A digital magazine on sexuality, based in the Global South: We are working towards cultivating safe, inclusive, and self-affirming spaces in which all individuals can express themselves without fear, judgement or shame
women travelling in a public bus
CategoriesMobility and Sexuality 2Voices

Mobility And The “Missing Women” In The Labour Force

The year was 2015 when I visited Bhopal for the first time. We were excited as it was a long overdue family trip. The City of Lakes, as it is called, was beautiful; what disturbed us all, however, was the absence of women on the roads. We kept wondering where all the women were and why they weren’t to be seen even in broad daylight; our chaperon was surprised by our reaction because, for him, this was nothing extraordinary! We stayed in Bhopal for five days, and this disturbing trend continued. This leads me to talk about how public spaces remain largely occupied by men, and the absence of women is considered totally normal. Dr Amartya Sen had coined the term “missing women” to refer to the phenomenally low female to male sex ratio in South Asia, especially in India and China, where it is as low as 0.94 in South Asia, West Asia and China. (Amartya Sen, 1992)[1]. According to Sen, millions of women, especially in South Asia, are “missing” from the total population owing to traditional cultures and values. I want to talk about a new trend of “missing women” in public spaces in terms of employment in India, although the absence of women in public spaces has always been a reality. Emily Oster, Professor of Economics in Brown University, tried to counter Sen’s thesis with claims that hepatitis B in women, ie, biology and not just society leads to the birth of more male babies in this region as compared to female babies (Emily Oster, 2005)[2]. However, later, through further research, she refuted her own earlier claims, and the poor sex ratio can indeed be attributed to gender-based discrimination (Emily Oster and Gang Chen, 2008)[3].

It is estimated that as many as 65 million women are “missing” from the voting procedure, and 100 million from the overall population in India (Ravi and Kapoor, 2013)[4]. With “co-operative conflict” (Sen, 1987)[5] existing between men and women leading to tremendous gender inequality, the child-bearing woman becomes more dependent on the harmony of the family and less demanding of her fair share of the family’s joint benefits. The phrase “co-operative conflict” here implies the internal conflict at home, depending a great deal on who does what and who earns how much. The woman often ends up getting the worst end of the bargain, given household chores are often undervalued. And she accepts it for the sake of her family and tradition! There is, hence, a trend of “missing women” in the workforce, with female labour force participation rate (LFPR), the ratio of women in the total population who either have a job or are actively looking for one, declining sharply since the 43rd round of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) survey, registering a rise between 1999-2000 to 2004-05, before falling again in 2011-12, with the rural rate going up and the urban rate declining over the years[6]. Indeed, the LFPR in India was 35% in 1990 and 23.3% in 2017-18, , a stark fall since liberalisation of the Indian economy and is currently one of the lowest in the world (World Bank, 2018)[7]. It is no wonder that while the world is talking about a growing and modernising India every day, women here are losing more and more jobs. Economists like Surjit Bhalla have claimed that this is accrued to increasing educational enrolment rates (Surjit S. Bhalla, 2018[8], which can be opposed. If more women are actually getting educated, then why are more women leaving the workforce? If not education, what else is hindering them from accessing employment?

There is a direct correlation between mobility and sexuality. Women’s mobility does get hampered because of both social as well as economic reasons, leading to this contradictory fall in female LFPR despite a growing economy. Faulty infrastructure in terms of transportation and communication plays a huge role in this. High costs of transportation are as much responsible for lower mobility among women as social evils like harassment and molestation. For most women, covering long distances between work and home become as much an economic issue as a social one. There are issues of safety, issues of coming home late which are frowned upon by the husband and other family members, but also, it might seem futile to women to cover such long distances spending money on transportation, come home late, cook dinner and get tired in addition to the chances of getting harassed on the way. The money may not seem to balance that, and women lose out in accessing “gainful employment”. Staying back at home, caring for the family and maintaining harmony in the family become the main goals, or rather, the safer goals. In economic terms, the opportunity cost of going to work seems lower in such cases. Attitudes at home remain the biggest reason for the lower female labour force participation rate. For the woman, it is always “safer” at home, or so is she convinced. The outside world – male-dominated public spaces – is the unsafe world that she believes she needs protection from.

