The Huge Costs of India’s Discrimination Against Women

My article on gender inequality in India appeared in The Atlantic. An excerpt is reproduced below. The full text can be accessed here.

Imagine a country where the most powerful political figure, two billionaires , three of the most dominant regional politicians, several prominent CEOs, and half of local government representatives are women. Now imagine that, in that same country, one-third of adult women are illiterate, spousal rape is not illegal, and sex-selective abortion and female infanticide are still widely practiced.

It may be hard to reconcile these two realities, but modern India somehow manages to be, at the same time, the land of Indira Gandhi and Mother Theresa and of child brides and dowry deaths.

The standing of women in Indian society received unprecedented national and international attention last year following the brutal gang rape and subsequent death of a young woman in Delhi. The incident sparked widespread public protests in the Indian capital and gained further attention after one of the accused perpetrators was found hanged in jail on Monday. While the tragedy has led to some long-overdue reforms, it is far too early to declare it a turning point for the fate of the majority of India’s women.

There are, of course, strong normative and humanitarian reasons to guarantee full gender equality and sufficient legal protection for women in India, as elsewhere. But the economic and political consequences – the material costs – of gender discrimination are often overlooked.

Consider this: India’s female labor participation rate was just 29 percent in 2010, according to the International Labor Organization, representing a slight decline over the previous two years. This decline can be attributed to a number of factors, including increases in female higher education, rising household incomes, erroneous data, and limited opportunity in sectors that traditionally employ women. Re-entering the workforce after childbirth also remains difficult. India’s profile nevertheless compares very unfavorably to the 68 percent female labor participation in China, and among G20 economies, only Turkey (28 percent) and Saudi Arabia (17 percent) lag behind.