What are the effects of India’s rapid urbanisation on women’s empowerment?

  • Blog Post Date 28 March, 2024
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Gaurav Dhamija

Indian Institute of Technology Hyderabad


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Binay Shankar

Shiv Nadar University


Women in urban areas, compared to their rural counterparts, are thought to enjoy greater social, economic, and political opportunities and freedoms. At the same time, research shows barriers to women’s empowerment remain widespread in urban environments. Given India’s rapid urbanisation and the persistence of gender inequality, this article analyses the effect of urbanisation on women's outcomes – and finds mixed results.

Compared to other major Asian countries, the rate of urban growth in India had been fairly modest until the end of the last decade; it is now, however, starting to accelerate rapidly. As per United Nations India it is estimated that by 2030, more than 400 million people will be living in cities in India. According to the World Urbanization Prospects Report (2018), between 2018 and 2050, urban areas in India are expected to grow by 416 million people. The Report also projects that by 2050, 53% of India's population will be urban (the current figure is 34%). 

Since gender inequality is pervasive in India, and women continue to be marginalised in society, the importance of understanding how urbanisation might affect women cannot be overemphasised. In light of this, in a recent study (Dhamija et al. 2023), we examine the short-term implications of urbanisation on women’s empowerment. 

Theoretical framework

In theory, urbanisation can affect women positively as well as negatively. Women in urban areas, unlike their rural counterparts, are thought to enjoy greater social, economic, and political opportunities and freedoms. In an editorial, Tacoli and Satterthwaite (2013) note that urban women “have better opportunities to engage in paid employment outside the family, better access to services, lower fertility rates, and some relaxation of the rigid social values and norms that define women as subordinated to their husbands and fathers and to men generally”. Even so, these women are likely to continue experiencing forms of gender discrimination. As noted in the UN-Habitat's State of Women in Cities 2012-13 Report, in urban environments, "notable gender gaps [exist] in labour and employment, 'decent work', pay, tenure rights, access to and accumulation of assets, personal security and safety, and representation in formal structures of urban governance". This suggests that barriers to women's empowerment remain widespread in urban environments. 

Measuring women’s empowerment and urbanisation

Women’s empowerment is a multidimensional and multi-scalar process that is experienced at the individual as well as the household levels. As noted in Kabeer et al. (2011) and Golla et al. (2011), it is imperative to understand that women’s empowerment extends beyond women’s economic position in terms of work, income, education, and assets, to encompass other social and political dimensions. More specifically, this requires women to have skills and resources to compete in markets, fair and equal access to economic institutions, and the ability to make and act on decisions and control resources and profits in terms of exercising power and agency. In our research, we use several economic outcomes to capture women’s empowerment. These include indicators for women’s participation in the labour market, mobility, agency within the household, access to information, financial autonomy, and exposure to and attitudes towards intimate partner violence (IPV). We obtain data on these measures from two recent repeated cross-sections, the 2015-16 and 2019-21 waves of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) – widely used nationwide surveys of India, that  are also a part of the global Demographic Health Survey (DHS) programme. The two waves of the NFHS provide us with access to data on more than 1.2 million Indian women. 

We measure urbanisation using district-level satellite data on nighttime lights. Based on the notion that light intensity per unit area corresponds to a reasonable measure of the degree of urbanisation, nighttime lights is argued to be a valid marker of urbanisation and urban settlements ( Storeygard 2016, Abay and Amare 2018, Amare et al. 2020, Chen et al. 2022, Abay et al. 2023). As such, nighttime lights intensity of an area is likely to be indicative of its level of urbanisation (with higher values of nighttime lights intensity indicating higher level of urbanisation). Figure 1 shows the district-level distribution of nighttime lights across the two rounds. 

Figure 1. District-level map of (log of) nighttime lights

Source Authors’ compilation using district coordinates from Survey of India and nighttime light from SHRUG (Socioeconomic High-resolution Rural-Urban Geographic) dataset on India1

Mixed findings 

We find that urbanisation leads to improvements in women's mobility (in the sense that urban women face lower restrictions on mobility) and financial autonomy (as measured by their access to bank accounts). However, urbanisation has no impact on women’s labour market participation, access to information, and women’s gender beliefs (such as their women’s acceptance of IPV due to various reasons). Further, urbanisation reduces women’s intrahousehold agency and increases their exposure to IPV. We also find that urbanisation impacts men’s labour market outcomes positively. 

Women residing in urban areas may encounter fewer constraints on their movement, possibly due to the convenience and efficiency of commuting in such areas. Moreover, given that men in urban areas are more commonly employed compared to those in rural areas, compounded by the challenges of urban life, might compel them to allow women to travel outside their homes and engage in outdoor activities that they themselves cannot manage alone. The increased accessibility of bank accounts among urban women compared to their rural counterparts may also be a consequence of reduced restrictions on their mobility. Additionally, bank branches are likely to be more readily available in urban areas, further facilitating women's access to financial services. 