In my home-state of Assam, it is astonishing to see so many young men frittering away their time, playing carom or sitting outside a paan shop for their daily “adda”. Growing up, I have always avoided such men in groups and have never dared to look directly into their eyes, even when I was a little girl. This was not taught to me by anyone, I learnt it on my own. That large groups of men are dangerousis how I became oriented to the world. I never cared to wonder why women were never seen in such groups, wasting away their time in front of the local shop all day long! More importantly, even if these men did not harm me in any way whatsoever, why was the fear, the idea of them being dangerous so inherently stuck in me? Mobility is indeed very much related to sexuality, and I have heard women in my locality leaving their jobs because they would have to return late, and the neighbourhood did not seem safe enough at night. Attitudes at home are no doubt defined to a large extent by the “unsafe” nature of public spaces, like basic roads as well as buses.

However, the fall in female LFPR after liberalisation shows a disturbing trend of development and growth that has been very gender-biased. Transportation and communication have developed, no doubt, but this development has mostly benefitted men. Sure, there are reservations for women in the metro or even in buses, but the number of women accessing public transportation remain less than the number of men. After 9 pm, this number becomes even lesser! The economic reasons of the gender pay-gap, sexual harassment within a male-dominated work environment and high transportation costs are vital reasons for there being fewer women in the workforce. Urbanisation with better transportation has in fact made it easier for men to be more visible, and become a bigger “threat” to women. More men have become visible in the public sphere with the growth in ideas of modernity–high-tech transportation, longer office or working hours and even in activities like going out to eat. Women have started feeling more threatened. A study in Bangalore shows how Internet or cyber cafes have become a regular hangout for young men, and how the very idea of the development of the Internet has become “scary” for women who have been oriented to avoid spaces with large groups of men, with only 30% of women accessing the youth-oriented cyber cafes (Nicholas Nisbett, 2009)[9]. The female LFPR in urban areas is lower as compared to that in rural areas, further proving that development of infrastructure alone is not the solution to this. The mobility of women is a far more complex issue and goes beyond the mere development of infrastructure and transportation.



[1]Sen, Amartya, “Missing Women: Social Inequality Outweighs Women’s Survival Advantage in Asia and North Africa” (1992), Page no. 2, British Medical Journal

[2]Oster, Emily, “Hepatitis B and the Case of the Missing Women” (2005), Page no. 1164-1165, Journal of Political Economy

[3]Oster, Emily and Chen, Gang,  “Hepatitis B does not Explain Male-Biased Sex Ratios in China” (2008), Page no 142-144, Economics Letters

[4]Kapoor, M. and Ravi, S., “Women Voters in Indian Democracy: A Silent Revolution” (2013)

[5]Sen, Amartya, “Gender and Cooperative Conflicts” (1987), Page no. 20

[6]Menon, Rahul, “Never Done, Poorly Paid, and Vanishing: Female Employment and Labour Force Participation in India” (2019), Economic and Political Weekly


[8]Bhalla, S.S and Das, Tirthatanmoy, “Population, Education and Employment in India: 1983-2018” (2018)

[9]Nisbett, Nicholas, “Growing up in the Knowledge Society: Living the IT Dream in Bangalore” (2009), Page no. 61-63

Cover Image:  CC Public Domain

Article written by:

Ritwika Patgiri has recently joined Economics Department of the South Asian University as a doctoral student. She has a Masters in Economics from Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi and a BA in Economics from Shri Ram College of Commerce, University of Delhi. She has experience of working as research interns with organizations like Rashtriya Grameen Vikas Nidhi (RGVN), Sambodhi Research and Communications, Omeo Kumar Das Institute of Social Change and Development (OKDISCD), SDG Society and Femme First Foundation.