to most other countries, particularly since 2004/05.

Indian woman
Indian woman from Palastar village, Maharashtra. Credit: World Bank

Some promising initiatives to boost gender equality

Even so, the potential for women’s participation in India’s economy is enormous. Small and relatively inexpensive interventions - such as making it safer for women to travel to and from work - often make a big difference.
Look at Mumbai. This bustling metropolis’s commuter trains carry eight million passengers every day, which is almost the number of people who live in Switzerland. Each rush hour the trains are packed full, which means the women trying to get to their jobs risk sexual harassment and violence.  
When the authorities in Mumbai took action to improve the suburban rail system, we were happy to finance new train cars, including women-only cars on each of the trains, as well as women-only trains during rush hour.
The results so far have been promising. Women report feeling more comfortable and safer riding the trains to and from work.  And we are convinced that initiatives like this one to make transport safe will increase women’s ability to seek and hold down jobs and further their education. 
The challenge is to apply this lens to all public investments – and to allocate resources in a way that supports both men and women, boys and girls. That is what we are trying to do as we work to consider the impact on women and girls and men and boys in the projects we finance. Gender equality is central to our goals -- ending extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity in a sustainable manner. 


R. Kyle Peters

World Bank’s Senior Vice President, Operations

Join the Conversation

Deivanai Arunachalam
January 18, 2017

Such interesting writing, Kyle! It's these noble goals that make the World Bank a beautiful institution. The next natural step to gender equality is for men to recognize the importance of women's employment. And I must tell you that the Chennai office is fortunate to have such men at the helm of its affairs - Sunil Kumar and Vinay Prakash Chugh for instance who were very supportive of me during one of the most vulnerable moments in my career/life.

syed Ejaz Ghani
January 18, 2017

Thank you very much for this blog. It is disbursing that the overall participation of women has declined in India. But hidden below the aggregate trends are new twists and turns, as globalization and technology changes the way developing countries are developing and how role of women in this changing. I have summarized this below from our World Bank Paper.
Rise of Informality, Trade and Gender in India.
The slow growth of manufacturing, vast informal sector, and low female participation in economic activity are a concern to many policy observers of India. India’s manufacturers have long performed below their potential. Since its liberalization, India has undertaken many trade reforms to increase its global integration, and the country has invested in domestic infrastructure projects to improve its regional connectivity. These trade reforms have impacted many parts of the economy, and they seem to have held special importance for informal firms, especially women headed enterprises.
There are three intriguing, under-appreciated, and new emerging trends India’s structural transformation and manufacturing growth. First, much of the manufacturing sector’s employment growth that has occurred has come in the form of informal establishments in tradable sectors. While it may not be surprising that manufacturing employment growth has followed from the improved infrastructure connectivity and trade reforms, the degree of imbalance towards the informal and tradable sectors is. The second trend is the particular development of one-person enterprises within this informal tradable sector. These one-person firms are self-employed manufacturers. Tradable establishments with one employee grew from 6% of the informal sector workforce in 1989 to 21% by 2010. This trend is not present in non-tradable industries, and the growth dwarfs other size categories. This trend is particularly surprising given that we would expect the trade and investment reforms that India underwent in the 1990s to more strongly impact larger firms, as micro enterprises in particular are known to face significant hurdles in competing in export and other non-local markets. Third, many more women are now participating in informal firms and now connect into local supply chains and input-output networks.
There are risks going forward. The connectivity of informal firms to global supply chains can propagate shocks. We need to better understand how changes in technology impact and shape new emerging trends in globalization.

Pavai D
January 27, 2017

I would like to add that girl child and women are more involved in unpaid work in families thereby putting them in a vulnerable situation in the long run. This can be improved by changing stereotypical attitudes of boys and men. It will truly free up more girls and women to become competitive in formal economic activity.

March 25, 2017

We are on wrong path,gender equality is never be achieved. Just give a thought to the words.