Mumbai: Twenty-five-year-old Mehak* had always wanted to be a criminal lawyer but her parents did not approve of her career choice as they considered it to be unsafe. "I have wanted to be a criminal lawyer since I was in the ninth grade," Mehak told IndiaSpend. "My parents thought I was joking or that it was just a phase and I would find something else."

Currently a law student in her hometown of Sonepat, Haryana at a law school run by her parent's acquaintances, Mehak did her undergraduate and postgraduate studies in psychology from Chandigarh. She said she had got admission into many prestigious law institutions in Pune and Bengaluru but was not allowed to go after her grade XII exams because of her parents' concern for her safety.

Mehak said her parents are now happy. She is studying and still not allowed to work. They've made it clear to her: She can join the workforce only after they find her a "suitable work environment that they will be comfortable with", she said.

Multiple research papers have found that fear or concerns around safety reduce the probability of women joining the workforce in urban India.

A 2018 paper found that increased media reporting of sexual assaults reduces the probability of a woman being employed. 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 (IWWAGE), 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.

But other research work shows that this linkage is tenuous at best, and that there might be several factors at play in restricting women's work outside the home.

For the sixth story in our Women At Work 3.0 series, we spoke to young urban women and researchers and found that family concerns for safety force women to give up on opportunities, take up jobs that are low-paying, or choose "safer" careers. While fear of crime impacts career trajectory, it may not always lead to dropping out of the workforce, we found in our interviews. In this story, we examine the role of violence and perceptions of public safety to see how it continues to impact workforce participation.

In free fall

India's female labour force participation was already in free fall when Covid-19 hit our shores. Between 2004-05 and 2011-12, as many as 19.6 million women quit paid work, according to a 2012 World Bank paper.

There were several reasons for this, as our earlier series found. These included the burden of unpaid household work, inadequate public transportation options, and the gendered perception that a woman's true work was within the home; it was the man's job to provide for his family.

The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem. There was widespread loss of jobs across sectors with women impacted harder than men in percentage terms. Work from home also meant that the burden of housework increased for women, though in the early days of the lockdown there is evidence that men contributed far more than before to housework.

As we kicked off Women@Work 3.0, we saw that women's workforce participation was at its highest in four years, according to the Periodic Labour Force Survey. But, there is a caveat: This growth was being driven by rural women in small self-run enterprises. Economic distress was leading women to take on low-paid jobs just to keep the kitchen running.

Impact of fear on career ambitions

When 29-year-old Swati* was in school, she wanted to join a coaching class to prepare for the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) entrance exams, but was not allowed to do so as her parents said the classes were far away from their home on the outskirts of Prayagraj and it would not be safe for Swati to travel all the way to the coaching classes in the city centre. "I used to ask my parents to let me go," said Swati. "I felt that if I was allowed to go, I would do better." Despite her pleas, her parents did not relent.

Just like Swati, many women we spoke to had lost opportunities or pay because of similar concerns from their parents. Varsha*, a 26-year-old Supreme Court advocate, was not allowed to sit for the entrance exams for the National Law Universities (NLUs). Her father told her that if she wanted to study law, she would have to do so in Delhi. NLU, Delhi was also not an option as it is a fully residential college.

Varsha still faces restrictions. She cannot stay out till late. She cannot take up a job in the district courts. "Taking up litigation as a career was a rebellious task for me," said Varsha. "And I could convince them [to let me study law] only on the grounds that I would be working in the Supreme Court and not the trial courts, because they were scared that if I start working in the trial courts, I would get harassed."

[Read Judge to Worker: The Spread of Sexual Harrasment in India]

For Varsha, not knowing how to drive also acts as a deterrent as she feels that the public transport in Delhi is unsafe. She's not alone. Almost a quarter of the 4,950 respondents of a 2015 report by Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) said that they found the buses and the metro in Delhi unsafe.

A 2021 World Bank paper found that female students from Delhi University would choose a lower quality college and spend as much as Rs 17,500 more for a "safer" route. Women from Ahmedabad and Bengaluru also feel anxious while travelling in buses, found a 2020 paper.

Sometimes, these choices can lead to loss of income. Komal*, who is in her late 20s and works as an accountant, has taken up a lower paying job because the location is closer to her home and the work does not involve late nights. "Offices that pay you well obviously have demanding work hours, late nights and most are based in Gurgaon and Noida," said Komal. "Working there would mean coming home late. My family might just get a panic attack thinking about how late I would come back home. I feel that it is not worth earning a few extra bucks."

This fear for safety is also influenced by media reportage on gender-based violence, women that we interviewed told us. Pooja*, a 28-year-old writer from Mumbai, said that she remembers how her father became more restrictive of her mobility after a 22-year-old photojournalist was gang raped in Mumbai's Shakti Mills in 2013. Two of the women we interviewed were not allowed to move to Delhi to pursue journalism because the families believed it to be an unsafe city as portrayed in the media.

Concern masks patriarchal control

Just like Mehak's parents, Pooja's father too did not approve of her choice of career. He wanted her to become a doctor or an engineer and have a job which involves fixed timings and no travel. But Pooja joined a PR firm instead. The job entailed long hours, working on weekends, attending events and meeting clients. Her father did not consider it to be a "suitable job for a girl" and has imposed strict restrictions on her mobility. He has all her degree certificates and documents and monitors her bank accounts. If she needs a document or a certificate, she has to state the reason and return it to him promptly after the use.

