McDonald’s, Pizza Hut & KFC are empowering Indian women; here’s how

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American fast-food chains have become an unlikely source of female employment and empowerment in India, a country where traditionally most women are kept from working outside the home.

The increasingly female face of a new Indian workforce shines at suburban Delhi’s Mall of India. Close to half of the employees in its five floors of newly opened food and fashion outlets are women. Just across the street in the old shopping district, females are few and far between. Even the women’s clothing stores are almost entirely manned by men.

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable working with so many other men there,” said Poonam Rawat, a 21-year-old woman who works at Wendy’s in the mall. “Besides, my family would never give me permission.”

Despite great progress in recent decades, India is still a tough place to be a woman. The country has one of the most-skewed sex ratios in the world, with men significantly outnumbering women, the result of selective abortion and infanticide. Girls suffer disproportionately from malnutrition and are less likely than in most other countries to be found in the best universities, parliament or the boardroom. They are even missing from the internet: There are three Indian men for every Indian woman on Facebook, for example, partly a result of women being denied access to technology.

The female participation rate in India’s labour force is among the lowest in the world. It has slid 9 percentage points over the last 10 years to 27% of the workforce as safety concerns have soared and economic expansion has failed to generate many good jobs for women.

Women in traditional families often stay at home to do housework and raise children. Families want their daughters, wives, sisters and mothers in the house to shield them from crime, meeting the wrong kind of men and being tempted to try new things such as eating meat.

Chanchal Karhana’s mother wouldn’t even step inside the KFC where she worked because it serves meat—blasphemous for most Hindus. She had to be sure it wouldn’t corrupt her daughter, so she stood in front and peered in.

“She saw other women working, so she felt assured it was a safe place,” said the 21-year-old Ms. Karhana.

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