There are two things New Delhi marketing executive Khyati Malhotra never leaves home without: Her taser and a pepper spray.
It’s just part of the investment she makes to stay safe in a country where crimes reported against women have surged over 80 percent in a decade and deadly cases of sexual violence often roil cities and villages. So a chunk of Malhotra’s salary goes into a car and driver to avoid the dangers of public transport, where women are cat-called, groped and assaulted.
In Bangalore, Vidya Laxman, an executive at a multinational in India, pays for a battalion of household help and security cameras to keep her children safe. Sajna Nair of Delhi figures she’s lost almost US$200,000 in earnings after quitting a bank job because she couldn’t find safe childcare for her daughter.
In recent months, the rape, torture and murder of an eight-year-old girl in the state of Jammu, an 11-year-old in Gujarat and the rape of 16-year-old in Uttar Pradesh have laid bare how India treats its women and children. Lawmakers have said they will push for more stringent punishments to deter such crimes. Meanwhile, dozens of interviews reveal a less acknowledged economic effect: Increasingly afraid for their own and their children's safety, many women are simply leaving the workforce or taking lower-paying jobs.
In the eight years from 2004, about 20 million women (the size of the combined populations of New York, London and Paris) vanished from India’s workforce, the World Bank estimates.
“There’s no place where I could leave my child without worrying about safety,” said Indu Bhandari, who quit a lucrative corporate career to teach because of those worries. “Having been a target of sexual abuse as a child, I knew first-hand what I could be exposing my child to.”
Decisions like hers are a blow to foreign and local companies looking to hire more women in Asia’s third largest economy. They also threaten Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s agenda as he pushes to attract foreign investment and boost India’s economic heft globally. India shows just how much violence and sexual assault against women can hold back communities — and an entire nation.
India could increase its GDP by $770 billion by 2025 by getting more women to work and increasing equality, according to McKinsey Global Institute. Yet, only 27 percent of Indian women are in employment. That’s the lowest among the major emerging nations and G-20 countries, and better only than Saudi Arabia, according to the publication IndiaSpend.
“If we are able to establish a safer environment, definitely more women will step out for jobs, adding to the workforce,” said Anjali Verma, an economist at PhillipCapital in Mumbai. “In a decade this may contribute to higher overall consumption, savings, and economic growth.” Girija Borker, a Ph.D. candidate in economics at Brown University, in a study of more than 4,000 women at Delhi University found female students willing to pay almost $300 more than men for a safer travel route because most faced some form of street harassment. “With the rapid urbanization, India needs better policies for women's safety,” Borker said.
In India, preference for male children has skewed the gender balance, leading to a whopping 37 million more men than women. Two-thirds of the country live in villages that follow feudal, caste and gender hierarchies. That means many women never make formal complaints when they are harassed, and perpetrators often go unpunished. It also makes it hard to draw international comparisons.
Crimes against women surged 83 percent from 2007 to 2016, government data show, resulting in 39 crimes every hour.
Public pressure forced lawmakers to recommend the death penalty for child rapists and they are debating a similar punishment for the rape of women. Many businesses are spending more on transport and other benefits to women. Yet filling all the gaps is hard.
“In most advanced economies there are social structures, better travel infrastructure, better creches,” said Nanda Majumdar, who heads intellectual capital and professional development at law firm Nishith Desai Associates.
Nair said she could have invested earnings from her more lucrative financial career in the property or stock markets. She now runs a public relations business.
In New Delhi, Zeba, 25, is heartbroken after male family members refused to let her go to nursing school after a rape nearby. “Things would have been so different if I was a man,” said Zeba. “I would certainly have been richer.”