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India's Economy Lags as Its Women Lack Opportunity

India’s miserable record on women’s rights threatens to stunt its economic growth
India's Economy Lags as Its Women Lack Opportunity
Photograph by Chiara Goia/The New York Times/Redux

India is in the midst of a moral crisis. The deadly gang rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in New Delhi last December focused attention on the mistreatment of women in Indian society, though not all the outrage was directed at the perpetrators. Rural politicians blamed the victim for being out in public. When demonstrators took to the streets of the capital to demand justice for the woman’s killers, police fired tear gas at them. For Indians justifiably proud of the country’s economic advances, the episode has been an unsettling reminder of how far India still has to go when it comes to defending the rights of women. “The brutal rape and murder of a young woman, a woman who was a symbol of all that new India strives to be, has left our hearts empty and our minds in turmoil,” said Indian President Pranab Mukherjee during a nationally televised address in January. “It is time for the nation to reset its moral compass.”

The inability of the world’s largest democracy to guarantee the security of half its population is indeed a moral crisis, but it’s also an economic one. India has been celebrated for its steep growth and rapidly expanding middle class, as well as its position as an exciting market for foreign multinationals. Yet it has achieved these gains with astonishingly low economic participation by women; those who enter the business world often find themselves in chauvinistic and threatening work environments.