There are obviously many reasons to be appalled and sickened by the continuing—and possibly even increasing—violence against women that plagues Indian society. It is true that this is not a new feature, because such violence has been both endemic and structural in Indian society. It has even been argued that we hear of so many more cases at least partly because women and girls are more willing and able to come out and speak about it than they were in the past.
We must also accept that there are urban and class biases that determine which incidents get a lot of publicity. For example, cases of molestation and sexual harassment in big cities like Bengaluru (disgusting and unacceptable as they are) have got much more national media coverage recently than alleged cases of the gang rape of tribal women in Chhattisgarh by the very security officers who are supposed to protect them.
While much violence against women in India is still in the form of domestic violence, with most perpetrators known to the woman affected, there are more and more reports of violence occurring in public spaces, even in places that were not previously known to be so affected.
But apart from the moral outrage and the alarm at the sickness of our society that is exposed by such acts, we should be aware that there are significant economic costs to such violence. Since maximizing gross domestic product (GDP) seems (unfortunately) to be the one holy grail that is sought after by our leaders, whatever their political persuasion, it is worth reminding them of these costs.
One of the many surprising features of the Indian economy—and one that makes it stand out even among other large developing countries and “emerging markets”—is the low workforce participation of women. The most recently available estimates of work and employment (relating to 2011-12) based on the large sample survey of the National Sample Survey Office suggest that only 25% of rural women above the age of 15 years, and 17% of urban women, were gainfully employed on a regular basis.
They include women who are in paid employment (whether as regular or casual workers), self-employed women and unpaid helpers in household enterprises. These are shockingly low figures compared to most other developing countries, and the rates of rural employment of women have actually declined over time, which is unprecedented in a relatively fast-growing economy.
This in turn is a reflection of the low status of women in Indian society, which drives both poor recognition of the huge amount of (unpaid) productive work that is performed by women and the physical, social and cultural constraints put on women who do seek outside employment.
As it happens, the same NSSO survey revealed that 60% of rural women and 64% of urban women are also engaged in unpaid economic activity within the household.
These include care activities (looking after the old, the young, the sick, the disabled as well as healthy adults), cooking, cleaning and related work, as well as work required for ensuring the basic needs of the household, such as fetching water and fuelwood, kitchen gardening and so on. These are essential activities without which neither society nor economy can function, yet they are inadequately acknowledged and certainly not remunerated.
This has two very important implications. First, the entire “recognized” economy, whether formal or informal, is hugely dependent upon and subsidized by this unpaid work, which makes up the subterranean base (incidentally, measures of aggregate productivity in the economy that do not take account of this unpaid work are misleading: They underestimate the number of workers, and so overestimate the actual output per worker).
Second, the recognized economy loses out on the potential for income expansion by reducing the ability of women to engage in it. Indeed, the decline in remunerated employment of women can be entirely explained by the increase in numbers of unpaid workers.
So the two tendencies reinforce one another, in a depressing cycle of lack of empowerment of women and low economic productivity in the society as a whole.
The low work participation of women is particularly badly affected by concerns about the physical security of women. Violence against women in public spaces creates an environment in which not just the families but the women themselves are more reluctant to engage in economic activities that could expose them to different sorts of violence.
This in turn means a big loss to society in terms of the loss of workers who could contribute to recognized economic activity. Because such violence even limits the ability of women to engage in unpaid activities that necessarily involve moving out of the home (like fetching water and fuelwood), it also affects such essential provision.
Policymakers who have made a big noise about the “demographic dividend” of having more young people available to join the workforce have neglected both the hidden and the potential economic contribution of women. And the less they—and society in general—do about controlling such violence, the more we all lose, even economically speaking.Jayati Ghosh is professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi