Over the last few years, multiple research papers have explored the various ways in which gender-based violence impacts urban women’s labour force participation rates. As mentioned earlier, two papers looked at the impact of media reportage and perception of safety as factors that influence the participation rates.
The paper on media reportage used data from Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone and National Sample Survey (NSS) data from 2009-10 and 2011-12. To factor in for other possible factors that could be driving this correlation, the methodology included a lag between the media reportage and the responses from the NSS survey, Zahra Siddiqui, the author of the paper and associate professor in economics at the University of Bristol, told IndiaSpend.
Siddique also used district fixed effects, basically looking at trends within each district to account for other socio-economic factors that can drive this trend. “It is a very robust relationship that persists even after controlling for many, many different things,” said Siddique, adding that she found this trend to be prominent for younger women (less than 30 years of age), upper caste women and for Muslim women.
The other paper, on perception of safety, used data from India Human Development Survey, 2004–2005. The first author Tanika Chakraborty told IndiaSpend that they also implemented district fixed effects to account for other confounding factors. Moreover, the study also found that this effect does not exist for gender-neutral crimes such as theft and that stigma associated with sexual crimes plays a part in this trend. This paper also found this effect to be more prominent for younger women (for age groups 21-30 and 31-40) and for women from conservative families that practise the purdah system.
Despite these robust links, it is difficult to say how these decisions are made without surveys, said Siddique. “In the South Asian context, I’m sure that it also matters what the family or the husband feels and not just the women. But I cannot say what is going on until one actually goes to the women and does some detailed survey about how this kind of decision making is taking place.”
However, not all researchers believe that violence or the fear of it has caused the decline in female labour force participation in India.
From 2005, female labour force participation rates witnessed a sharp decline from 32% to 19% in 2021. Ashwini Deshpande, an economist and professor at Ashoka University, in an article published in January 2021, argues that this decline was driven by rural women, especially rural adivasi women. “Fear of safety is real and so is the desire to work outside,” said Deshpande. “But I don’t understand how it explains the decline. Has perception of safety worsened in rural India since 2004? Not sure.”
Moreover, the whole narrative around violence and perception of safety is about violence outside the home, said Deshpande. “It is like home is a safe space and to remain safe, I must remain indoors. That is the most patriarchal thing ever.” It hides the fact that the majority of violence happens inside the home and is perpetrated by people known to women, she added.
A June 2016 paper found a positive correlation between women’s labour force participation and domestic violence. There could be a two-way causality for this relation, said Sohini Paul, author of the paper and senior programme officer at Population Council, an international non-profit.
“If a woman is employed, it may hurt the spouse’s ego, and in order to restore dominance, he may turn to violence,” stated the paper. “On the other hand, if the probability of violence increases, it affects the participation of a woman in the labour market due to her anxiety about further violence.”
While supply factors may contribute to the low level of participation in India, it does not explain the decline, said Deshpande. The decline can only be explained by demand side factors. “We looked at panel data, where the same people are being followed over a period of time,” said Deshpande. “We looked at four years and we had three time periods for each year. So we had a total of 12 data points. And we found that in the short span of four years, women enter and exit paid employment several times. This has to be a demand side story. Supply side factors do not change so quickly, perception of safety does not change so quickly.”