The null and negative effects of urbanisation on domains beyond mobility and financial autonomy can be attributed to several factors. Urbanisation may disrupt women's social networks, which are crucial for information dissemination and job searching. Moreover, the types of employment opportunities available in urban areas may not be well-suited for women, making it challenging for them to secure employment. Additionally, heightened mobility, though necessary in urban settings, may provoke male backlash, potentially contributing to higher rates of IPV and lower levels of intrahousehold agency among women in urban settings. 

We document some interesting heterogeneity. For example, we find that the effect of urbanisation on the likelihood of participating in paid employment is higher for women belonging to poor households, women of disadvantaged castes, and those living in north India and economically backward states (such as Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, or BIMARU states). Urbanisation in India is associated majorly with the creation of low-skilled informal sector jobs for women, and women from the relatively lower rungs of society are more likely to be employed in such jobs than their wealthier counterparts. Given that the BIMARU states are relatively less developed and economically backward, a very large proportion of women residing in these states are also likely to belong to the lower rungs of the society, in addition to women from more disadvantaged castes. As such, urbanisation may have a positive effect on the likelihood of the women participating in the labour market. However, these groups do not experience a positive shift in gender attitudes due to urbanisation, which could be driving women from these groups to be more likely to participate in paid work. Rather, poor women and women from economically backward states to have worse attitudes towards IPV than their counterparts. 

Overall, these results suggest that Indian women benefit very little from urbanisation and that the effects of urbanisation are gendered. This could be because urban planning in India has not been gender-responsive and/or urbanisation has failed to alter patriarchal gender norms. 

Towards gender-responsive urbanisation

Existing research has demonstrated that gender inequality is exceedingly high in India, and women are marginalised in the community. Our findings indicate that this gender inequality might increase, and Indian women might become marginalised further, because of the rapid urbanisation that India is currently witnessing. Policymakers should take cognisance of this possibility and consider designing and implementing interventions that could potentially tackle this. These could include reorientation of policies and programmes that seek to boost urbanisation (for example, Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), Smart Cities Mission (SCM), Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana – Urban (PMAY-U), and so on) to consider the specific needs and challenges faced by women. 

Furthermore, there should be initiatives to ensure equal access to employment opportunities for women in urban areas, interventions that could change cultural norms that may restrict women’s participation in urban life, and programmes that encourage community engagement and participation, especially involving women, in the planning and decision-making processes related to urban development. Additionally, ongoing research and data collection can help refine and adapt policies based on the evolving needs of women in urban areas. 


  1. To learn more about SHRUG, refer to Asher et al. (2020), who describe its construction and advantages over existing datasets for research on economic development.

Further Reading

  • Abay, Kibrom A and Mulubrhan Amare (2018), “Night light intensity and women’s body weight: evidence from Nigeria”, Economics & Human Biology, 31: 238-248.
  • Abay, Kibrom A, Luca Tiberti, Andinet Woldemichael, Tsega G Mezgebo and Meron Endale (2023), “Can Urbanisation Improve Household Welfare? Evidence From Ethiopia”, Journal of African Economies, 32(1): 81-109.
  • Amare, Mulubrhan, Channing Arndt, Kibrom A Abay and Todd Benson (2020), “Urbanization and Child Nutritional Outcomes”, The World Bank Economic Review, 34(1): 63-74.
  • Chen, Liming, Rana Hasan and Yi Jiang (2022), “Urban Agglomeration and Firm Innovation: Evidence from Asia”, The World Bank Economic Review, 36(2): 533-558.
  • Dhamija, G, P Roychowdhury and B Shankar (2023), ‘Does Urbanization Empower Women? Evidence from India’, Working Paper. Available at SSRN.
  • Golla, AM, A Malhotra, P Nanda and R Mehra (2011), ‘Understanding and Measuring Women’s Economic Empowerment’, Research Brief, International Center for Research on Women.
  • Kabeer, N, S Mahmud and S Tasneem (2011), ‘Does Paid Work Provide a Pathway to Women’s Empowerment? Empirical Findings from Bangladesh’, IDS Working Paper, issue 375.
  • Storeygard, Adam (2016), “Farther on down the Road: Transport Costs, Trade and Urban Growth in Sub-Saharan Africa”, The Review of Economic Studies, 83(3): 1263-1295.
  • Tacoli, Cecelia and David Satterthwaite (2013), “Gender and urban change”, Environment & Urbanization, 25(1): 3-8.

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