For Economic Growth in India, Look to Women

Cathy Russell
Jan 19, 2017 · 3 min read

This week, the International Monetary Fund reported that India may no longer be the world’s fastest growing economy.

There is an entire toolbox for boosting economic growth in India: labor law reform, taxation policies, cashless banking, and investments in entrepreneurship and manufacturing.

All of these tools will be more successful if they address the needs and experiences of Indian women and girls.

Report after report illustrates that increasing women’s economic participation in one of the fastest ways for countries to grow their economies.

In a global study of gender parity in the workforce, the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that India has the most to gain from investing in women’s economic empowerment. The world’s largest democracy could add up to $700 billion to its GDP by 2025 if it could close the gender gap in employment.

Yet, the average rate of female labor force participation has been declining since 2012 and among the G20, India ranks second to last in terms of women’s labor force participation.

As the McKinsey report noted, this trend can be reversed by making steadfast gender investments in education and skill-building, job creation, hiring and diversity, and programs to address “mind-sets” about the role of women in work.

As a proud partner of India, the United States is committed to supporting women’s economic empowerment as part of our efforts to promote the rights of women and girls around the world.

Secretary Kerry emphasized this commitment at Vibrant Gujarat two years ago, noting that empowering women and girls is critical to expanding bilateral trade and investment between our two countries.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sits with U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Cathy Russell and a group of Indian women to talk about economic and social empowerment during a visit to the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, India, on January 11, 2015. The Sabarmati Ashram is where Mahatma Gandhi lived and launched his famed Salt March. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Toward that end, USAID is working with partners to find solutions that will open opportunities for women in business, and in March, the Department of State will support a convening of government officials at a subnational level to discuss women’s economic empowerment and women’s safety.

But there is certainly more to be done. Women make up the majority of farmers in India and yet own only an estimated 13 percent of the land, fueling economic insecurity, gender inequality and at times, gender-based violence.

Expanding women’s productive capacity and access to markets in agriculture can lead to marked transformation in the economic, health and social prospects for women and their children and by extension, the country.

Supporting women’s access to financial services can also make a tangible difference. According to the International Finance Corporation, Indian women entrepreneurs face a financing gap of $116 billion, an unmet demand that could, if addressed, fuel significant job creation and output.

Initiatives like the Government of India’s Jan Dhan Yojana are an important step toward financial inclusion. They could be strengthened by products that address the particular lending needs of women entrepreneurs and market research that explores the unique profile of women leaders. And informal requirements that men and husbands serve as cosigners on bank loans should be removed.

We can also look to the Indian state governments to help craft policies and drive investments to support women and girls. CSIS’ Breakthrough Index and McKinsey’s Female Empowerment Index provide a good overview of states taking proactive steps to support women’s economic participation and those where extra investment and policy attention is required.

States can also follow the lead of the Karnataka Government joined WeConnect International and others to host more than 3,500 women entrepreneurs from 19 states in India at a summit focused on how state governments can use their convening power to foster the growth of women-led companies. U.S. and Indian corporations, banks and investors joined the conversation to explore how supply chain diversification and corporate procurement can expand women’s small and medium enterprise development.

India’s short-term economic downturn is a reminder that there are untapped resources in India. Now is the time for governments at both the central and local levels, the private sector and civil society to join hands to take the necessary steps forward to advance women’s economic opportunity.

Cathy Russell

Written by

Mom, movie buff, champion for women and girls. Former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues.