As India's economy grows, women are dropping out of its workforce. That's stumped economists. Some say it's a sign of prosperity. In conservative India, if women can afford not to work, they don't.



Now to India, which will soon overtake China as the world's most populous country. In recent decades, India has developed quickly. But as that's happened, women have not joined the workforce as much as they have in other countries. In fact, Indian women have been dropping out. And that has stumped some economists. From Mumbai, NPR's Lauren Frayer reports.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Growing up in a city that's home to the Bollywood film industry, Aditi Dhulap dreamed of being an actor. She never thought of doing a 9-to-5 office job.

ADITI DHULAP: But then suddenly, everything changed, that one incident in my life.

FRAYER: That one incident 28 years ago was a train accident that killed her brother. Her father had a heart condition, and suddenly, the family's financial security fell on Aditi, who was then just 21. So she got a job as a secretary at the German manufacturing company Siemens. That was a big deal back then, especially for a woman.

DHULAP: Getting into Siemens is a big thing. The eyebrows of the person used to be, oh, Siemens, good, yeah.

FRAYER: Aditi climbed the ranks, and about two decades later, she was an executive. She was living in a typical joint Indian family with her in-laws and kids when her father-in-law died. Suddenly the role of caregiver fell on her, and she struggled.

DHULAP: As a married woman, you know how it happens. We were not able to keep everybody happy. My mother, she was not supportive that time. My mother-in-law is not supportive.

FRAYER: So Aditi eventually joined the ranks of the millions of Indian women each year who put their professional lives on hold.

RITU DEWAN: Now you see girls and women either leaving their jobs early or even actually leaving their jobs totally.

FRAYER: Economist Ritu Dewan says part of the reason is prosperity. India is now a middle-income country, but lots of folks still have conservative ideas about a woman's role in the family.

DEWAN: You know, you have the standard, oh, my wife does not need to work. And the woman says, I don't need to work because my husband can provide for me.

FRAYER: I was reminded of that recently while interviewing rickshaw drivers in Mumbai about inflation.

IBRAHIM: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: Things have gotten so bad, one driver told me, that his wife may actually have to get a job for the first time. For him, women's labor is an emergency stopgap measure, not something to rely on. Now, it's true that Aditi could quit her job at Siemens only because she's from a relatively well-off family with savings. But what's perplexing, says Sher Verick, an economist at the International Labour Organization, is that lower income women are dropping out of the workforce, too, in even greater numbers.

SHER VERICK: Which indeed was a real puzzle over the last decade or so, particularly during the period when the Indian economy was growing fast.

FRAYER: Statistics show fewer than 1 in 5 Indian women work, at least formally, though most work here is informal - agricultural or domestic labor that often isn't tracked. As Indians migrate to cities, they often don't have extended family around to help with child care. Many women also have safety concerns about commuting. But Verick says there's an even bigger factor.

VERICK: And that's the lack of decent and productive employment that would be appropriate and accessible for women.

FRAYER: Now, this is especially true for women who are unskilled, who live in rural areas and who shoulder the bulk of child care and household duties in families without high-tech appliances - in other words, a majority of women in India.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: In the noisy outdoor market of Mumbai, a gaggle of female neighbors commiserate about their employers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Hindi).

SANGEETA DEVDE: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: They all work as cleaners and cooks in other people's homes. It's sporadic and insecure, and weak labor laws don't help.

DEVDE: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: "None of us get decent wages or paid time off," says Sangeeta Devde, who is separated from her husband and trying to support their son.

DEVDE: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: She says one of her employers recently replaced her with a younger man who doesn't have to juggle unpaid work at home like she does. So this is one of India's challenges as it overtakes China as the world's most populous country, not only to create jobs for all of its workers but to create the conditions that will allow its female workers to take them. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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