India is in the midst of a moral crisis. The deadly gang rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in New Delhi last December focused attention on the mistreatment of women in Indian society, though not all the outrage was directed at the perpetrators. Rural politicians blamed the victim for being out in public. When demonstrators took to the streets of the capital to demand justice for the woman’s killers, police fired tear gas at them. For Indians justifiably proud of the country’s economic advances, the episode has been an unsettling reminder of how far India still has to go when it comes to defending the rights of women. “The brutal rape and murder of a young woman, a woman who was a symbol of all that new India strives to be, has left our hearts empty and our minds in turmoil,” said Indian President Pranab Mukherjee during a nationally televised address in January. “It is time for the nation to reset its moral compass.”
The inability of the world’s largest democracy to guarantee the security of half its population is indeed a moral crisis, but it’s also an economic one. India has been celebrated for its steep growth and rapidly expanding middle class, as well as its position as an exciting market for foreign multinationals. Yet it has achieved these gains with astonishingly low economic participation by women; those who enter the business world often find themselves in chauvinistic and threatening work environments.
The lamentable state of gender equality belies the image of a prosperous, modern India. It also suggests why the country’s economic miracle has stalled. The continuing exclusion of India’s female human capital from professional life is something that the country can no longer afford.
In a paper called “India’s Economy: The Other Half,” published last year by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Persis Khambatta, a fellow at the center, and Karl Inderfurth, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs, point out that India has the world’s second-largest workforce, at 478 million people. And yet the proportion of women in the workforce is only 24 percent. The number of senior-level female employees sits at 5 percent, compared with a global average of about 20 percent, and almost half of all women stop working before they reach the middle of their careers, in large part because even well-educated Indians cling to traditional views of women’s roles.