Undeclared dividend: Women in India by Jared Mitchell, Business without Borders

January 04, 2013 2:34 PM | Deleted user
The nation’s much-vaunted youthful demographic dividend will be worthless unless it changes the way it treats women workers

Forecasters, when they speak of India’s future, cite its demographic dividend undefined its youthful population. The country today has 230 million adolescents about to begin their most economically productive years, and there are hundreds of millions more already producing goods and services. HSBC, which sponsors this site, has noted that India’s GDP growth in coming years will be 2.5% higher than Japan’s thanks to its youthful population. It has predicted that India will become the world’s third-largest economy by 2050.

But what will India’s performance be if half the population is held back?

The World Economic Forum on India’s panel, called Closing South Asia’s Gender Gap, looked at the economic impact of the plight of Indian women. They still do not participate in the economy beyond low-value agricultural work. At present, women hold only 3% of senior positions in business, and official surveys don’t even account for women in the rest of the workforce. The immediate outlook is not good, but there are signs of change, including one company that is making big strides in using the overlooked 50% of India’s demographic dividend.

The current state of women in India is depressing by North American standards. Kiran Bedi, founder and secretary-general of the India Vision Foundation, told the World Economic Forum that India has a huge labor surplus so there is no compulsion for women to work. She said that at the lowest economic level, which accounts for 70% of all Indian womenundefinedthere is no access to healthcare, education or paying work. “You can do without them,” she said ironically, characterizing traditional rural society’s reasoning: “ ‘The girl can’t go to school, she has to draw water.’ You can find this attitude just 40 minutes’ drive from Gurgaon,” she added, referring to the ultra-modern suburban city where the forum was held.

The discrimination and deprivation are unsettling: 47% of Indian adolescent girls are under-nourished; 44.5% of them are married before age 18. Violence against girls and women is still endemic. More than half of adolescent Indian boys, a 2012 UNICEF study found, believe it is acceptable for a husband to beat his wife. The study found that the same percentage of adolescent girls agreed. Bride burning is still rife in India. And while many experts are unsure of the extent of the problem, activists charge that sex-based feticide is a major problem, even in affluent areas of Delhi, and that it is skewing the ratio of females to males nationally.

There are lesser abuses, though no less humiliating or detrimental to economic progress. In The Hindu newspaper, writer Bindu Shajan Perappadan recently penned a series of stories about being harassesed while trying to commute. And harassment in the form of crude whispers and groping on the Delhi Metro’s trains forced management to create a women-only car at the front of each train. Even then, men brazenly invaded the cars to intimidate women. Indifferent Indian authorities describe such daily abuse with the belittlingly quaint nickname “Eve teasing.”

The World Economic Forum heard that Indian sons still “emotionally inherit” parents’ property and daughters are either explicitly excluded or they self-exclude on the basis of social expectations of what “good girls” do. This is practiced even among the affluent, who still believe that a woman’s place is at home as caregiver. Another limiting attitude is the lack of reproductive rights. At the bottom of Indian society women are still considered property and even their doctorsundefineddescribed as the “Gods of Wombs” undefined have greater influence over a woman than she does over herself.

Keshav Murugesh is Group CEO for WNS (Holdings) India, a business process outsourcing company headquartered in Mumbai. His firm has gone out of its way to recruit women and make the workplace safe for them. He advised companies not to wait for the government to creative initiatives on gender inclusiveness. In the Indian IT industries, up to 40% of its employees are female and in management the proportion is slightly higher. He said it will continue to be difficult to get women into the workplace so long as there continues to be a surplus of labor.

To employ women, he said, requires adopting best practices at the very top of the company, getting the buy-in and then implementing. Murugesh says that his company picks up female employees at home and drops them off at the end of the work day. He said companies must consciously focus on recruiting women at school campuses, by paying leadership rewards, having safe-workplace policies and training programs on how women can deal with doubts or objections from their traditionally minded husbands or in-laws.

While Murugesh’s firm opened its doors to female employees with policies endorsed at the top, other speakers at the World Economic Forum predicted that the Indian elites would probably change the slowest. Said one speaker: “It’s the bottom and the middle of society that changes first.”

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Reprinted from January 4, 2013 issue of Business without Borders, a publication of HSBC aggregating content from partners The Wall Street Journal, Economist Intelligence Unit, and video content from Bloomberg Master Class. To view article, go to http://www.businesswithoutborders.com/industries/retail/undeclared-dividend-women-in-india
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