For most of the women that we spoke to, this concern for safety was mixed with some form of patriarchal control. "My father's concern [with my leaving the city] was the concern about what would happen to me and what I will end up doing once I step out of the house," said Swati. "It is both ways. [The concern is that] you will not have any control over her."

Varsha has tried multiple times to explain to her parents that they cannot control her and that she is an adult. But convincing them of this is not easy, she said. "They have grown up with the idea that whatever a man decides for his family, it is the family norm," said Varsha. "And then my mother tells me, 'Your father is saying it out of concern and he is not trying to restrict you. We love you so much and that is the reason we are doing this.' After a point one cannot say anything."

This control will last until they are married, many of our interviewees have been told by their parents. Mehak's parents have decided what her life should be. She thinks they want her to move to the United Kingdom to study more while they arrange her marriage with someone there. "Once I am married, I am safe," Mehak said. "Somebody will take responsibility for me. Whatever that means."

But Mehak has other plans. She wants to get a job after her bachelors degree in law and is getting ready to fight for it. "I will have to [fight] but I think I've decided that I will just go for it and not look back and not talk to my parents if they still have the problem."

Like Mehak, some women we spoke to are fighting these restrictions, negotiating with their parents and finding ways to do what they want to. While Swati did not pass the entrance exam to join an IIT, she finished her engineering from Kanpur and then joined an Indian Institute of Management and is now in Canada.

Missing pieces of the puzzle

Over the last few years, multiple research papers have explored the various ways in which gender-based violence impacts urban women's labour force participation rates. As mentioned earlier, two papers looked at the impact of media reportage and perception of safety as factors that influence the participation rates.

The paper on media reportage used data from Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone and National Sample Survey (NSS) data from 2009-10 and 2011-12. To factor in for other possible factors that could be driving this correlation, the methodology included a lag between the media reportage and the responses from the NSS survey, Zahra Siddiqui, the author of the paper and associate professor in economics at the University of Bristol, told IndiaSpend.

Siddique also used district fixed effects, basically looking at trends within each district to account for other socio-economic factors that can drive this trend. "It is a very robust relationship that persists even after controlling for many, many different things," said Siddique, adding that she found this trend to be prominent for younger women (less than 30 years of age) and upper caste women..

The other paper, on perception of safety, used data from India Human Development Survey (IHDS), 2004–2005. The first author Tanika Chakraborty told IndiaSpend that they also implemented district fixed effects to account for other confounding factors. Moreover, the study also found that this effect does not exist for gender-neutral crimes such as theft and that stigma associated with sexual crimes plays a part in this trend. This paper also found this effect to be more prominent for younger women (for age groups 21-30 and 31-40) and for women from conservative families that practise the purdah system.

Despite these robust links, it is difficult to say how these decisions are made without surveys, said Siddique. "In the South Asian context, I'm sure that it also matters what the family or the husband feels and not just the women. But I cannot say what is going on until one actually goes to the women and does some detailed survey about how this kind of decision making is taking place."

However, not all researchers believe that violence or the fear of it has caused the decline in female labour force participation in India.

From 2005, female labour force participation rates witnessed a sharp decline from 32% to 19% in 2021. Ashwini Deshpande, an economist and professor at Ashoka University, in an article published in January 2021, argues that this decline was driven by rural women, especially rural adivasi women. "Fear of safety is real and so is the desire to work outside," said Deshpande. "But I don't understand how it explains the decline. Has perception of safety worsened in rural India since 2004? Not sure."

Moreover, the whole narrative around violence and perception of safety is about violence outside the home, said Deshpande. "It is like home is a safe space and to remain safe, I must remain indoors. That is the most patriarchal thing ever." It hides the fact that the majority of violence happens inside the home and is perpetrated by people known to women, she added.

A June 2016 paper found a positive correlation between women's labour force participation and domestic violence. There could be a two-way causality for this relation, said Sohini Paul, author of the paper and senior programme officer at Population Council, an international non-profit.

"If a woman is employed, it may hurt the spouse's ego, and in order to restore dominance, he may turn to violence," stated the paper. "On the other hand, if the probability of violence increases, it affects the participation of a woman in the labour market due to her anxiety about further violence."

While supply factors may contribute to the low level of participation in India, it does not explain the decline, said Deshpande. The decline can only be explained by demand side factors. "We looked at panel data, where the same people are being followed over a period of time," said Deshpande. "We looked at four years and we had three time periods for each year. So we had a total of 12 data points. And we found that in the short span of four years, women enter and exit paid employment several times. This has to be a demand side story. Supply side factors do not change so quickly, perception of safety does not change so quickly."

*Names concealed on request

Correction: The story incorrectly attributed a statement linking the low level of female labour force participation with fear for the safety of women to economist Ashwini Deshpande. We have now corrected to reflect that she was referring to supply side factors in general and not to just safety.

Correction: The story incorrectly quoted Zahra Siddiqui, the author of a paper that found a correlation between media reportage and perception of safety as factors that influence the female work participation rates. We have corrected the story to reflect that this correlation was prominent for younger women and upper caste women and not for Muslim women.

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