Early marriage is not responsible for the low female labour force participation. Blame the male backlash effect for it.


By Punarjit Roychowdhury


The Hindustan Times (01.04.2019) –– India has one of the lowest female labour force participation rates in the world. In 2017, only 27% of adult Indian women had a job or were actively looking for one. The comparable figure for the rest of world was 50%. Equally alarming is the fact that the earnings and wages of women who are employed are low. According to the Global Wage Report 2018-19, the hourly wages of women are 34% less than men in India, a disparity that is highest among 73 countries mentioned in the report. It is often suggested that a major reason for the poor labour market outcomes of Indian women is the high incidence of child marriage in India. Advocacy group ActionAid estimates around 33% child marriages in the world happen in India. The average age of marriage for women also continues to be significantly lower compared to that in many other developing countries such as countries such as Brazil, Chile, Kenya and Pakistan.


Early marriage hampers labour market prospects of women in two ways. First, it interrupts a woman’s formal education, which negatively impacts her labour market outcomes. Second, early marriage leads to early motherhood. This causes younger brides to focus more on the home (raising children, for example), in turn, reducing their likelihood of participation and productivity in the labour market. In light of this, it is often proposed that one way to address the issue of dismal labour market prospects of Indian women is through policies that can potentially delay their marriage.


Can marriage delaying policies improve women’s labour market prospects in India? I recently collaborated with Gaurav Dhamija (a doctoral student at the Shiv Nadar University) to examine this question.


Using nationally representative household data of close to 40,000 women from the Indian Human Development Survey 2012, I found that delaying the age of marriage for women does not lead to better labour market outcomes for them.


One possibility is that delaying the age for marriage does not lead to more education and lower fertility for Indian women. This, however, does not seem to be the case. Indeed, older brides in my sample, are more educated and have lower fertility (as measured by the number of children).


I believe that my results can be explained by what is known as the “male backlash” effect.


According to this theory, the more educated (and hence empowered) a woman, greater is her chance of facing domestic violence. This is because when gender roles and power relations are redefined, men resort to violence to reinstate a culturally prescribed norm of male dominance and female dependence. In fact, in a recent study published in Population and Development Review, based on data from the National Family Health Survey 2005-06, sociologist Abigail Weitzman finds unequivocal evidence of Indian women who are at least as educated as their husbands have a higher likelihood of experiencing frequent and severe intimate partner violence than women who are less educated than their spouses.


Since the theory of backlash effect predicts a positive relationship between violence and educational attainment of women, and because education increases with women’s age at the time of marriage in my sample, it is reasonable to claim that older brides, as compared to younger brides, are likely to face more male backlash and be denied the freedom to work. This male backlash effect could nullify the positive effects of more education and lower fertility and, therefore, Indian women’s labour market prospects.


These findings suggest that for improving labour market outcomes of Indian women, conventional policies that talk about delaying marriage and laws to prevent child marriage may not be sufficient. Such policies must be complemented by smart and effective interventions to curb the male backlash effect. For example, gender quotas in politics and the corporate sphere could be useful in reducing male backlash. These steps must be taken through coordinated efforts of the government, panchayats, and NGOs to ensure that outdated gender role and age role beliefs do not serve as impediments for women to enjoy the fruits of delayed marriage.

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