NEW DELHI // Akshatha Sajumon quit her job at a financial company to take care of her newborn son. Five years later, she has yet to return to full-time employment.
Mrs Sajumon, 34, decided to halt her career because she had neither extended family nor adequate day care centres to care for the child after her maternity leave ran out.
Although Mrs Sajumon has started freelancing from home, the problems she faced are part of several factors blamed for the falling number of women in India's workforce since 2004.
The government day-care centres were not up to standard and private ones were too expensive for a middle class family, the Bengaluru resident said. "The government should regulate facilities so women can afford day care and go back to work," Mrs Sajumon said. "Especially in cities, where women don't have the support of parents or in-laws."
The number of women in India's workforce fell from 28.7 per cent in 2004-05 to 22.8 per cent in 2009-10, and even further to 21.9 per cent in 2011-12, according to the latest report from National Sample Survey Office (NSSO).
Working women and experts said a lack of supportive policies, social prejudices, and even fears for personal safety, are restricting women's contributions to the country's economic growth.
In Mrs Sajumon's case, she was told by her company that she could have three months' maternity leave - either after her child was born, or leading up to the baby's arrival.
Although some government jobs allow women up to six months' maternity leave, most private companies give half that - the minimum required by law.
"Women want to work but they are not getting quality work," said Brinda Karat, a member of parliament's upper house from the Communist Party of India. "The set of policies in place are driving women from the workplace."
Low wages, poor conditions at work, lack of security for women working late hours and inflexible timings have led to the decline, Ms Karat said.
Despite a decline in economic growth, the number of jobs in India increased by 13.9 million in 2010 and 2011, according to the report. The growth occurred mostly in the informal or casual work sectors.
The Congress-led coalition government has taken credit for the creation of jobs. It said it has lifted millions out of poverty but has been unable to explain why the number of women joining the workforce has had a steady decline.
"The Congress is responsible for unprecedented social and economic growth, including introducing all inclusive schemes to bring the poor into the mainstream job market, but there are many challenges ahead," said Abhishek Manu Singhvi, a Congress spokesperson and member of parliament. "One of the challenges that remain for us is the absorption of women in the workplace sector."
According to the NSSO report, about 40 per cent of India's population is in the labour force.
Women made up 25 per cent of the rural workforce, but only 16 per cent of the workforce in urban areas, according to the survey, which covered 101,724 households, including 59,700 in rural areas and 42,024 in urban areas.
For some women, safety at work is an issue. Surbhi Singhal, 28, a product designer, recalled a field trip to India's northern state of Bihar where women in the group had to leave because it was not safe for them to be out late in the evenings.
"We just went back to our hotels and sat there. The environment doesn't permit it. I didn't find it productive," said Ms Singhal, who was the first female product designer to be hired in India by sporting goods maker Reebok, in 2000.
"You will find a lot more girls in fashion and marketing courses because with product design you have to work a lot in factories and it becomes challenging for a girl," she said.
"Parents often don't like it. They worry about their daughter's safety."
Ms Singhal has since started her own consultancy and works with a Dutch design group, Tjeerd Veenhoven, in Bengaluru, helping source material from villages.
There was no incentive afforded by the government to women to start a business, she said. "In India they have no place for entrepreneurs, especially women."
The only financial incentive from the government is that she pays lower taxes as a woman than men but once her annual income exceeds 500,000 rupees (Dh30,775) she will pay 10 per cent in taxes and up to 30 per cent on any income more than 800,000 rupees (Dh49,240).
Indian women also face a cultural stigma in taking up jobs.
There is "social discomfort" in allowing women to work outside the home, said Jayan Jose Thomas, the assistant professor of humanities and social sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi.
"This is the big difference between India and the rest of the world," he said.
"If there is some income coming from a male member in the family, then women are not encouraged to work."
From lack of flexible bank credit to allowing leeway when costs fluctuate, there is hardly any policy to support those, like Ms Singhal, who want to run a small business, Mr Thomas said.
"It is very difficult for a person to join the workforce unless they want to do manual labour," he said. "And that is especially hard for women."