Research project: Women’s labour force participation in South Asia and beyond

Women’s participation in the labour market varies greatly across countries, reflecting differences in economic development, social norms, education levels, fertility rates, and access to childcare and other supportive services. The relationship between female labour force participation and these factors is complex. One dimension that has been widely examined in the literature is the U-shaped relationship between economic development and women’s labour force participation. Focusing on these issues is critical because female labour force participation is a driver of growth, and thus participation rates indicate the potential for a country to grow more rapidly. It is also important because in many developing countries women’s labour force participation is a coping mechanism in response to economic shocks that hit the household. However, the greater concern is whether women are able to access decent employment.

In the context of puzzling trends in India and across South Asia, the ILO Decent Work Team for South Asia commenced in 2012 an ongoing research project on female labour force participation. A number of country studies have been produced, covering not only India but also Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. In addition, a number of thematic studies have been conducted to delve further into this complex economic and social issue.

Key events

ILO/MOLE Technical Workshop on “Women's Labour Force Participation in India and South Asia”, New Delhi, 14-15 February 2013

ILO/IAMR Technical Workshop on “Do we understand what drives female labour force participation in rural and urban India? Insights from Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh”, New Delhi, 18 November 2013

Key publications

Policy brief: Women’s labour force participation in India: Why is it so low?

Female labour force participation in India and beyond
28 October 2014

The trends in the female labour force participation rate in South Asia reveal a number of puzzles. Most notable is the falling participation of women in the Indian labour force, especially in rural areas, which occurred despite strong economic growth and rising wages/incomes.

Enabling women's work
28 October 2014

Women’s work participation rates in South Asia, with the exception of Nepal, are low compared to other regions. Social norms continue to influence work-seeking behaviour, resulting in persistent concentration of women workers in certain occupations and as home-based workers.

At the threshold of economic empowerment: women, work and gender regimes in Asia
19 December 2013

The paper discusses the conceptualization of gender regimes in Asia and women’s economic empowerment, before addressing key gender concerns in planning and policies of economic development.

Female labour force participation in Bangladesh: trends, drivers and barriers
15 October 2013

Bangladesh has witnessed a substantial increase in female employment in labour-intensive export-oriented industries in urban areas. In addition, the study finds that the rapid expansion of micro-finance in rural areas has supported women’s employment.

To work or not to work? Factors holding women back from market work in Sri Lanka
15 October 2013

This study looks at the extent to which differences in individual and household characteristics are associated with whether women in Sri Lanka work for pay or not.

Low female employment in a period of high growth: insights from a primary survey in Uttar Pradesh & Gujarat
15 April 2013

The sharp decline in female employment has raised concerns among policy-makers regarding gender equality, women's empowerment, and their livelihood strategies. This study has been undertaken as a response to the growing concern over declining female employment in India, with the objective of understanding some of the reasons behind this phenomenon.