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Job Opportunities, Marriage, and Childbearing in India

Development Challenge

In many developing countries, women frequently leave school to marry and start having children at a young age. Such outcomes are often taken as indicators of low social and economic progress for women and may have implications for individual well-being and economic growth, as childbearing at a young age may limit opportunities for women to earn money outside of the home. The availability of labor market opportunities for women may play a role in influencing these outcomes. When there are few well-paying opportunities for women, the opportunity cost of getting married and having children at a young age, rather than continuing education or entering the labor market, is low. In recent years, growth in business outsourcing industries has increased the demand for educated female workers in city centers, but demand may be less likely to penetrate rural areas. More research is needed to investigate whether increasing awareness of job opportunities for women can cause people to change their preferences for women’s education, work and childbearing.


Among rural women in India aged 30 to 39 in 2005-2006, the median age at marriage was 17, and the median age at the birth of their first child was 19. Although birth rates have declined in the past few decades, women aged 40 to 49 had on average 4.3 births in their lifetime. At the same time, women’s paid labor force participation rates are only around 20 percent.

In the past decade, the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry has grown rapidly in India, creating a significant number of new, high-paying job opportunities, particularly for women who are often preferred based on voice and demeanor when interacting with customers. The BPO industry covers a range of activities and “back office” services, the most well-known of these jobs being call centers. Most BPO jobs have high educational requirements, typically a minimum of 10 or 12 years of schooling, which exceeds the average attainment levels for both men and women in rural India. BPO jobs are also relatively well paid. Starting salaries with no experience ranged from Rs. 5,000 to 10,000 (about US$110–220) per month in 2003, twice the average pay for non-BPO workers with similar levels of education. Despite promising opportunities for women in the BPO industry, awareness of these jobs and knowledge of how to access them has been limited, particularly outside of the urban areas where these jobs were located.

Evaluation Strategy

Researchers conducted a randomized evaluation using recruiters for the BPO industry. The intervention provided three years of BPO recruiting services to women in randomly selected rural villages. By connecting the villages to experienced recruiters, the intervention was designed to increase awareness of and access to BPO jobs, and effectively increase employment opportunities for women.

Eight BPO recruiters, all with at least two years of experience overall and at least six months specifically recruiting women, were hired from Delhi. Using maps, the recruiters were asked to identify the specific areas outside of Delhi which they believed BPO recruiters would be unlikely to visit, due to their relative distance from the city and/or their population size. These districts were all located approximately 50–150 km from Delhi, in the states of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. From a list of all villages in these districts, 80 were randomly selected as treatment and another 80 as comparison. One recruiter was randomly assigned to each of the treatment villages.

Between December 2003 and February 2004, recruiters visited schools and local leaders in the treatment villages and announced that they would be returning to provide information on employment opportunities in the BPO sector. Within a few weeks, the recruiters visited the village and set up an information and recruiting session. The recruiters did not have a fixed script but were required to cover the following topics: an overview of the BPO sector, including the types of jobs and level of compensation; information on the names of specific firms that may be looking for workers; strategies for how to apply for jobs (how to create and submit resumes, plus lists of websites and phone numbers); interview skills lessons and tips; mock interviews; assessment of English language skills; and a question-and-answer session. The sessions were held in a range of facilities including schools and NGO or government offices, typically lasted four to six hours, and were well attended.

One and two years after the initial treatment, recruiters again visited the same treatment villages and provided the same session. After each of the three sessions, the recruiters left their personal contact information so that any woman could follow up for additional information or assistance at no cost.

Results and Policy Implications

Impact on Investments for Women: The higher educational requirements and greater returns to human capital in the BPO sector led to increased investments for women. The cohort of 15–21-year-old women from treatment villages were significantly more likely enroll in computer or English language courses at private, for-fee training institutes, indicating a willingness to invest in getting a job or building a career when suitable opportunities are available. Significantly, results also showed that even younger, school-aged girls had increased school enrollment and greater body mass index, reflecting better nutrition and health investments. These results suggest that parents are willing to invest more in girls in anticipation of labor market returns far in the future, and are particularly important in light of the dramatic gender disparities in health and education in India.

Impact on Employment: Over the three-year study period, 15 to 21 year old women in treatment villages were 4.6 percentage points more likely to work in a BPO job than women in comparison villages, and 2.4 percentage points more likely to work at all for pay outside the home. This effect is fairly large in light of the fact that only about 28 percent of women in this age group had enough schooling to qualify for these jobs. In addition, women from treatment villages expressed a greater interest in working throughout their lives, even after marriage and childbirth, indicating shifting aspirations toward work as a career with a longer term attachment.

Marriage and Childbearing: The increases in women’s education and employment and were accompanied by significant delays in marriage and childbearing. Women from treatment villages aged 15 to 21 at baseline, the peak age range for marriage and the initiation of childbearing in rural India, were between 5 and 6 percentage points less likely to get married or to have given birth over the three-year period of the intervention. Although it is not possible to assess the long-term impact on fertility, women reported wanting to have 0.35 fewer children in their lifetime.


2003 - 2006

Photo credit: CGIAR Climate via Flickr