The revolution for India’s urban women must start at home

She can change the country. incandopolis

Since the Delhi gang rapes in 2012, the plight of women in urban India has found global attention. Much has been said about rights and safety in cities, but none of that will make a sustainable impact, unless women are also welcomed and encouraged to be a significant part of the paid workforce.

In urban India, only about 15% women of working age are part of the workforce. Even if we take into account women working in rural India – whose participation rate is about double that of women in cities – the average is still among the lowest in the world.

While women in India are increasingly becoming more visible, whether it is in public transport, media and entertainment, it isn’t just because of policies aimed to help, but often despite them.

There has been hope that, with globalisation and better communication via TV, computers and mobile phones, the ideal of gender equality would take root in India or at least, with more women taking up paid employment and more organisations working towards enhancing awareness of workers’ rights, there would be significant advances. But the first steps of getting women into paid work that can be accounted for and measured appear unclear.

Even though India lacks in this respect by global standards, it is worth noting that the situation for its women is better than ever before. There are many women in powerful positions: Chanda Kochhar is the chief executive of ICICI, India’s largest private bank; Sonia Gandhi is the leader of the Indian National Congress party, the political party leading the current coalition government; Vasundhara Raje and Mamata Banerjee are chief ministers of state for Rajasthan and West Bengal, respectively. Many women have received national awards in diverse spheres such as academia, finance, sports and arts.

We build cities. deirdre/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Yet the average educated woman worker in India is a clerk in a bank or government office, a teacher, a call centre worker, or a receptionist. Many more illiterate or lesser-educated women are employed as domestic helpers, cooks, nannies, and as workers in construction, manufacturing and transport-related activities. Except for the few educated professionals, the vast bulk of these are informal workers without social protection of any kind.

Of the 150m women who are recorded as workers by the Census of India 2011, a large proportion is in rural areas, with only 28m in urban locations. With 182m women of working age in urban India, the work participation rates of women in urban areas is very low. There have been some positive changes, for instance in the period between 2001 and 2011 urban workforce participation rate for women increased from 11.9% in 2001 to 15.4% in 2011. Even this apparently small shift is equivalent to 12m additional women workers (equal to the total population of many countries in the world, such as Cuba, Greece or Portugal).

The entire South Asian region has been marked for its exceptionally low women’s work participation rates for many decades now. The gender comparisons highlight the persistence of patriarchal structures and the notion that men are the family breadwinner, which leads to much higher male workforce participation rates of 54% (compared with 26% for females).

Women who do find employment often work as domestic helps. And, despite a corresponding rise in NGOs to protect them, these workers (or servants as most are still called) have no basic workplace rights.

The case of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade, who was recently arrested in the US for visa fraud after bringing in an underpaid domestic worker, was treated in the media as a “diplomatic row” rather than a case of mistreatment. The problem is that Khobragade’s behaviour is common in urban India.

Domestic workers are locked into what their employers see as a feudal relationship. Employers enjoy the feel-good factor of providing much-needed work to the destitute and desperate. So what if the income they offer is below the minimum wage? The comparison is between no employment and some employment under whatever terms and conditions they decide upon.

The unorganised nature of such employment further discourages domestic workers from demanding their rights – even if they are aware that they have them. The irony is that, until recently, domestic workers were accepting of the feudal relationship. But this is fast changing.

Although there are many domestic workers who have been able to educate their daughters to help them aspire to a better future, just as most of them contribute significantly to their household incomes, the recognition of their contribution at home and the benefit of being treated with dignity by their employers and society at large is missing.

It seems, then, that the revolution that will help urban Indian women the most must start at home – by encouraging them to work and recognising them as workers, thereby providing them with decent working conditions and workplace rights.

Related: India’s urban work boom is leaving women behind