There are many heartening trends, of course. But the truth is that women’s empowerment still has miles to go in India. Many miles.
Unnao, a district in central Uttar Pradesh, hit the headlines in early February this year after a woman was appointed its top cop. It was big news because Neha Pandey, the new superintendent of police, completed the arc of the district’s all-women administrative elite. District magistrate, chief development officer, chief medical officer, chief veterinary officer, sub-divisional magistrate, chief probationary officer…you name it and they’re all women in Unnao. They’re there not by design, but purely by happenstance—a glowing example of women power in the country’s administrative services.
Unfortunately, spectacular as it is, Unnao’s ruling sisterhood does not hold up the true picture of women’s empowerment in India. It represents the exception rather than the rule, the proud stories of the success of a few set against the backdrop of a vast majority of women who are still unable to access equal opportunities to life and work.
While some shatter every glass ceiling imaginable and rise to the heights of their professions, most others continue to be subjected to violence, discrimination and crippling inequity. They battle a change-resistant patriarchal society, and are often reduced to secondary beings who are denied the freedom to make their own life choices.
In fact, Indian women fare poorly on any socio-economic indicator of human development. Whether it is workforce participation, sex ratio, maternal mortality rate, the incidence of crimes against women, literacy, access to decision making and political power, women, who make up 48.5 per cent of our population, languish at the bottom of the heap.
Last year, the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report, that ranks countries based on women’s economic participation, education, health and political empowerment, placed India 108 in a list of 145 countries. That was an improvement over 2014 when the country was ranked 114 on the Gender Gap index. Even so, it’s clear that India has a lot of catching up to do to achieve gender parity.
On February 8, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Richa Sharma, who had been denied the post of deputy superintendent of police in Chhattisgarh on grounds of age. This, despite the fact that according to the service rules, as a woman, she was entitled to a relaxation of the upper age limit for the post. In his judgment, Justice A.K. Sikri said, “It is now realized that real empowerment would be achieved by women…only if there is an economic empowerment of women as well.”
Indeed. But the reality is that despite the many inspiring achievements, a staggering majority of women in India remain outside the loop of economic empowerment. Their participation in the workforce is not just shockingly low, it’s actually heading down.
Look at the data. According to the 2011 Census, the female labour force participation (FLFP) rate is 25.51 per cent as against 53.26 per cent for men. Significantly, rural areas, where women are chiefly employed in unskilled agricultural work, contribute the largest numbers. For example, while their workforce participation was 24.8 per cent in rural areas in 2011-12, the corresponding figure was just 14.7 per cent in urban India.
What’s even more disturbing is that women’s participation in the labour force is declining. According to National Sample Survey data, betwen 2004-05 and 2011-12, FLFP fell by as much as 11 percentage points.
So why are women falling back when it comes to joining the labour force and tasting financial independence, without which they can never hope to attain any agency?
Experts say the downtrend is because not enough manufacturing jobs are being created. “The income opportunities that are there are mostly for illiterates or graduates and above,” says Professor Neetha Pillai of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies in Delhi.
But India now has a huge pool of females, who have some education and are not terribly poor, wanting to enter the labour market. They are turning away from agriculture or construction work, to find that the only options available are low-end jobs in the service sector such as paid domestic work or in retail and others. An expansion in factory jobs could have absorbed them into the labour force—indeed, historically, countries that witnessed a swift uptick in FLFP also underwent a boom in the manufacturing sector. Bangladesh, which has a vibrant garment manufacturing industry, has an FLFP of 57 per cent, more than double that of India’s.
There are other factors that stand in the way of women entering—and staying—in the workforce. Thanks to patriarchal mores, women are still considered the primary caregivers. Hence the lack of part-time jobs and institutions for the care of children and the elderly hold them back. “You need to create employment as well as women-friendly policies and institutions to get women into the workforce,” says Prof Pillai.
