FIVE YEARS AGO, when her husband beat her up and kicked her out of their single-room tenement, Fiza Bi, who has never been to school, did what few other women in Seelampur, in north-east Delhi, have ever done: she got a job. “My husband had said no to me working, but when he threw me out of the house, I had two kids still living with me and rent to pay,” Fiza told me. “I needed to feed them. So I asked some of the women whom I knew worked in a factory to take me along, and I got a job cutting threads off jeans at a factory in Gandhi Nagar. It took me half an hour to walk there, and I got paid Rs 4,000 every month for a six-day week.” Fiza is in her forties, but with her raven hair and large, worried eyes, she could pass for the mother of her two-year-old granddaughter. Last year, Fiza’s husband re-entered her life, visiting her once a week and paying the rent. But he had one rule: she had to quit her job. So Fiza re-joined the ranks of Seelampur women who aren’t looking for paid work. “My husband gives me a few hundred from his salary of Rs 9,000,” she said. “It’s not enough, but there’s nothing I can do.”
What had made Fiza’s decision to get a job particularly unusual is that Seelampur has the lowest proportion of working women of any district in the capital, a city that itself has the lowest proportion of working women in metropolitan India. Just 5 percent of women in Seelampur told census enumerators in 2011 that they had done even one day’s paid work in the preceding year—half the rate for Delhi. In India in 2012, just under a quarter of women counted themselves as part of the workforce.
The crisis of female employment in India is severe by any benchmark. According to the United Nations’ International Labour Organisation (ILO), just ten countries in the world have lower rates of female participation in the workforce than India, and no country at a comparable stage of development is anywhere close. Bangladesh, where women find mass employment in the garment sector—as the demographic profile of the victims of the Rana Plaza crash chillingly showed—has over half its women aged 15 and above in the workforce. East Asia has had these numbers for decades. “Just under a decade ago, urbanising Turkey was in a similar situation, but it is pulling away too,” said Sher Singh Verick, a senior employment specialist in the Delhi office of the ILO.