Noida: “We cannot achieve success if 50% of our population being women are locked at home,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi is quoted as saying, in this press release from March 2023. Women-led development was one of the themes in last year’s G20 summit, which India had presided over.

India ranks 108 of 193 countries on the Gender Inequality Index in 2022, an improvement of 14 positions from the previous year. The index, computed by the United Nations Development Programme, ranks countries based on reproductive health, labour market opportunities and empowerment of women.

Women’s leadership in the various development programmes launched by the government led to the improvement in the utilisation of these services, according to Akhila Sivadas, Executive Director of the Centre for Advocacy and Research.

Ahead of the general elections beginning this week, we look at critical indicators to study the state of women and the girls. More women are now giving birth in a health facility and getting at least four antenatal care visits, but the poorest women still have low levels of maternal care. The sex ratio at birth has increased overall, but this masks regional disparities with several states still performing poorly.

More girls are enrolling in secondary school and drop-out rates at that level have fallen, but still, three in five girls aged 16 to 18 years are out of school, according to the gross enrolment data for grades XI and XII. Further, more than three in five women are out of the labour force, and while unemployment rates have fallen to under 3%, this number masks much under-employment, studies show.

The rate of crime against women has increased over the years, national data show, but this could be from an improvement in reporting the crimes, studies suggest.

Despite improvements, India lags in maternal health

Utilisation of maternal health services increased between 2005-06 and 2019-20, as seen from the National Family Health Survey data on women who had institutional deliveries and antenatal care visits. This was a result of the removal of financial barriers to access to healthcare, and of various pro-poor policies, according to this 2021 study.

However, utilisation of these services among poor women needs improvement. Nearly every woman in the highest wealth quintile--that is, the wealthiest 20%--gave birth in a health facility, while among the lowest 20%, every fourth woman delivered outside a health facility, most of them at home, NFHS data show. Similarly, 72% women in the highest wealth quintile reported having four or more antenatal care visits, while in the lowest quintile, only 42% women did so.

Between 2014 and 2020, India reduced its maternal mortality ratio (MMR), which is the number of women who die giving birth for every 100,000 live births, from 135 to 97, government data show. This is a reduction of 25% in six years. By contrast, the global MMR has reduced by only 3% in the same period. Yet, India ranks 119 on the list of countries ranked by MMR.

Sex ratio at birth improves

Improvement in maternal health was one of the objectives of Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, the flagship scheme of the Modi government. Among its other objectives was an improvement in the sex ratio at birth (SRB). In 2015, the sex ratio at birth (the number of girls for every 1,000 boys) was 918. This number increased to 934 in 2022, as per the Health Management Information System (HMIS) data.

Several large states--Bihar, Haryana, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and West Bengal--saw their sex ratios at birth falling in 2021-22, leading to a drop in the national figure.

Overall, Bihar had the lowest sex ratio at birth, at 898 girls per 1,000 boys, followed by Haryana (920), Delhi and Nagaland (924), and Gujarat (927). Mizoram had the highest (994), followed by Sikkim (981) and Kerala (968).

More girls go to high school

Enrolment of girls at the secondary and higher secondary levels has increased, as per data from the Unified Digital Information on School Education (UDISE). However, one out of every five girls between the ages of 14 and 16 years was not enrolled in school in 2021-22. Similarly, two in five girls aged 16 to 18 years were not in school.

The dropout rate at the secondary level has also decreased, as per UDISE data.

More crimes against women are reported

The rate of crime against women has increased since 2015, as per data from the National Crime Records Bureau. Women are more likely to report abuse and sexual attacks after the 2012 Delhi gang-rape known as the Nirbhaya case, but there has been little or no impact on arrests and convictions rates, IndiaSpend reported in August 2019 based on a study published in February 2019.

The mere perception of crime against women increases the probability of early marriage of girls, according to this 2021 study. Further, women with no schooling marry sooner than those with 12 or more years of schooling, found the NFHS 2019-20.

A 2018 paper found that increased media reporting of sexual assaults reduces the probability of a woman being employed, IndiaSpend reported in November 2022. Another paper from the same year, by Tanika Chakraborty and others, published in World Development, found similar links. It also found that social stigma associated with rape plays a role in keeping women away from paid work.

Beyond perceptions and fears, some studies, like the 2021 analysis by the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy, look at the correlation between crime rate and women's labour force participation. The paper finds a low but negative correlation between overall crime rate and labour force participation, meaning that a lower crime rate would mean a slightly higher labour force participation.

Only 37% women are in the labour force

India’s female labour force participation rate continues to be low at 37%, which means that over three in five women are neither working nor looking for work. Women’s labour is used as insurance during periods of low income, meaning that they drop out of the labour force once they tide over this period, according to this 2021 paper.

The unemployment rate in India has decreased from 6.1% in 2017-18 to 2.9% in 2022-23. However, this low unemployment rate masks the underemployment and the prevalence of women participating in low-skilled, low-paying jobs, according to this 2021 study.

Returns to education (the increase in wages achieved by an additional year of schooling) are decreasing in India, although they are higher for women than for men. India has not added enough jobs to keep up with the pace of population growth, although it stands to gain the most from reducing the gender pay gap amongst its South Asian neighbours, according to this April 2024 paper from the World Bank.

It was the women who seized opportunities provided by the system to ensure that the needs of their community were met, according to Sivadas. “Women-led development is more than just hiring functionaries for the programmes. It is the result of the ownership that women developed due to their forming collectives and doing their bit to ensure that the local implementers get supported through their participation and involvement,” she added.

We welcome feedback. Please write to We reserve the right to edit responses for language and grammar.