In September last year, a report by McKinsey Global Institute, the business and economic research arm of consultancy firm McKinsey & Co, estimated that India could add as much as $2.9 trillion to its annual GDP by 2025 if it improved gender parity and engaged the full potential of its female workforce.
However, without the creation of jobs and favourable policies to enable women to access them, that seems a distant dream.
There is a heart of darkness in the story of the status of women in India. And that is female foeticide. Forget equality, thousands upon thousands of girls are not even being allowed to be born, their right to life snatched away, their possibilities nipped in the bud.
The Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostics Act of 1995 bans sex-selective abortions. But female foeticide continues unabated, ably supported by a thriving underground industry run by doctors in collusion with lawkeepers. Unofficial estimates suggest that close to half a million female foetuses are aborted every year.
Between 2001 and 2011, India’s sex ratio improved somewhat—from 933 to 943. That’s still way below the internationally accepted figure of a minimum of 950. But the really worrying trend is that during the same period, child sex ratio (age group of 0-6) dipped from 934 to 918, a clear indication of the phenomenon of vanishing girl babies.
The causes of girls not being allowed to see the light of day are not far to seek. “The practice of dowry is the biggest cause of female foeticide. Girls are considered a burden, a financial drain, and in any case a paraya dhan—one who will belong to another family. They are unwanted,” says National Commission for Women chairperson Lalitha Kumaramangalam.
The NDA government’s high profile Beti Bachao Beti Padhao programme that is directed against female foeticide and the education of the girl child has just completed a year. Maybe it will do some good, but it’s still too early to tell.
Strangely, the spread of education and development seems to have done little to stem the tide of sex-selective abortions. “On the contrary, by and large, development has had an adverse effect on sex ratios,” points out Professor Saraswati Raju of the Centre for the Study of Regional Development, Jawaharlal Nehru University. For example, the sex ratio in South Delhi, arguably one of the most affluent areas of the country, is an abysmal 859. Again, states like Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Punjab, all of which have high literacy rates, exhibit low sex ratios.
Professor Raju explains that earlier there were social constructs that had a balancing effect on the sex ratio. “Large families meant that people would wait for a boy child or a girl child. But now, with late marriage, the small family norm, and the availability of the technology, even educated, affluent families are choosing to abort girls,” she says.
Mitu Khurana, a Delhi-based doctor, filed a case in 2008, charging her husband and his family of forcing her to undergo illegal sex determination when she was pregnant and then pressuring her to abort her twin female foetuses. She refused to terminate her pregnancy and was subjected to violence and intimidation, she says. Last year, the court ruled in favour of her husband, who is also a highly qualified doctor. Mitu has vowed to fight on.
Sex-selective abortions are a denial of the right to life of girls; it perpetuates the notion that girls are “worthless”; and fewer girls also mean more violence against them. In parts of Haryana, which has a sex ratio of 879, rampant female foeticide is already giving rise to dystopic trends. Entire villages are virtually empty of girls. Men who can afford it, import wives from other states. Those who can’t, are at a higher risk of committing violence on women who may be out for work or play.
She Is A“Loose” Woman, She’s Asking For Rape
Violence against women is of course a global problem. But it is so endemic in India and manifests itself in so many different ways that it is perhaps the most telling predictor of the appalling inequality and insecurity which women have to contend with in this country.
And the violence shows no signs of slackening. According to data from The National Crime Records Bureau, there were 36,735 cases of rape in the country in 2014, up from 33,707 in 2013; dowry deaths went up from 8,083 in 2013 to 8,455 in 2014; cases of cruelty by husband and relatives went up from 118,866 in 2013 to 122,877 in 2014. Add to this the many thousands of instances of sexual assault, acid attack, sexual harass-ment in the workplace and so on, and you have a grim picture of women continually sought to be bludgeoned into submission by men.
