Is there a North-South Divide in Gender Equality in India?

 Ahmedabad University organized an interesting online conversation on the gender differences in the North, South, East and West India (February 10, 2021). Alice Evans, King’s College, was in conversation with Jeemol Unni, Ahmedabad University. Listen to the conversation here. The starting point was Alice Evans’ blog on ‘Why are North and South India so different on gender?’ which was gaining attention on the social media platform, Twitter. Alice is also in the process of writing a book on the global history of gender, a long and ambitious project.

Alice began her conversation with dramatic opening questions: Why is North South India so different on gender? Why are South and North-Eastern women more likely to survive, be more educated, marry later, choose their own husbands, bear fewer children, own more assets, move more freely, exercise more control over their dowry, socialize with friends, interact more closely with their husbands, and work alongside men?

She discussed various hypothesis and more or less dismissed most of them. She first considered patriarchy and poverty, but thought it could not explain gender differentials as some high income North Indian states like Punjab have adverse sex ratios. There was overall rise in education but this did not increase female labour force participation. She states that local gender norms are likely to mediate responses to economic growth. The hypothesis of colonialism as a cause was dismissed as she felt it did not track gender divergence closely. The North South difference was likely to preexist colonialism. She next consider kinship relations and cousin marriages which is common in South India. Among matrilineal communities Kerala, partly matrilineal, led the way to growing literacy. However, she dismisses these kinship relationship as the main cause as she surmised that there was something else that impacted both gender equality and cousin marriage. South Indian women gained autonomy despite cousin marriage. 

The fourth hypothesis was foreign invasion and raids in North India which supported the idea of ‘purdah’ where women were monitored and secluded. She gives some credence to this hypothesis where North Indian women got more secluded and this gender segregation over generations aggravated gender inequality. Women were constrained by physical and social sanctions and over time internalized these cultural norms with reduced mobility. 

Her final hypothesis on which she places most emphasis is the nature of traditional agriculture and cropping pattern. Women’s labour force participation was higher where there was labour intensive agriculture. In South India with rice cultivation being prevalent women’s labour was more valued, while in North India wheat cultivation gave more importance to the plough and men’s labour. The gender division of labour became entrenched. In North West India with semi-arid soils, pastoralism was more prevalent. With men being out a lot to graze the cattle social norms put further restriction on women to control sexual practices. However, she comments that geography is not destiny, and with crop yields, can explain only 12 percent of the differences in sex ratios which are adverse in North West India.

Alice’s final take was that an interlocking of mutually reinforcing factors could explain this complex set of regional gender differentials. She attributes the difference in North South gender equality to the legacy of wheat cultivation, deep tillage, pastoralism, patrilineal and patrilocal relationships, caste based policing and invasions.

My first response to this is that while Alice has undertaken an exciting global project to understand gender inequality, a lot of her arguments regarding India are well known to scholars. Early on while working on women’s work participation I read a book by Bina Agarwal, ‘A Field of One’s Own’, where she does ethnographic work and produces a series of maps on gender diversity in India. Similarly there are a number of economic, sociological and anthropological studies which notice gender diversity in India and provide many of the possible explanations discussed here. Alice appears to take a bundle of indicators on gender and assess all with the same set of socio-cultural factors. It might be better to separately try to unravel the cause and effect of each gender indicator.

Here I focus on the North South differences of work participation of women (WPR). All these arguments made by Alice focus on the LEVEL of work participation of women (WPR), whether it is higher or lower in regions. However, the major debate in India today is dynamic. The question being debated is “why is women’s work participation declining in India with economic growth?” Women’s WPR has been declining over nearly two decades. Alice tried to explain differences in level of female WPR in North and South in terms of conquest, matrilineal systems, wheat-based cultivation and caste based policing. While we cannot ignore these economic and socio-cultural factors in impacting level of WPR, how do we explain the declining WPR over the last two decades?

