Part 2 – Status of Women in India

The previous post talks about how the narrative in advertisements has evolved to portray progressive women, contemporary relationships in a family and modern attitudes towards gender roles, with some brands explicitly pushing the boundaries of conventional gender roles and responsibilities. But while this is being portrayed, is it a real and true reflection of Indian society, or of even a part of it – presumably the TG for the brand, or is it merely wishful thinking on the part of the creative team? Has the status of women actually changed and to what extent? I thought an evaluation of a few fundamental parameters would reveal a clearer picture and the ones that I decided to focus on are education, marriage and childbearing age, total fertility rate, sex ratio at birth, economic participation and asset ownership.

Female literacy rate, both overall and adult, has increased over the years. Basis Census data1, overall female literacy rate increased by 20% between 2001-11 (from 53.7% in 2001 to 64.6% in 2011), while the adult female literacy rate increased by 24% in the same time (from 47.8% in 2001 to 59.3% in 2011). The gender gap in adult literacy also diminished – the Gender Parity Index for adult literacy (i.e. ratio of female adult literacy to male adult literacy) improved from 0.65 in 2001 to 0.75 in 2011. The table on the right shows that there has been a reduction in the gender gap at every level of education, which is a heartening sign. While various national and state level government initiatives have driven the increase in elementary and secondary education, the increase in higher education is reported to be due to higher and more stable household incomes.

Higher enrollment in education is a key contributing factor towards an increase in the mean age of marriage and childbearing. The average age of marriage for women has increased by almost 2 years within a decade, up from 20.5 in 2006 to 22.3 years in 2016; varying from 21.8 years in rural areas to 23.2 years in urban.2 Leading from this, average age at first child birth has also risen – only 7% of total births are to women under the age of 20 currently. The Total Fertility Rate (TFR, i.e. live births per woman) has also dropped significantly; the TFR in rural areas has declined from 5.4 to 2.6 from 1971 to 2012, and the corresponding decline in urban areas has been from 4.1 to 1.8 during the same period.3 Increasing age of marriage and childbearing, and lower total fertility rate has had a positive impact on women’s health. For example, the maternal mortality rate (MMR) has decreased from 307 per 100,000 live births in 2003 to 167 per 100,000 live births in 2013.4

While there have been these positive changes in the lives of women, unfortunately, there hasn’t been a positive change in outlook towards having a girl. This is reflected in the steady decline in the sex ratio at birth. While Indians are choosing to have fewer children, there is still a bias towards a male child.

Basis the 2011 Census study5, 914 girls were born for every 1000 boys, significantly lower than the 1961 level of 976 girls per 1000 boys. This implies higher female foeticide as the girl child continues to be looked upon as a liability, an attitude driven by patriarchy and social norms. Contrary to popular perception, the sex ratio at birth in urban India is lower than that in rural India, 905 vs. 923 in 2011! One of the key reasons for this urban-rural divide is the access to technology which allows for sex selection in urban areas.

The National Economic Survey6 also highlighted another worrying trend with the same root cause, wherein families continue having children till they beget a son or the desired number of sons. This is reflected in the sex ratio imbalance that appears when the gender of the last child among women who have completed fertility is tracked. This indicator, Sex Ratio of the Last Child (SRLC, females per 100 births of the last child), is highly skewed towards boys and hasn’t changed over a decade (39.5% in 2005-06 vs. 39% in 2015-16). This has led to what the survey called ‘unwanted’ girls and pegged the number at 21 million currently (computed as the gap between the benchmark sex ratio and the actual sex ratio among families that continued to have more than two children).

In fact, in several districts in rural Maharashtra, parents had started naming their second/ third/ fourth born girl-child ‘Nakushi’ or ‘Nakusha’, meaning ‘unwanted’ in Marathi! It was considered a way to communicate to God that they were ‘unwanted’, in the hope that the family would be blessed with a son the next time around. In 2011, the Maharashtra government initiated a name-change campaign in these districts, starting with Satara district which has the lowest sex ratio in Maharashtra, where 280 girls changed their names. Girls chose inspiring names like Kiran (meaning ray of light), Ashmita (meaning strength), Bhagyashree (meaning lucky), Aishwarya (meaning prosperity), etc. These girls were automatically enrolled in public schools, benefited from free public transport, and their parents were granted free food rations. As part of this campaign, volunteers from the public hospitals in these districts, with the help of officials from the district collector’s office are also working to convince couples to give up prenatal testing to determine the sex of the child. The intention of this campaign is to end gender discrimination and create awareness about gender equality starting from the time the child is conceived. A good thought, and a noble goal, but parity is a long way away!

