What India's demographic dividend means for its women

Chitranshu Mathur

20 May 2013

Roopa Purushothaman at the Godrej India Culture Lab

The Godrej India Culture Lab recently invited Roopa Purushothaman, an economist who has worked with Goldman Sachs and was a co-author of the famous “Dreaming with BRICS” report, for a talk on Women and Leadership in India. Roopa presented her research on India’s demographic dividend and what it means for women in India, especially in terms of education, employment and nutrition levels, and also spoke about her initiative called Avasara Academy, through which she is mentoring and educating adolescent girls from underprivileged backgrounds.

The key points that Roopa presented from her research were:

  •  India has a window of opportunity up to the year 2035 when the proportion of working-age population in the total population will increase due to declining fertility rates, giving India what is commonly known as the “demographic dividend”. This phase in a nation’s development has often led to rapid economic growth and rising incomes, most notably in East Asia in the last three decades.

  •  However, real dependency ratios (number of people actually employed per retiree) are dragged down by poor employment rates, either because of lack of employment opportunities, employable skills, or in the case of India, social norms or prejudices which negatively affect women’s participation in the workforce.

  • For example, India’s female workforce participation rate is between 20-30%, compared to 50-70% in most East Asian economies. This low rate could reduce dependency ratios by ~35%, and negatively affect the potential economic growth that India could gain from its demographic dividend.

  •  A curious point in the case of India is that female workforce participation rates actually decline with increasing education levels, except in the case of highly educated women. Thus, India’s workforce is losing out on a large number of educated women, especially those with secondary or higher secondary education who could drive the transformation from an agricultural to an industrialized economy.

  •  The last two decades of economic growth and consequent rise in the number of middle class households and surplus incomes has not really changed some of the most disturbing indicators for women in India. For example, nutrition outcomes, in which India lags even behind most sub-Saharan African countries, have actually worsened in the last two decades even with rising monthly per capita expenditure. 

  •    Other gender indicators such as the gap in female v/s male infant mortality, women’s access to assets and property, incidence of physical or sexual violence, also remain severely undeveloped in India.

 

 Based on these insights from her research, Roopa has chosen to intervene in the field of secondary education for girls. While government policies and various non-governmental interventionshave ensured almost universal access to primary education, very few have given thought to what happens at the next stage of schooling. Dropout rates for girls in secondary education are extremely high, with only ~1% of girls in rural India managing to reach 12th grade. And yet, secondary education is very important as it can:

  • Contribute to economic growth and employment, especially in services

  • Help break the inter-generational transmission of poverty

  • Have a greater positive impact on health, gender equality and living conditions than even primary education

  • Contribute to democratic citizenship, social cohesion and civic participation

With these factors in mind, Roopa has founded Avasara Academy to help adolescent girls from underprivileged backgrounds realize their potential and improve their access to higher education and employment prospects. It is a small step, but as she said during her talk, the small steps matter as much as the larger ones. Watch the video of Roopa's Culture Lab talk here: http://indiaculturelab.org/events/friday-fundas/women-and-leadership-in-india/

Chitranshu Mathur works at Godrej Industries and is a part of the Good and Green, the Corporate Social Responsibility team.