Take Cities to the Women

Urbanisation empowers women. We need to enable the growth of more cities in India to help our women break free.

While Indian social media is introspecting on whether India is safe for women, or if it is conducive for pregnant working women, here’s one fact we’ve overlooked: the number of working women in the country has been declining for over a decade.

In a period of eight years, 19.6 million women in our country have quit their jobs. This is not surprising for those who have seen the decline in the number of women working or seeking jobs fall from 36.8% in 2005 to 23.7% in 2016. The decline has been credited to various reasons ranging from safety to lack of jobs available for women in the rural regions. While society allows men to migrate to cities, women are stuck in the villages with low or unpaid jobs.

Here’s one way to solve this: Instead of getting women to cities, we should consider getting cities to women.

Over a period of 20 years, till 2011, the labour-force participation for women aged 25–54 stagnated at about 26% to 28% in urban areas, and fell substantially from 57 to 44% in rural areas. In a detailed report by International Labour Organisation, Sher Verick attributed the decline to four main causes: first, increased enrolment in secondary schooling; second, rising household incomes, which pulled women out of the drudgery of agricultural labour; third, mismeasurement of women’s participation in the labour force; and finally, the lack of employment opportunities for women in the non-farm sector. Out of the total count, 62% of women in rural India who quit their jobs did it for reasons other than education.

Solutions to these problems, such as changing the social mindset or collecting data, require significant institutional and social change. Creating spaces that are more conducive for business and employment is comparatively an easier challenge for the government. One good way to create employment opportunities is to develop more city regions. The government needs to create conditions that enable urbanisation, and in doing so, create thriving economic spaces.

Although the government has started schemes like the Smart Cities Mission and Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) to attain this objective, the approach needs to be more fundamental. Policymakers can start by creating provisions that would help ease-of-doing-business, and improve connectivity across the country.

Enabling conditions to develop more cities will help generate more work and create an environment that would support working women. For instance, it is much easier for women to find options for day-care in urban regions than in rural areas. A large number of working women also make it economical for such day-cares to exist. This is just one of the examples of the symbiotic benefit that the cities provide.

Creating new cities goes beyond just empowering women. It will help generate new jobs. As per an ASSOCHAM report, the Delhi-NCR region generated over 260,000 new jobs in just one quarter of 2016.  As per the report, a total of 850,000 jobs were created in eight major new cities. This is pertinent for India, where we have had only about 3 million new jobs being created per year, while an extra 13 million people entered the working age population each year. Hence, it has never been more urgent for the country to create more avenues for jobs. This concern regarding jobs is matched by the low rate of urbanisation in the country. As opposed to China that has seen a 28% increase in urbanisation, India’s urbanisation rate only increased by 12%.

Urbanisation may not be the panacea for solving the female labour force decline, but it will help women who are unable to find suitable jobs in rural regions. A series on female labour force participation by Namita Bhandare in IndiaSpend highlighted that the distance from cities and the lack of support structure there limits more women from joining the workforce. Key reasons such as lack of safety net, the high crime rate, and the hostile city environment curtail women from migrating to cities. This perception also affects their ability to find non-farm jobs that would require them to stay out for long hours. Transforming tier II cities or towns into urban regions would empower more women to be able to select from a wide range of jobs.

Cities have been more conducive for women to be economically independent. The lack of non-farm jobs in the rural regions and a social structure that can help them thrive in a city have restricted rural women to the confines of the household. If we want to change it, we cannot wait for them to come to cities, we will have to take cities to them.

About the author

Devika Kher

Devika Kher is the Programme Manager for the Takshashila Institution's Graduate Certificate of Public Policy. She is also a Policy Analyst at the Takshashila Institution and her areas of research focus are urban governance and public finance.