6 June 2018

Are laws designed to protect Indian women doing the opposite?

By Jairaj Devadiga

Recently I read a horrifying news report stating that, on average, nearly 240,000 girls under the age of five die in India each year due to discrimination. This does not include the number of female foetuses that are aborted due to their gender.

The little girls are neglected in favour of boys. For example, if there is not enough food for the whole family, it is ensured that the son gets his fill, even if the daughter must eat less or go without. When it comes to healthcare, boys are again given preferential treatment.

Clearly, many Indian parents prefer sons over daughters. But why? Mainly because sons are seen as assets and daughters are perceived to be financial burdens. Most parents expect sons to support them in their old age. They believe (for the most part correctly) that a son will be able to earn for the family when he grows up, while a daughter won’t and will continue to depend on her parents.

One way for parents to avoid this liability of supporting an adult daughter is to marry her off as soon as possible. That way, she becomes her husband’s problem. But the husband and his family are aware of that. That is why the groom’s family demands a dowry — payment from the bride’s family, in terms of cash or valuables such as jewellery, as a condition for marriage.

Dowry is essentially a compensation paid to the groom’s family for financially supporting the bride for the rest of her life. Even though the practice is outlawed and seems repugnant to most people, it has a basis in economics, hence it is still prevalent in India. Since the dowry is a huge burden to the parents of the bride, that is another reason to prefer sons over daughters (as the family will then receive dowry in future).

Now we know why parents prefer boys over girls. Essentially, girls will not be able to financially support themselves and their parents when they grow up, while boys will be. If a girl is born, the parents must bear the burden of supporting her for her entire life themselves, or pay someone else (her husband) to do it in their stead.

The solution, then, is to make sure that girls can support themselves when they grow up. Why can’t they do so right now? The female labour force participation rate (LFPR) in India is an abysmal 27 per cent, as per International Labour Organisation (ILO) data for 2017. This is much lower than that of similar countries such as China, where 61 per cent of women participate in the labour force. Why can Chinese women find jobs, but Indian women can’t?

The difference between India and China is that China has a large, labour-intensive manufacturing sector while India does not. Only the manufacturing sector can create enough jobs for the millions of men and women entering the labour force each year, most of them uneducated and unskilled. I have written before about the veritable maze of labour laws in India, which prevents jobs from being created in the Indian manufacturing sector.

For women specifically, a whole host of extra labour laws were added, ostensibly to protect them from exploitation by employers. The government places restrictions on the number of hours and times of day when women can work, the type of work that may be assigned to them and so on. If more than 30 women are employed by the firm, there must be babysitting facilities for their children.

Another requirement is six months of mandatory paid maternity leave which must be provided to new mothers.

Mandatory maternity leave and other regulations meant to protect women make it more expensive to hire a woman than a man for the same task. The law, in effect, forces employers to discriminate against women.

But the effect, as we saw, does not end there. It travels all the way back to parental decisions to keep sons alive and let daughters die, if not actively kill them. To abort foetuses for the sole fault of being female. I am in no way trying to defend these heinous crimes. I am merely pointing out that government intervention is contributing to the problem.

If the government can get rid of hare-brained labour laws, women will be able to enter the labour force in large numbers. Seeing that women can work and support their families will reduce the bias parents have against daughters; saving millions of little girls from a terrible fate.

Jairaj Devadiga is an economist and columnist at the Foundation for Economic Education.