The classic economist explanation for low and declining women’s work participation is due to the negative income effect being higher that the positive substitution effect. Klassen & Pieters, 2015[1] decompose the stagnation of female labour force participation (FLFP) between 1987 and 2011 into contributions by different covariates and changes in behavior and unobservables. On the supply side rising male incomes and education contributed to a withdrawal of women from the labor force, showing that the classic positive income effect is at work in urban India. On the demand side, changes in the sectoral structure of employment account for a further reduction in FLFP, related to the declining shares of agriculture and manufacturing which tend to employ more women (particularly in recent years). This can be termed a “Discouraged Worker Effect”.

The second important reason is low positive or negative substitution effect: The effect of rising female education on female labor force participation is more complicated. Besides a U-shaped relationship between education and labor force participation, there is a large decline in the positive participation effect associated with secondary and graduate education. As a result, the substantial increase in educational attainment of women contributed only moderately to FLFP growth. Klassen & Pieters attribute this to rapid expansion of education supply, but also rising marriage market returns to education, leading women to pursue higher education regardless of their expected labor market attachment.

I would agree that there is a negative substitution effect that leads to the “Discouraged Worker Effect”. Increase in the level of education is expected to have a positive substitution effect due to rise in the opportunity cost of staying at home. Instead either the over-supply of educated persons, or decrease in demand leads to women not offering themselves for work, or being ‘Discouraged’ to look for work leading to withdrawal from the labour force.

Rural Women’s WPR, CMIE, See Figure 1.

First, taking up problems with the level of women’s work force participation

There is a major difference in women’s WPR for rural and urban areas with rural participation being about double that of urban areas. Another issue is the source of the data we use. National Sample Organisation (NSO) records the highest women WPR followed by Census. CMIE, an independent private source, has urban FWPR more of less similar to NSO estimates, but the rural WPR are much lower, indicating a bias in their data collection.

We will look at the NSO Rural women’s WPR from 2004-05 to 2017-18 in Figure 1. As pointed out Women WPR is higher in the Southern states compared to the Northern states. But South India is not the only one with high participation (excluded North East due to poor data, low samples size). States in the West and Central region also have high rural female WPR, highest in Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh in that order. These states are NOT rice producing, but have large tracts of semi-arid, rain fed regions. There is a poverty angle here (dismissed by Alice), poor arid rain fed agriculture also increase women’s WPR perhaps due to poverty. We know that women’s WPR is U-shaped with indicators of income, very poor and rich women are more likely to participate in the workforce.

Next, we turn to the dynamic change or decline in women’s work force participation:

Do socio-cultural and rice-wheat distinction impact the North South differences in the decline in FWPR? If the socio cultural factors are an important factor in the difference in level of work participation of women, it should also have differential impact on the decline? Women in the Northern states should have a sharper decline in WPR than in Southern states.

Figure 1: Changing Rural Women’s Work Participation
Decline in WPR of women in South and North India was not very different, West Central India was similar

Urban Women’s WPR, CMIE, see Figure 2

India had a shock of Demonetisation when 85 percent of the currency was sucked out of the system in November 2016. We depict this shock by the straight line drawn on the graphs for November 2016. There is a sharp decline in WPR of women in all states after the shock except Odisha and West Bengal.

Figure 2: Changing Urban Women’s Work Participation, Vertical line in the graphs is drawn for November 2016 when demonetisation was announced

To conclude, when a macroeconomic shock hits the country there are no North South divergences in the impact. Socio-cultural differences or rice-wheat cultivation do not seem to make any difference to change in women’s work participation. The same has been noted by many scholars during the shock of strict lockdown during the pandemic in India.  Basically, when there is a shock in the economy, women are pushed out of the work force. The ‘Discouraged Worker’ effect operates and women do not offer themselves for work (remain outside the labour force) which occurs irrespective of North, South, East or West of the country.

[1] Stephan Klasen and Janneke Pieters, 2015, What Explains the Stagnation of Female Labor Force Participation in Urban India? Policy Research Working Paper 7222, Development Policy Department, World Bank


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