WFI Protest: Contemplating Country’s GDP

TK Arun

Gender ideology which makes people shy away from confronting sexual harassment depresses India’s GDP, research output, and strategic capacity.

Content warning: Contains mention of rape.

Earlier this week, Indian Olympic Association (IOA) President PT Usha criticized the top wrestlers protesting the inaction on their complaints of sexual harassment. The wrestlers had first raised their complaint against Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president and BJP member of Parliament Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh in January 2023. They returned to Jantar Mantar to protest on April 23, 2023, after a failed attempt to file an FIR in the case.

PT Usha’s remark that the protesters had tarnished the country’s image has sparked a healthy debate on what is worse for the country’s external image: the protests by India’s world-beating women wrestlers or the refusal of the authorities — this would include the former sprint queen of India, who now heads the IOA — to act against sexual predators among their midst.

Welcome as this debate is, it would be useful to bear in mind that what is at stake is not just national esteem and the liberty of women at the levels of the individual and the collective, but also India’s economic prospects.

The labor force participation of women in India is abysmally low, placing India in the company of Pakistan and Iran. One reason so few women work outside the home is the prevalence of not just sexual harassment but, more significantly, of the prejudice that the victims of sexual harassment are themselves to blame for the torment they suffer.

Former external affairs minister, the late Sushma Swaraj, had once famously articulated the traditional Indian view on the consequence of rape: a victim of rape, she said, is nothing more than a zinda lash, a living corpse.

If a woman is hit by a truck while crossing the road, it has been pointed out, once the accident victim emerges from the hospital in one piece, broken bones fixed and injuries healed, the trauma she went through would be viewed as most unfortunate and deserving of sympathy, and her ability to survive it as admirable fortitude.

But if the unfortunate accident she suffers happens to be rape, attitudes change: even those who do not blame her would see her as having lost something essential, which devalues her for life. A woman’s chastity, which is dinned into the Indian woman’s head, is not just her most valuable possession but also an essential virtue. Once she has lost it, she is deprived, a lesser being, little more than a living corpse.

The reluctance to admit the occurrence of sexual harassment is another expression of the same pre-modern, undemocratic ideology, which places women on a footing unequal to that of women. The same patriarchal ideology commits her to the home and denies her an equal place in the public sphere.

The result is India’s terribly low participation of women in waged work. On the whole, women probably perform more work than men do, but very little of it is paid work of the kind that finds its way into national income statistics and earns the worker an income. Practically all the work of running a home and caring for the elderly and the young are performed by women. But that is not the work that brings the woman an earning and adds to domestic output as conventionally measured.

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Workforce Contribution to GDP

The share in the working-age population of those who are either at work or are looking for work represents the labor force participation rate. For women, the rate is 23 percent in India (for 2021), in contrast to the global average of 47 percent. The rate is 61 percent for China, 52 percent for Brazil, 55 percent for Russia, and 50 percent for South Africa. India’s figure is the lowest for the BRICS group of emerging market giants and by a wide margin.

Not only that, India finds itself in the group of mostly Arab and Islamic countries that have female labor force participation rates of 25 percent or lower. Pakistan’s figure is 25 percent, Yemen’s 6 percent. In between, the figure for Iraq is 11 percent, and that for Afghanistan is 16 percent.

In South Asia, tiny Bhutan has a female labor force participation rate of 53 percent, while, among the larger nations, Bangladesh leads with 36 percent. Sri Lanka is not far behind with 34 percent. For Nepal, the figure is 28 percent, closer to India’s.

According to the UN’s figures, India’s population in 2023 is 1,428.6 million, larger than China’s 1,425.7 million. The UN estimates the population in the 15-64 age group to be 68 percent of India, which would be 971.45 million.

Assuming India’s sex ratio in 2023 to be 948 (it was 943 per 1,000 males in 2011 and is projected to rise to 952 in 2033), the female population would be 472.8 million. With a labor force participation rate of 23 percent, the number of earning women is 223.4 million. If Indian women worked proportionately on par with Bangladeshi women, that number would be 349.7 million. If the female labor force participation rate in India were at China’s level of 61 percent, the number of earning women would be 592.6 million.

India’s depressed female labor force participation rate represents lost output, lower incomes, and lower welfare. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated, in 2018, that closing the gender gap would make marketable output 30 percent higher in South Asia. Higher GDP growth and higher levels of welfare are forgone by a culture that confines women to the home.

A lower than possible GDP means lower than possible spending on defense and a greater strategic gap vis-à-vis aggressively arming China. It also means lower spending on research and development, leading to fewer achievements in mastering strategic technologies.

Women are as good as men in science, technology, and mathematics — potentially. But gender ideology keeps the role of women in science below its optimal potential. That leads to lower research output and fewer breakthroughs.

The simple point is that the gender ideology that made Sushma Swaraj speak of living corpses and PT Usha less than enthusiastic about proactively addressing the complaint of sexual harassment against a sports federation head does damage far more significant than the transient loss of face for India in the world of sport.

The article was first published in The Moneycontrol as WFI sexual harassment case | More at stake than the nation’s image, PT Usha on April 29, 2023.

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