“Patriarchy is at the root of this violence,” says Ranjana Kumari, director, Centre for Social Research (CSR), a Delhi-based NGO that works for women’s empowerment. “Girls and boys are born equal. But from childhood, they are taught that boys have agency, girls do not; boys are superior, girls inferior.”
Violence against girls and women is but a short step from that.
The sexist indoctrination operates at such a visceral level that often women too believe in it implicitly. Domestic violence is reported much more now. But even today, a lot of women believe that getting beaten up is their given lot. Kumari narrates the case of one Sumitra Devi who lives in Delhi’s Mahipalpur area. She had come to CSR for help after enduring regular beatings by her husband for 18 years. Thrown out of her home and beaten black and blue, Sumitra would still not hear of a case being filed against him: “Woh toh mera pati hai. Aap unko sirf samjha dijiye (He is my hus band. Please just speak to him and make him understand).”
We’re The Boss
Entrenched patriarchal attitudes pose the biggest impediment to women’s empowerment in India. The men set the rules for women—codes of conduct, dress, marriage, work, worship. They decide what is “womanly” and what is not, what befits women and what does not. Defiance of the coda brings swift and violent retribution.
So a khap panchayat may sanction the murder of a girl and a boy belonging to the same gotra who run away to get married; a college may impose a no-jeans stricture on women students; families may stamp out a woman’s ambition to work and earn an income; and sundry lumpens might gang-rape a girl out with her boyfriend of an evening. Because, after all, a girl in the company of a boyfriend is “bad” and deserves no better.
Sadly, often it is women themselves who are patriarchy’s staunchest handmaidens. “The patriarchal mindset is not only guarded and expanded by men, but also by women,” remarks Kumaramangalam. “And that mindset is regardless of religion, caste, community, political affiliation and so on.”
Again, discrimination against girls and women is so systemic, so ingrained in families and the society at large, that despite a raft of government schemes for their welfare, very often, there is no delivery. “Every third girl child is still not in school,” points out Kumari. Women’s literacy languishes at 65 per cent as against 82 per cent for men. Women’s health too continues to be a matter of concern. India’s maternal mortality ratio (MMR)—the number of maternal deaths per 100,000 live births—has declined from 301 in 2001 to 167 in 2011. That’s a huge improvement, but the MMR is still far behind that of countries such as Brazil (56), China (37) or the UK (12).
Power Of Politics
Activists say that women’s empowerment in India also hinges on their coming into the political process in greater numbers. For, they will in turn press for women-centric policies. However, despite the high-decibel presence of a few women central ministers and state chief ministers such as Mamata Banerjee, Vasundhara Raje or J. Jayalalithaa, the fact is that only 12.2 per cent of the country’s parliamentary seats are held by women.
The Women’s Reservation Bill, that stipulates 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament, was passed in the Rajya Sabha in 2010. Since then it has been gathering dust.
“It’s representative democracy that is at stake here. If you have a whole constituency not represented adequately in Parliament, you cannot get across the issues that concern them. While not all women MPs are women-friendly, a lot of them will take up issues that are neglected by patriarchy,” asserts Kirti Singh, a senior lawyer and activist based in Delhi. (See “Politics of Patriarchy” for a detailed report on Indian women in politics)
Change Is Coming
Though the uplift of women in India is very much work in progress, no one doubts that having come this far, women can only go farther and higher. Kumaramangalam, for one, is optimistic. “Though women are having to fight patriarchal attitudes even now, that too is changing. As more and more women enter the police, bureaucracy, judiciary and politics, they are triggering change. It’s taking time, but then change is resisted so strongly, it will take time.”
A particularly heartening trend is that a lot of young men are becoming part of the process. “Many of them are sharing parenting responsibilities and supporting women in their endeavours. I am very hopeful about the young people of this country,” says Ranjana Kumari of CSR.
Indeed, if women hold up half the sky, it is important to recognize that men hold up the other half. The complex and multipronged effort to unshackle women and empower them must involve men too.
There is every reason to hope that we are getting there.