Women’s Empowerment: Still a Long Way to go! (Dilli abhi bahut door hai)

Women’s empowerment is an important issue that India needs to deal with on an urgent basis. Women’s position continues to be secondary in the Indian society and the process of change is extremely slow. This is obvious irrespective of what indicator you take and which area you choose: education, health, political and labour market participation, care work or violence against women – the story remains the same. The recently-released Gender Inequality Index as part of the Human Development Report by UNDP tells an apologetic tale of how India lags behind not only world averages but is also way below the South Asian averages.

India ranks 130 for both Human Development and Gender Inequality indices. Neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan that rank lower than India on the overall Human Development Index (HDI) have performed much better when it comes to achieving gender equality. In the entire South Asia, only war-torn Afghanistan has a worse ranking than India in the Gender Inequality Index (GII).It is clear that it is gender inequality that pulls India’s ranking down in Human Development Index. Gender disparities are sharp in every area that constitutes the GII. A majority of the countries worldwide show a positive trend in female workforce participation but India has a dismal figure of 27 percent for women versus 79.9 percent for men. Only 27 percent of female population in the age group of 25 years and above has some secondary education as against 56.6 percent male population in the same age group, and women occupy only 12.2 percent seats in the parliament. The Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR- deaths in child birth per one lakh live births) is as high as 190 in India as against only 29 in Sri Lanka and 170 in Pakistan.

The situation is even more disturbing when one goes deeper and examines the aspects of prevalent norms, prescriptions and expectations for and from girls / women. One recently concluded international study by OECD on care-work reports that in India women on an average spend 6 hours every day on care work as against only 36 minutes spent by men. Young girls still do not have the freedom and autonomy to decide about their lives. According to the Census of India, 2011 nearly ten percent of the girls in the age group of 15-18 were already married. The growing number of cases of honour killing and the incidents of violence against women are reflections of the lack of autonomy that women have in our society.

What is worrying is that, unlike popular belief, all this is not necessarily linked to poverty. Widespread phenomenon of son preference leading to female foeticide gets facilitated by sex determination tests before birth, and these tests do cost a fortune. A disaggregated analysis of child marriage in different economic quintiles shows that the highest incidence occurs in the highest economic quintile in some high-prevalent districts in Gujarat. It is well-known that violence against women is common in all classes. The story is similar for care work.When it comes to women’s empowerment, poverty alone cannot be blamed; it is deep rooted patriarchy that guides the norms and prescriptions around gender in many societies including ours.

It is not that nothing has change but the pace of change has been very slow. One reason for this slow pace is that the policy responses have been fragmented and often tokentistic; the effort to directly attack the root cause of patriarchy is almost invisible barring some exceptions. In health, the woman is reduced to being a womb; all schemes largely address only the motherhood related issues as if the woman’s health concerns are limited to motherhood alone. In education, at most it is about bringing girls to schools; hardly any effort to influence the gender norms for both boys and girls through schooling processes and content is visible on the ground. Even the names of the schemes meant to promote preference for the girl child and for girls’ education are stereotypical – bhagyalakshmi, dhana Lakshmi, ladli Lakshmi! Reservation and quotas give women access to educational institutions, jobs and political centre of power but in absence of empowerment based education it fails to convert it into a meaningful participation.

One scheme that stands out as an exception is Mahila Samakhya: a programme started under MHRD in 1989. A good number of independent studies emanating from respectable institutions such as IIM Ahmedabad and Bangalore show that Mahila Samakhya has been successful in making dent in aspects where many other policy initiatives have failed – for instance, in reducing child marriage, enhancing school completion rates for girls or ensuring meaningful political participation by women, greater uptake of livelihood schemes and creating greater transparency in governance. But what is sad is that even this programme that costs only about 60-70 crores annually to the State exchequer is undergoing a crisis and apparently the Government of India is considering either closing it or merging it with other programmes that have very narrow focus on economic empowerment. One only hopes that this news is only a speculation and not really true.

It is also important to add that the policy has a role yet policy alone cannot ensure women’s empowerment. It is a social issue and the entire society has to change to bring this transformation. And this change will not come until this is seen as everyone’s issue and not only women’s issue. Men have to be an equal partner in the process of change – and that would happen only when they realise that they are also a victim of patriarchy – probably not suffering as much as women do – yet the pressures to be the bread-winner, to be the protector of the family’s honour, to be the ‘strong’ one who does not cry, is enormous. A gender equal society also breaks these stereotypes. If our society changes by empowering women, men would lose some power but will also gain some more happiness.

Jyotsna Jha
Director, CBPS

A slightly abridged version of this article was published in the Dainik Jaagaran.

[Disclaimer: Views presented above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CBPS]