Rural Women Falling Out of the Workforce Faster Than Urban Women

The number of women working in rural India is declining at a greater pace than that among women in urban workforce.

6 min read

The number of women working in rural India is declining at a greater pace than that among women in the urban workforce, according to an IndiaSpend analysis of government data.

Sustained high economic growth since the early 1990s has led to improved education and health indicators among India’s women. Yet, women accounted for no more than 25% of the labour force in 2011-12, declining from 33% in 2005, according to national sample survey report (2014) on employment, a rate worse than neighbouring Bangladesh (29%), Nepal (52%) and Sri Lanka (34%), IndiaSpend reported on May 4, 2017

But this decline is more marked for rural women, according to data from the ministry of statistics and programme implementation’s National Sample Survey (NSS), 2014.


The aspirations of rural women, increasingly educated and exposed to paid labour opportunities under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme(MGNREGS), have shifted away from unpaid agricultural work on family farms toward more formal, paid work.

There are, however, not enough formal sector jobs available in rural areas. MGNREGS, a labour demand-driven programme, is limited to providing only 100 days of paid labour on public works projects per year. The few paid, formal jobs available, besides MGNREGS, tend to go to men and women with degrees, leaving women educated till the secondary school level in limbo – with skills that qualify them for non-agricultural work, but with few such jobs available, according to a 2018 study by the University of Maryland.

This lack of formal jobs, coupled with shrinking availability of agricultural work, has led to declining numbers of women in the rural workforce.

Labour force participation rate (LFPR) is a measure of the number of persons in the labour force per 1,000 persons. The NSS data recording the change in female LFPR in rural and urban areas over 18 years to 2011 show that the female LFPR has declined in both.

However, a closer look at the NSS data shows that the decline is steeper in rural areas. Whereas female LFPR in urban areas has declined from 165 per 1,000 in 1993 to 155 in 2011, in rural areas the female LFPR has fallen from 330 to 253 over the same period.

The increasing workforce population ratio is higher income classes in rural India clearly indicates rural women’s changed aspirations towards more formal, paid work. Where alternatives for remunerative employment are provided, such as by MGNREGS, rural women prefer these over unpaid labour, according to a 2015 study conducted by the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad for the NITI Aayog. The decline in female WPR in the lower income classes may be attributed to a number of factors, the study said. Increased income may have led to women withdrawing from distress employment, preferring instead to do family farm work. Some formal sector work done by women in lower income rural families is also going unrecorded. For instance, women and girls contribute labour to the recorded wages earned by male relatives, particularly in jobs such as construction work, the study added.

Better Education Not Leading to Increased Employment

One of the main factors identified as hindering women’s participation in the workforce is low education.

With education levels improving with incentives for female education, higher levels of literacy (22% in 1983 to 55% in 2011) and primary education (10% in 2005 to 17% in 2011) have been recorded among women in rural areas, according to NSS data.


However, better education is not leading to increased employment for rural women. The NSS data on workforce population rates by education level show a decline in the WPR despite increased education levels among rural women.

Increases in education – from none to completed secondary school (up to class 12) –are associated with a decline in women’s participation in the rural labour force, from 53.3% to 22.4%.

The WPR drops with rise in education levels: From 445 per 1,000 rural women who are not literate to 121 for women who have completed secondary education and above.

While most girls in rural India have received primary education, secondary school enrolment has also increased. This may account for the withdrawal of younger women of secondary school-going age from the rural workforce.

For women beyond this age – from 20-64 years – school enrolment is not a factor in work participation. The decline in WPR for rural women, however, affects women at all ages, the NSS data show. This suggests a deeper problem than that implied by the trade-off between the time spent in school and the time spent working.

For women past secondary school-going age, workforce population has increased for urban women, while it has declined for rural women, reflecting the greater availability of formal jobs in urban areas.

Among rural women, only women with higher educational qualifications are finding non-agricultural jobs. Beyond secondary school-going age, the decline in women’s workforce population ratio is not as much as it is for women with intermediate education.


Up to 28.1% of rural women who are college graduates are employed, according to a 2018 study by the University of Maryland. “Educated women look mainly for better quality jobs, especially salaried work,” said the study. “The inference might be that if all or most available jobs were salaried, Indian women would show the usual positive relationship of higher rates of employment with more education.”

“However, such jobs are limited and are accessible mainly with higher levels of education,” said the study. “If appropriate jobs were available for women with intermediate levels of education, we might expect higher levels of their labor force participation.”

Improved Transport Infrastructure Increases Rural Women’s Work Participation

Most salaried jobs are in the cities, towns and big villages. Hence, availability of transport and allied infrastructure has an impact on women’s participation in the workforce, according to a 2017 study by University of Maryland that looked at data from India Human Development Survey (IHDS) rounds of 2004-05 and 2011-12, jointly conducted by the University of Marylandand NCAER.

“The conditions of transportation infrastructure have also changed dramatically during the survey interval, particularly because of the strong push by the central government through the PMGSY [Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana],” the study said. “Many more villages were accessible by kutcha (unpaved) and pucca (paved) roads in 2012 than in 2005. The percentage [of villages] with “no road access” dropped from 6% to 1% during the seven-year interval.”


“Regarding the frequency of bus service, the percentage of villages with no bus services also dropped from 47% in 2005 to 38% in 2012,” said the study. “More villages had bus services one to six times a day in 2012 than in 2005, but slightly fewer villages had bus services seven times or more a day in 2012 compared to 2005.”

The IHDS surveys found that the construction of either a kutcha or a pucca road increased the odds of women’s participation in non-farm work by 1.5 and 1.4 times, respectively. Their gains were higher than that of men, who also benefited from road construction by 1.2 times for kutcha roads and 1.4 times for pucca roads, according to the study, reflecting the long-standing gender gap in employment. With men outnumbering women in the workforce, more women than men stand to gain from improved transport infrastructure.

The non-agricultural employment rate has also increased significantly for both men and women over the seven years to 2012, though the rate has remained much lower among women than among men. Only 10% of women participated in non-agricultural work in 2005, wḣich increased to 17% in 2012. The non-agricultural employment rate for men increased from 47% in 2005 to 55% in 2012.


MGNREGS Work Increases Market Wages for Men, but Not Women

Another factor that has had an impact on women’s workforce participation is the MGNREGS. IHDS data suggest that fewer (46%) women reported having ‘no work’ in 2011-12 than in 2004-05 (50%). The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act was enacted in 2005.

More women (9%) reported being engaged in non-farm work than the 6% involved in farm work from 2004-05 to 2011-12, according to the IHDS data. This suggests that the expansion of opportunities due to MGNREGS draws those women into paid labour who might have otherwise continued to work only on family farms. Further, research on IHDS data shows that nearly 45% of women MGNREGS workers worked as unpaid labour on family farms during the first wave of IHDS in 2004-05.

Higher allocation of MGNREGS work has been found to raise market wages (for formal work beyond MGNREGS) for male MGNREGS workers, but a similar increase is not statistically significant for women, according to a 2018 study by the NCAER. This underscores the gender bias in access to formal work. Where formal jobs beyond MGNREGS become available in rural areas, these go mostly to male MGNREGS workers, leaving women MGNREGS workers restricted to the informal sector.

(Salve is a senior policy analyst with IndiaSpend. This article was first published on IndiaSpend and has been republished in an arrangement.)

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