India’s Laws Can Only Do So Much for Women in the Workforce
Last week, the World Bank released the fifth edition of their Women, Business and the Law report, which seeks to measure the legal barriers to women achieving success in the workplace. The data was drawn by country, across various indicators, such as access to property, access to institutions, ability to build credit, and protection from violence. While India ranks better than several countries, like Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan (a low bar; these are economies where husbands can legally prevent their wives from entering the workforce), the report makes clear there is much room for legislative improvement before women have equal economic opportunity.
Women only make up an appalling 25% of the Indian labor force and only 27% of Indian women work. It is imperative that employers are not further discouraged from hiring women, yet the report shows there are various barriers to women entering the workforce.
One such is last year’s amendment to the Maternity Benefit Act, through which India increased the length of paid maternity leave for working women from 84 days to 182 days – ostensibly, a progressive measure, but one that has, in effect, made it more expensive and therefore less attractive for employers to hire women “of childbearing age.” The cost of hiring women compared to men might also be pushing employers to offer lower salaries to women as a way to compensate for that loss, the report finds.
To prevent maternity leave from hurting a woman’s chances of employment, the Indian government needs to fund at least some percentage of the leave, instead of requiring employers to bear the full cost — as they currently do. Additionally, real progress toward gender equality will only happen when employers are required to offer equal paternity leave — which the report has yet to view as an indicator.
The low percentage of women in the workforce is not just due to enforced maternity leave. As it stands, Indian legislation bars women from participating in several jobs and industries deemed “hazardous, arduous or morally inappropriate.” Women are also not allowed to work the same night shift hours in factories as men (although individual states, like Maharashtra, have since made amendments to this act).
Where India ranks best in the report is in women’s access to government institutions and legislative protection from violence. Women are not legally required to obey their husbands, and are able, in the same way as men, to obtain passports, sign contracts, register businesses, and open bank accounts.
Indian women are also legally well protected should they experience violence. There are specific laws in place requiring punitive measures for domestic violence and sexual harassment. However, this is where the World Bank’s report fails to provide a comprehensive image of violence against women — it does not consider, for example, marital rape, which is still legal in all Indian states.
Furthermore, while the report looks at the laws addressing violence against women once it has occurred, it does not go into legislation aimed at preventing gender violence in the first place. If these indicators were measured, India would likely rank poorly. Where, for example, is the legislation ensuring that Indian education systems uniformly teach children about gender equality?
And that is essentially the issue: While the report measures the enabling legal framework for women’s access to work, it’s the attitudes that determine whether women are actually enabled. The equality Indian women have on paper doesn’t exist in reality; who actually has equal access to opportunity when she has a second, full-time job doing housework and child care at home? When her parents believe only male children should inherit? When the courts are so backed up that any suit to avail of her working rights may well be resolved only after she’s retired?
Legislation in India needs to work from the ground up to ensure that employers aren’t afraid of hiring women, that women aren’t staying home for fear of violence, and that women are being equally compensated. Once our laws are able to address these issues at the root, instead of after the fact, then perhaps Indian women will make up more than just a quarter of the workforce.