Another vital parameter to evaluate is women’s participation in the economy. While the absolute number of women now working has increased (from 116 Mn in 1994 to 129 Mn in 2012), the increase is only marginal (CAGR of 0.6%) and not proportionate to the increase in population; hence the overall female labor force participation rate has dropped. In rural areas, there is actually a decline in absolute number of women in the workforce (from 103 Mn in 2000 to 101 Mn in 2012). In urban areas, while there has been an increase in absolute numbers (from 19 Mn in 2000 to 28 Mn in 2012), the growth rate has barely kept pace with increase in population of women, leading to a declining female Labor Force Participation Rate (LFPR) over the years.7

Change in female labor force participation rate is typically explained through a U-shaped curve (Goldin, 1995).8 India is predicted to behave according to the U-curve hypothesis, but the upswing in the curve hasn’t happened yet. Several studies by leading organizations and economists 9,10,11,12 found that a woman’s decision to be part of the labor force is primarily influenced by economic stability at home. These studies mention that with rising and stabilizing household income levels, women at the bottom of the pyramid withdraw from paid labor. This is reflected in the fact that illiterate women in India – as a segment across urban and rural India – saw the highest drop in female LFPR; as their husband’s incomes rose and the economic necessity to work decreased, they simply dropped out of the workforce.10

For illiterate women in rural India, their workplace is also moving away from home. Due to mechanization of agriculture, there is reduced demand for female laborers and therefore the job opportunities for these women are typically limited to non-agricultural labor.  Not only are these non-agricultural jobs limited in number, they also do not allow for compatibility with family duties, and attitudes are such that women tend to forsake job opportunities in favor of their domestic duties. Several stigmas are attached to women working outside the home in manual labor jobs and non-manual jobs haven’t emerged at the required pace.10,13

While the level of education of women is increasing – as mentioned in an earlier section of this post, this has not translated into increased female LFPR among educated women. In fact, female LFPR is lowest amongst women with secondary and post-secondary education and has dropped significantly amongst women with college education.9 This is primarily because jobs deemed appropriate for more educated women have not grown commensurately with the rise in female education. There is insufficient availability of the type of jobs that are socially acceptable for women, allow them to reconcile household duties with work, and are in the type of sectors (healthcare, education, public service) that have traditionally drawn in female workers.12

While the opportunities haven’t grown at the requisite rate, there has been a positive shift in the overall work profile of women who are in the work force. The National Economic Survey found that the percentage of women working in non-manual sector has increased from 19% in 2006 to 28% in 2016.6 Basis NSSO data, the gender pay gap has decreased from 29% in 2005 to 20% in 2012.7 A 2017 FICCI report estimates female representation at the board level in the NIFTY 500 companies to have increased from 5% in 2012 to 13% in 2017.14 Although a large part of it may be due to regulatory changes (SEBI directive), companies are now realizing the importance of gender diversity in the board room too. The same report revealed that 60% of women directors are independent – which is contrary to the popular notion that women directors are only appointed from the promoter family to comply with the regulations.

Increasing education and changing working status has empowered women to own and play a larger role in financial decision making. For example, women held 32% of bank accounts in 2015 compared to 24% in 2010. More importantly, they also held a proportionate amount of money in these accounts.7

Another indicator of this is land ownership. Different studies peg agricultural land ownership by women anywhere between 7-13% in 2011.15 A World Bank-backed study pegs land ownership by women at 10% in 2011 and indicates that it has increased by 36% from 2001 to 2011 – thus implying improved gender equity in agricultural land ownership. That said, it is still a long way from achieving gender parity in land ownership.

Women’s agency has also improved; basis the National Economic Survey, higher proportion of women have stated involvement in decision making about personal and household improvements.6


While we have looked at just a few parameters, these are elementary and fundamental, and most of them do hint at an improvement in the status of women in India. The table below summarizes the parameters that I’ve investigated in this post:

While the pace of change may seem slow and may be uneven across regions, town-classes, SECs, etc., India is headed in the right direction. Although more concerted efforts are needed for further improvement since it is still a very long way from parity, the times are indeed changing.

  • Roshni Jhaveri



1 Women & Men in India (2017), Chapter 3: Literacy & Education – Publication by MoSPI

2 Women & Men in India (2017), Chapter 1: Population & Related Statistics – Publication by MoSPI

3 Youth in India (2017) – Publication by MoSPI

4 Women & Men in India (2017), Chapter 2: Health – Publication by MoSPI

5 Census of India (2011), Chapter 5: Gender Composition of the Population

6 National Economic Survey (2017-18), Chapter 7: Gender & Son Meta-Preference: Is development itself an antidote?

7 Women & Men in India (2017), Chapter 4: Participation in Economy – Publication by MoSPI

8 Claudia Goldin (1995), ‘The U-shaped Female Labor Force Function in Economic Development and Economic History’

9 Luis A. Andres et al.(2017), ‘Precarious Drop: Reassessing Patterns of Female Labor Force Participation in India’ – World Bank Publication

10 Sunita Sanghi et al. (2015), ‘Decline in Rural Female Labor Force Participation in India: A Relook into the Causes’ – NITI Aayoj Publication

11 Sonali Das et al. (2015), ‘Women Workers In India: Why So Few Among So Many?’ – IMF Publication

12 Klasen & Pieters (2013), ‘What Explains the Stagnation of Female Labor Force Participation in Urban India’ – International School of Labor Publication

13 Urmila Chatterjee et al. (2015), ‘Job Opportunities along the Rural-Urban Gradation and Female Labor Force Participation in India’ – World Bank Publication

14 Corporate India – Women on Boards (2017) – FICCI Report

15 N.C. Saxena (2012) – ‘Women, Land and Agriculture in Rural India’ – UN Women Publication